What Should Queer Representation in the MCU Even Look Like? - Nerdist
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What Should Queer Representation in the MCU Even Look Like?

Episode three of Marvel’s Loki gave some fans something they’ve been waiting over a decade to see: a confirmed queer leading character in an MCU property. Loki has been a fan favorite going back to the release of Thor in 2011. (The original Tumblr fandom is living its absolute best life these days.) So it’s no surprise that Loki’s confirmation as bisexual sent fans into an emotional tweetstorm of queer glee. Series director Kate Herron, who is bisexual herself, shared her own connection to the episode. Though she called the inclusion a “small step” in terms of representation in the MCU,  she added, “I’m happy, and [my] heart is so full.”

Herron’s statement on the importance of Loki’s bisexuality becoming text marks a major shift in the MCU. Loki’s coming out follows years of fan criticism of the way the MCU has handled queer representation to date. As one fan noted in 2019, with then 22 movies on the books and a host of tangential television properties, “the lack of LGBTQ+ characters and tendency to queerbait characters is beyond frustrating.” (Note: Loki doesn’t use the word “bisexual,” but maybe we can give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps in deference to queerness being so inherent to Asgardian life, there’s no need for the terminology.)

Loki holding his hand over his chest and looking gracious

Marvel

The MCU’s “Queer” Characters So Far

It’s not lack of opportunity that’s stopped them. Just recently, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier came under fire for queerbaiting. (Often defined as the intentional invoking of the potential of queerness to draw fan engagement, with no intention to create a canon queer character or relationship. Supernatural ranks as one of the best-known culprits; the show capitalized on the chemistry between Dean and Castiel for over 10 seasons, only to bump off the latter.)

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may have only had one season to date, but it leaned heavily into queerbaiting tropes. This followed Avengers: Endgame literally sending Steve Rogers back in time for a picket-fence heterosexual happily-ever-after. The choice averted the ongoing #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend movement, meeting with mixed reactions at best.

FATWS‘ showrunners seem willing to hint at Bucky’s queer identity and not-so-platonic relationship with Sam. The subtext ranges from subtle (a comment about Bucky’s attempts at dating) to overt (Sam and Bucky in couple’s therapy). Series creator Malcolm Spellman was directly asked about Bucky’s sexuality, only to give the kind of lukewarm response that fans are unfortunately used to receiving. “I’m not diving down rabbit holes, but just keep watching,” he told NME. (If it’s a no, just say no. We’d really rather you just come out—pun intended—and say it.)

Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes chat calmly on a boat in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Marvel

Spellman’s comments aren’t the first to be met with fan skepticism, and for good reason. Ahead of the release of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, marketing teased the “first LGBTQ character in the MCU.” That “representation” took form as a blink-and-you’d-miss-it cameo by (straight) director Joe Russo playing an unnamed gay man in a support group. To Russo, that felt like a big step. “Representation is really important,” he told Deadline. “We wanted a gay character somewhere [in the films]. We felt it was important that one of us play him, to ensure the integrity and show it is so important to the filmmakers that one of us is representing that.”

But the MCU already features a number of characters with queer comic counterparts, with no acknowledgement of their queer identities. As such, the attempt at representation fell flat. The situation gets messier with the consideration that some of those characters had identity-confirming scenes cut from their films: Tessa Thompson, who plays Valkyrie, told Rolling Stone that a scene of a woman leaving her bedroom was cut from Thor: Ragnarok because it “distracted from the scene’s vital exposition,” a frustrating familiar line to queer fans used to having queerness framed as “unnecessary” or “forced” rather than simply an organic part of a character’s identity. 

Thompson, herself bisexual, has had no qualms about pushing for explicit representation for Valkyrie in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder. She’s noted that as the new ruler of Asgard, the first order of business is for her to “find her queen.”

Thor, Valkyrie, and Hulk in a hallway

Marvel

“You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you,” she told Time in a 2019 cover story. “But I think a friendly bite is okay. Inclusion doesn’t happen by mistake. You have to push people. Sometimes shame is a powerful tool. That wasn’t necessarily my intention, but I don’t mind it being a dare.” (Queer actors can do a little shaming of straight producers. As a treat.)

The Future of Queerness in the MCU

Now, we wonder what Loki’s canon bisexuality will mean for queer representation in the MCU going forward. Furthermore, whether canonizing a queer character this late in the game could make a difference to fans who have given up on significant representation. 

For some, it’s not enough. “I don’t feel like it’s really that big a deal,” said TK, who left the fandom after Endgame. “Like, great, at least now we don’t have to complain that Disney didn’t keep basic characteristics intact. It doesn’t change what they did to Bucky and Steve, it doesn’t change how they handled Bucky and Sam. It’s not a gamechanger to simply not change the character as written.”

Billy and Tommy in WandaVision

Marvel

Other fans agree to the positive aspects to Loki’s canon bisexuality. But that doesn’t mean they’ll Marvel off the hook from taking it further. “I completely applaud Kate Herron for wanting to make it a point that Loki is bi, and I celebrate with and for the people to whom this brings validity,” entertainment writer Rotem Rusak told us. “But the concern is that the MCU continues to do what amounts to the least amount of work while trying to, repeatedly, claim they are being representative. How many times has Marvel/Disney introduced “the first queer character in a franchise? And how many of those rare minutes have actually depicted queer relationships? It is not enough now that they have allowed Loki to imply he is bi to say that everything Loki does is queer representation.”

The MCU has more representation on the horizon. Earlier his year, Wandavision introduced Billy Maximoff, one of Wanda’s children. His comic counterpart grows up to become half of the first queer married pair of superheroes in Marvel history. The Eternals, which releases in late 2021, promises an out gay hero whose relationship is “inherent” to the story

But neither of these come with the kind of name recognition of Loki or even Bucky. And as some fans point out, even Loki’s coming out as bisexual only scratches the surface of the character’s identity. In the comics, Loki is queer and genderfluid, regularly changing appearance and pronouns. Loki teased this in the first episode, with his sex marked “fluid” on a brief shot of his intake file. But there’s no confirmation yet that the MCU is ready to take the plunge into queer identities that don’t fall within neat, easily digestible boxes. 

Loki wears his horned helmet and a three-piece suit before his army.

Marvel

For fans like Rusak, that’s part of the problem. “Ultimately,” she wrote, “as long as Marvel sees queer relationships as something other than heterosexual relationships, that is to say, if there’s more of a conversation behind the scenes about a queer kiss than a straight one, than they have both failed to understand the issue and they have not gone far enough in fixing it.” She also notes that because television—and movies—are visual media, it’s not enough to have a line of dialogue confirming a character’s sexuality. “‘Show don’t tell’ is an adage for a reason. Visual real estate is what sticks with viewers.” If skipping a single scene or line is enough to erase a character’s queerness, that’s not true representation. 

With only a few episodes of this season of Loki left, most fans aren’t holding their breath for any additional game-changing revelations. But with Loki’s coming out, Marvel has taken a highly visible first step out of the representation closet. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how far they’ll open the door. And which characters are allowed to walk through it.

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