Bucky Barnes: The Commodity, The Emasculated, The Subaltern

James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes is a well known character in both the Marvel Comic Universe as well as in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mainly for his role as the great Captain America’s sidekick and as a rejection to the 1940’s rise of Hitler youth. Regardless of which universe Bucky Barnes is occupying, his tragic death and subsequent reincarnation remains the same: becoming the fabled assassin known as the Winter Soldier. While the Winter Soldier arch is indeed an in depth and continuous storyline that has been developing since 2005 in the comic universe, the character arch has just begun in the movies. Because of this infancy and subtle deviation from the original comic story line, the critically acclaimed movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, offers a new look at the character of Bucky Barnes and his more antagonistic alias, the Winter Soldier. The hegemony depicts Barnes and his alias to be the main villain working against the patriotic hero and his gang of superheroes in the film however, this is not true. In fact through the lens of Marxism, feminism, and postcolonial theory, it can be said that Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier is the victim rather than the villain due to his commodification, emasculation, and colonized self at the hands of Hydra, thus causing him to become a subaltern figure throughout the film.

Marxism – Bucky the weapon, Bucky the commodity

Bucky’s time as the Winter Soldier both in the comics and in the movie franchise was not of his choosing. He was taken in a critical state and reshaped against his will to do the bidding of Hydra. In the first Captain America movie, Bucky fell from a speeding train somewhere in the Alps. From there he was recovered by the Russians, under the direction of Hydra. This is the genesis of Bucky’s commodification. In the beginning, before he fell into the hands of Hydra, Bucky was considered to be part of the proletariat class. He worked for the United States government as a sniper in the Army. While he was a captive of Hydra, Bucky became even lower than the proletariat class; he became a commodity. Hydra reshaped him into a weapon to be used to advance their agenda of world domination. According to Karl Marx, founder of Marxist theory, a commodity is a product, something as simple as a table or a toy that is “changed into something transcendent” (Marx 381). By transcendent Marx means that the product becomes a social thing between the product and the product creator. This ideology can also be applied to people. In fact, people have been commodified since the creation of slavery. As one critic states, the commodification of people exists because “the body frequently emerges as a site of production, where living persons may be valued solely for their labor power” (Sharp 292). During the war, Bucky was valued for his labor as a sniper; with Hydra he is more or less valued for the same thing. However, there is a clear distinction in his labor as a sniper and his labor as the Winter Soldier. Bucky is an employee of the Army whereas with Hydra he is a slave.

Sharp explains that “slavery is also the point of departure for other exploitative labor practices” (Sharp 293). Under Hydra’s control Bucky is not seen as a person who simply works for them but a weapon for them to use. When Bucky is being discussed by his handlers he is often times called “the asset”. The rejection of using his name and simply referring to him as a thing, gives way to the notion of dehumanization. He is dehumanized and treated as an object that can be controlled, reducing him down to a disenfranchised “object of pity and exploitation” (Sharp 293). Hydra even goes so far as to place Bucky in cryo-freeze after missions to keep him young and viable so that his use value does not diminish over time. They literally put him away like a child would put away a toy after using it. Sharp states that “commodification insists upon objectification in some form, transforming persons and their bodies from a human category into objects of economic desire” (Sharp 293). By his commodification and thus dehumanization, Bucky is only seen as an object for Hydra’s political desire.

How Bucky is used for Hydra’s political gain is very simple. Outfitted with a mechanical prosthetic arm and the skills of a sniper, Bucky is used to eliminate targets that stand in the way of Hydra’s agenda or pose as a treat to their organization. This is illustrated during the underground bunker scene in Captain America: the Winter Soldier. A computerized version of Dr. Armin Zola, the very man who is responsible for Bucky’s transformation into the Winter Soldier, is discussing how Hydra grew right under the nose of SHEILD. He tells Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff that Hydra had a very unique way of getting what they wanted: “for 70 years, Hydra has been secretly feeding crises, reaping war. And when history did not cooperate, history was changed” (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). While this is being said, a montage of blurry pictures flash across the screen ending on one in particular, a shot of a man with a metal arm holding a sniper rifle. From this image it can be assumed that Bucky was used, as a weapon, to change history for Hydra.

Bucky’s sole purpose for existing within the sphere of Hydra is for his labor value, or his particular set of skills that can be manipulated and exploited by Hydra’s social control over his person. Hydra’s social control over Bucky is overwhelming. They dictate everything in his life, leaving him with no control and no power. As Carl Wennerlind states, “the greater the social control the greater the chance of successfully imposing more work in the future” (Wennerlind 4). Because of Bucky’s dehumanized and powerless state within the apparatus of Hydra, he is forever at their mercy, forced to do their bidding for as long as he lives. However, with this abundance of labor value, there is also another factor that expands Bucky’s commodification, the alienation of his labor.

