In this essay, Jesse Weiss evaluates the symbolic representation of Marvel Comic’s Captain America as depicted in the recent film Captain America: Civil War. Drawing from the research of Peggy McIntosh, Weiss explains that Captain America can be seen as a symbol of white privilege.
Never has fiction seemed more representative of my reality than it is now. As voting results from the 2016 Presidential election came in, they indicated that working class white voters exerted themselves in support the Republican candidate. Making up almost one third of the electorate, whites without a college degree overwhelmingly voted Republican, representing a 14 percent increase from 2012. It could be argued that this election was meant to reassert white privileges that some may believe were lost in the last eight years of the Obama Administration. While some rejoice, others protest in what seems to be an ideological war of words, prompting many to make sense of “what is going on.” Is it possible that some of the answers lie in the pages of the comics and the movies based on them?
In 2006 and 2007, Marvel published a series of comic books that pitted two iconic heroes against each other in a battle of powers and ideologies. On one side was Captain America, the performance enhanced super soldier and defender of truth, justice, and the American way. On the other side was Tony Stark, genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist with a technologically advanced suit of armor. The ideological clash between the two divided the Marvel Universe right down the middle and centered on who should have the power to regulate the actions of superheroes. Fast forward ten years and this comic book event came to be depicted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War.
Captain America: Civil War was widely praised and millions saw the movie in their local cinemas in the summer of 2016. I, like many others, not only saw the film in the theater but also when it was released on DVD later that fall. It was upon this second viewing that I came to see the plot of the film differently. Maybe it was the way that the 2016 Presidential election catapulted race back into the public consciousness or the fact that I just lectured about it in class, but I started to see Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) differently. The hero of the film may actually represent something that many experience but few discuss openly. Is it possible that Steve Rogers may not protect the interests of Americans, at least not all of Americans? Could it be that Captain America is actually a symbol of what sociologist Peggy McIntosh (1988) calls privilege?
As the country continues to grapple with a Presidential election that has resulted in a cultural civil war, never before has the topic of privilege been more relevant. McIntosh (1989) explains that both white privilege and male privilege are taken for granted and unearned benefits that follow group membership. They are often invisible to those who benefit from them because both men and whites are taught not to pay attention to them. Although they often go unnoticed by the dominant group, they are very real in their consequence as they are imbedded in our social structures and institutions.
These privileges can be seen in the characterization of Captain America in the film based on the Civil War storyline. The captain is blond haired and blue eyed, allowing him to blend into most public spaces, which McIntosh lists as a privilege. He has a strong voice and his opinion is weightier than his fellow heroes. This is apparent in the film as he voices concern for legislation passed to regulate the actions of the Avengers. His perspective is the focus and outweighs that of Tony Stark and his confederates, many of whom are minorities. The roster of Team Stark included War Machine (an African American man), Black Widow (a woman), and Vision (a cyborg that represents a being that is different from the norm). The captain’s team does feature an African American hero, Falcon, but he takes his orders from and submits to Steve. Another African American character, Black Panther, joins the fray against Captain America as they have numerous physical altercations that the captain always seems to win. This is even the case when Black Panther attempts to apprehend a war criminal that happens to be a friend of the captain. The message is clear; Captain America (and I argue, the privilege he represents) are superior physically and symbolically.
For most of the film Captain America operates outside of the law with very little consequence. The same cannot be said for his followers, composed of a disabled man (the Winter Soldier), a woman (the Scarlet Witch), and an African American (Falcon). These characters end up in a high security super-prison for engaging in the same behavior as Captain America. In a country where minorities are much more likely to be arrested than whites, this is significant. When Steve Rogers is captured, he is freed by a white woman working for law enforcement who does so at significant personal and professional peril. Instead of doing the lawful thing, she instead sides with Captain America. This demonstrates both white privilege and male privilege.
The most significant privilege that McIntosh describes is the privilege of choice. The ability to exert ones own agency and make choices by selecting from a variety of options is freedom. Without choices, individuals are limited and freedom is restricted. Throughout the film Steve Rogers has choices. He can choose where to go, what to do, and how to instruct others. While other minority characters are limited, Captain America has choices. In the film minority characters are one dimensional and are often depicted as bit players in the captain’s narrative. The character of the Falcon blindly follows Captain America in his opposition for regulation and into battle. Several times in the film he asks Steve if they have chosen the right path. Each time the captain quells the concern. The result for Captain America is hero status but the result for the Falcon is jail. Like many members of the dominant group in today’s society, the fact that there are more choices leaves more room for mistakes. This is not the case for minorities in the film and is not the case in real life.
In my years as a consumer of all things comic book related, I have come to see them mirror the society that I am a part of. In the comics, things are rarely what they appear to be. Captain America has been the topic of countless comic book storylines and the main character in five films. He is a symbol of the United States, for good and bad. Such is the way of comics though, heroes do not always wear white hats and sometimes the villain is us.
- Do you think that popular films, such as Captain America: Civil War, should be evaluated as reflections of mainstream values or is it just “entertainment?”
- What are other groups that receive unearned privileges in American society?
- Have you ever experienced or seen the impact of white privilege in your life? Describe the even and the impact?
- Disagreement exists about how to deal with white privilege. Based on your viewing of the following clip, how best should society address white privilege?
- McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. Wellesley: Center for Research on Women, 1988.
- McIntosh, Peggy . “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peach and Freedom Magazine, July/August 1989.
Photo by Pierregagne98 via Wiki Commons