The act of commodifying an object or a person, as stated before, has a certain social aspect. The more the product is commodified, the greater distance there is between the laborer and the product. This is called alienation of labor because “workers are told what to do and how to do it, organized not by themselves but by capital and thus stripped of their autonomy and subjected to outside power and control” (Wennerlind 5). For Bucky, this is the very nature of his position with Hydra. He is stripped of his power and forced to carry out the work Hydra wishes. Furthermore, his alienation for his labor grows from the treatment he receives after successfully completing a mission, memory wiping. While it is not explicitly said anytime during Captain America: the Winter Soldier, it can be surmised that after each mission Bucky has his memories taken from him so that he remains submissive to Hydra’s control. This is illustrated during the bank vault scene after Bucky begins to remember Steve Rogers. Alexander Pierce, the leader of Hydra, tells the technicians to “wipe him and start again” (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). By doing so, it can be assumed that the regaining of his memories poses a threat to Hydra and thus to keep Bucky inline and a subservient commodity, they take his memories away, causing him to forget the very labor he was forced to carry out, alienating him even further and stealing his agency.

Feminism – Bucky the victim, Bucky the emasculated

Through the lens of feminism it is clear how mistreated Bucky is in the hands of Hydra. It is not a simple case of mental reconfiguration as it would seem at first glance but rather, a messy web of rape and emasculation that results in Bucky’s overall loss of power. Typically, when discussing such a horrific subject as rape, the victim is usually a female that has been overtaken and overpowered by a male assailant. This is not the case with Bucky. There is no physical evidence that Bucky was ever sexually abused at the hands of Hydra although it has been considered a possibility. Yet, the treatment that Bucky undergoes is very similar to a woman’s loss of power at the hands of her rapist. The rape that Bucky is forced to undergo is most easily defined as martial rape. Martial rape is essentially an “instrument of domestication” by a member of a military operation; in Bucky’s case, Hydra and the Russians (Card 6). Claudia Card explains that this type of rape “breaks the spirit, humiliates, tames, [and] produces a docile, deferential, obedient soul” therefore Bucky’s rape is to control him and make him subservient to Hydra (Card 6). It is important to note, that the rape Bucky is subjected to is not a sexual rape yet, the effects are largely still the same.

He is still transformed into an emasculated subservient figure. The type of rape that Bucky faces deals with the violation of his agency over his own body. These violations strip him of his masculine qualities, an attractive, athletic, and dominate male, to a pliable and submissive person to be used by an oppressive force. His rape lies within the nonconsensual taking of his memories, the loss of power over his own body, and the physical procedures he is unwillingly subjected to. Much of these nonconsensual tortures that Bucky faces accomplish the goals of martial rape. While this type of rape is usual performed on a sexual basis and normal affects the female population, it can also be applied to Bucky’s time with Hydra. By performing nonconsensual medical procedures, unwanted body modifications, and painfully wiping his memories Bucky is brutal raped by Hydra and is thus emasculated as well as stripped of any and all power over his body.

The first instance of martial rape occurs in the first Captain America movie, Captain America: the First Avenger. It is during this time that Bucky is captured by Hydra and undergoes severe torture. Here is when his emasculation and subsequent lack of power beings. During his capture Bucky is experimented on against his will. While the exact nature of the torture inflicted upon Bucky is vague and mostly unknown, the implications of the injection of a botched version of the Super Soldier Serum can be seen. Bucky’s fall later in the movie and subsequent survival suggests that the Hydra doctors, lead by Armin Zola, were successful in recreating the serum that transformed his best friend into Captain America. The notion that this serum was given against Bucky’s volition can be surmised from the condition in which Bucky was held. He is seen strapped to a metal table like a corpse. His clothing is sullied and covered in blood stains, leading the viewer to believe that this procedure was not done voluntarily. Hydra is forcefully raping Bucky by giving him this serum without his consent. They are violating his agency by injecting it against his will. Furthermore, as illustrated in Captain America: the Winter Soldier, Bucky was subjected to unwanted body modification.

After his fall from the train in the first movie, the viewer is informed through a series of flashbacks that Bucky is recovered by the Russians, missing part of his left arm. Through Bucky’s flashbacks, the horrific procedure of removing the rest of his arm is seen. This act of cutting off his arm, without anesthesia as evident by his memory of seeing to procedure take place, and replacing it with a metal prosthetic is an act of violence against Bucky’s person. It strips him of the power over his own body and places him in a position of dependence with Hydra. He must go to them now whenever his new arm is damaged because they are the only ones who are able to fix it. Both of these observations therefore conclude that Bucky first lost some of his agency while he was held captive by Hydra forces. The loss of agency comes from his lack of control over his own body. Not once is it said or insinuated that Bucky asked for or wanted any of these modifications; they were forced upon his against his will, taking away his right to make a choice and say no. They are the cornerstones to Bucky’s rape and emasculation.

Perhaps the most vivid example of Bucky’s rape occurs during the infamous the bank vault scene in Captain America: the Winter Soldier. Here, Bucky is shown to be exposed and objectified by his captors as the repair the damage inflicted on his metal arm. The vacant and nonthreatening look on Bucky’s face seems contrary to the ring of guards and weapons pointed at him. He is completely at the mercy of Hydra. When he begins to remember the things Hydra has done to him, the violations he has sustained and the memories of his friend Steve Rogers, Bucky begins to ask questions by simply stating: “the man on the bridge…who was he?” (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). This is seen as an act of defiance from his captors and results in the most violent rape to Bucky’s person, the taking of Bucky’s memories. By taking his memories in an extremely painful process, Hydra is taking the very essence of what makes Bucky, Bucky. They are scooping out his defiance and rebellion to replace it with their agenda, forcefully causing him to follow their commands. Hydra takes away Bucky’s identity and right to consent by brutally raping his mind and erasing his memories. He becomes emasculated because he has lost these two important facets of his personality. Bucky is no longer the strong willed Sergeant and best friend to Captain America, rather he becomes an empty shell for Hydra to exploit and control. All of his power is taken from him by these rapes, causing him to be victimized and completely subservient.

Post Colonialism – Bucky the colonized, Bucky the subaltern

In its simplest of terms, Postcolonial theory deals with the act of colonizing a group of people and the aftermath of the colonizers authority. As one critic states, Postcolonial theory is like mimicry, the colonized mimicking the colonizer as a reinforcement of their power over the colonized (Bhabha 669). In the case of Bucky Barnes, he was colonized by Hydra and was forced to abide by and follow Hydra’s every command. If he did not comply, he would face severe consequences such as the torturous brainwashing described in the previous section. Furthermore, Bhabha states that this mimicry Bucky is forced to perform is a “sign of the inappropriate” (Bhabha 669). Bucky’s colonization by Hydra is not natural; it is not something that should ever take place. It acts as a means to destroy everything that Bucky stood for and replace his ideologies with those of Hydra. This is evident in the bank vault scene during Captain America: the Winter Soldier. During this scene, the leader of Hydra, Alexander Pierce uses a twisted version of Bucky’s ideals to convince him to continue with Hydra’s agenda:

“Your work has been a gift to mankind. You shaped the century and I need you to do it one more time. Society is at a tipping point between order and chaos. Tomorrow morning we’re going to give it a push but, if you don’t do your part, I can’t do mine. And Hydra can’t give the world the freedom it deserves.”

Pierce’s speech is the colonizing power forcing Bucky to mimic the beliefs he subscribed to during World War 2 to control him. Bucky was a Sergeant in the Army during World War 2 and an accomplished sniper. While it is unclear why Bucky joined the Army or was drafted, it is clear that he had a strong sense of justice and was willing to do whatever it takes to make sure justice was served. This is evident by his friendship with Steve Rogers, the epitome of patriotism and justice. Had he not held these beliefs, the relationship Bucky has with Steve would not exist. By having Pierce uses these beliefs, convincing Bucky that he is doing the right thing and serving justice through this manipulation, he is asserting his power over Bucky and forcing him to mimic Hydra’s ideology. Bucky is not performing the same tasks he did as a member of the Howling Commandos but acting under the authority of Hydra.

In addition, Pierce’s use of this twisted ideology draws on what one critic calls Imperialist Nostalgia. Imperialist Nostalgia as Renato Rosaldo describes is when “people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed” (Rosaldo 749). It can be said that Pierce is invoking Imperialist Nostalgia of the old Bucky Barnes and attempting to recreate that image within the Winter Solider by using his former values against him. The way Pierce delivers the speech gives way to the allusion that Pierce cares for Bucky or what he once was. He sits below his eye level and speaks to him in soft tones. This is the first and only instance where Bucky is treated somewhat like a person. Yes, he is being manipulated to adhere to Hydra and their agenda but in this moment he is treated like a person. Bucky is being praised for his work, work that has taken the lives of people he once knew, including Howard Stark. Yet this praise is used to convince Bucky that he is doing the right thing and that he is helping the world instead of harming it. Pierce is playing on the Imperialist Nostalgia of what Bucky was, a hero to the world and using it for his own gain. He has become colonized by the very people he fought against and thus forced to follow their commands against his will. By this colonization Bucky has thus become a subaltern character, a character with no voice or power in their situation. A subaltern, according to Gayatri Spivak, is a “muted subject of the non – elite” (Spivak 676).

There are many ways within Captain America: the Winter Solider that show Bucky as a powerless figure from the taking of his memories, brainwashing, the nonconsensual body modification, and the blatant manipulation at the hands of Hydra. However one of the most subtle instances of Hydra’s colonizing power over Bucky is in the nature of Bucky’s dress. In the movie, his eyes and mouth are typically covered at all times when in the field. It can be said that the use of this type protective wear is for the sake of hiding the Winter Soldier’s identity; however in comparison to his counterpart Steve Rogers, the Winter Soldier’s mask has far more sinister motives. Steve Rogers’s helmet covers his eyes and protects his head, thereby obscuring his identity and providing protection. In Bucky’s case, the goggles and mask hide his identity but do nothing in the way of protection; his head is completely exposed. His mask only covers the lower half of his face, giving it a muzzle like appearance. This has a twofold meaning.

Bucky’s place as a colonized individual is not to question the motives or actions of the colonizer, he must do as he is told. It was Hydra’s decision to mask him in such a way, leaving him exposed to potential dangers while in the field. He is completely at the mercy of Hydra in terms of his safety, an aspect that Hydra is not concerned with. Bucky is and always will be a means to an end, a weapon. Because of the botched version of the super soldier serum that runs though his veins, even if Bucky is injured during a mission, he will heal. Therefore Hydra is not concerned for Bucky’s safety; they are only concerned with the protection of Bucky’s identity.

The second and perhaps the most important aspect of the mask is how it is a literal manifestation of his lack of power. Spivak simply states that a subaltern “cannot speak” (Spivak 690). If a subaltern does not have the ability to speak up against their oppressor, it is like a mask of muzzle has been place over their mouth. Such is the case with Bucky.As a subaltern Bucky has no voice to speak against his oppressors, his mask is a literal manifestation of this restriction. The mask restricts his voice and acts as a reminder of his place, nothing more than a weapon that has no power over his condition. It takes the removal and outward expression of his name to cause Bucky to revolt against his colonizers. This removal of the mask allows him to speak and question the actions of Hydra. Steve’s utterance of his name empowers him, reminding Bucky of who he was and the values he stood for. Without the mask Bucky is free and this newfound freedom causes him to resist the colonizing force.

Unfortunately, Hydra is too powerful for Bucky to fight and his revolt ends in punishment. Furthermore, even Bucky’s tactical outfit suggests the lack of power Bucky has in any situation. The leather straps that cover his jacket are reminiscent of ties binding a subject to an operating table, yet another manifestation of the power Hydra holds over Bucky. They make the decisions on what to dress him in; they are forcing Bucky to submit to their power as a colonizing entity. Because of this Hydra makes Bucky powerless, both the mask and the straps on the jacket forcing him to adhere to the identity Hydra and the Russians have created for him.

The hegemony likes to depict Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier to be the villain, hell bent of wiping Captain America off the map. However, after close examination it can be proven that this is not true. Bucky Barnes is a victim, a man turned into a weapon by the very same people he pledged his life to stop. He has lost all power and agency over his life. He has been forced to submit to the oppressive, fascist nature of Hydra. He has become a subaltern, a man with no voice, no power, and no control. Bucky Barnes has lost the power of being a man, transformed into a weapon, and left as victim

Work Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “On Mimicry and Man: the Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” Critical
Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. Oxford
University Press. New York. 2012. Pp 668 – 674. Print
Captain America: The First Avenger. Dir. Joe Johnson. Perf. Chris Evans, Tommy Lee
Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal
McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci. Marvel Studios, 2011. DVD.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dir. Joe Russo, Anthony Russo. Perf. Chris Evans,
Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Sumlders, Frank
Grillo, Emily Vancamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Samuel L Jackson.
Marvel Studios, 2014. DVD.
Card, Claudia. “Rape as a Weapon of War.” Hypatia 1996: 5. Academic Search Complete. Web.
Marx, Karl. “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” Critical Theory: A Reader
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Rosaldo, Renato. “Imperialist Nostalgia” Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural
Studies. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. Oxford University Press. New York. 2012. Pp 748 –
751. Print.
Sharp, Lesley A. “The Commodification of the Body and Its Parts” Annual Review of
Anthropology. Vol. 29 (2000). Pp 287 – 328. Annual Reviews. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri C. “Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations on Widow – Sacrifice” Critical
Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. Oxford
University Press. New York. 2012. Pp 675 – 691. Print.
Wennerlind, Carl. “The Labor Theory of Value and The Role of Alienation” Capital and Class
26.77 (2002): 1 – 21. Academic Search Complete. Web.

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