Symposium

The advocacy of Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), as seen in hetrez's "Average Avengers Local Chapter 7 of New York"

Babak Zarin

Fredericksburg, Virginia, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This analysis of "Average Avengers Local Chapter 7 of New York," by hetrez (2012) assesses gay advocacy.

[0.2] Keywords—Case study; Fan fiction; Literary criticism; Slash

Zarin, Babak. 2013. "The Advocacy of Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), as Seen in Hetrez's 'Average Avengers Local Chapter 7 of New York.'" In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0443.

1. Introduction: Why "average Avengers"?

[1.1] In "Average Avengers Local Chapter 7 of New York," a slash story by fan writer hetrez (2012), Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) appears as an advocate for labor unions and gay youth in modern-day New York. The course of his advocacy is described through the eyes of Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), who serves as Steve's partner in his advocacy and eventually becomes Steve's boyfriend. The piece, originally posted in January 2012, is part of an Avengers movieverse fandom that remains active while awaiting further film releases. It is also timely, as both labor unions and gay rights face challenges in the United States, such as efforts to remove the collective-bargaining rights of Wisconsin public employees, the Supreme Court's ruling in Knox v. Service Employees International Union that unions may not impose special fees on members, the 2012 North Carolina constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and the ongoing harassment of gay youth that prompted the founding of the It Gets Better campaign.

[1.2] There is, perhaps, little doubt that fan fiction, including slash, can portray or discuss these issues. Slash by definition portrays same-sex couple relationships and so naturally shows the challenges faced by them. That fiction can advocate or discuss issues is inherent in the nature of writing. Still, is Captain America the right choice for an advocate? As well as merely being patriotic, Captain America has been used for social advocacy before. The character's creator, Joe Simon, has stated that he made Captain America fight Nazis in a conscious response to those against the United States' involvement in World War II (Wright 201). In 1974, Steve gave up his role as Captain America to become Nomad in response to Marvel Comics' version of Watergate, reassuming his original identity after deciding that Captain America better symbolized American ideals (Captain America, #17683). There was a plotline regarding homophobia in June 1982 (#270). Most recently, Steve opposed federal registration of superpowered beings in the 2006–7 Civil War story line, and this struggle (which culminated in his temporary death) was reported by ABC News as paralleling the events of a post–September 11 world (http://abcnews.go.com/US/Story?id=2934283&page=1). There is no reason why this advocacy should suddenly stop.

[1.3] What makes Steve a compelling advocate, and how can others become one? To answer these questions, it is useful to analyze hetrez's story, as the work depicts one way such advocacy can develop. So how does Steve begin?

2. The two factors driving Steve's advocacy, and his first attempts at it

[2.1] As Steve and Tony are en route to eat at Petrossian, which has "been around since Steve was younger" (hetrez 2012), Steve sees something. Stopping, he asks Tony, "What in the world is that?" Tony tells him that he is looking at "Scabby the Union Rat," a "twenty-foot-tall, inflatable rat" (Maraldo 2011) (figure 1). This opening establishes the two things prompting Steve's advocacy. The first is the contrast between Steve's memories of New York in the 1930s and 1940s, a home he lost by being frozen for decades and that places like Petrossian help him remember, and modern New York, where he and Tony now live and of which Scabby is a part. Steve's shock at learning that labor unions set Scabby up to shame businesses into hiring them is understandable: fueled by the signing of the Norris–La Guardia Act in 1932 and the Wagner Act in 1935, which limited the ability of employers to prevent workers from joining or forming unions, labor unions were a powerful force in the New York he knew. It was only after Steve was encased in ice that the Taft-Hartley Act was passed to restrict them, beginning their 70-year decline that resulted in their being nearly forgotten and apparently powerless in today's world. This contrast between Steve's memories and the modern world creates conflict. The second factor is the relationship between Steve and Tony, which is in its infancy early in the story. The narrative uses this relationship to resolve the conflict, so that Steve can learn from Tony how to maintain his values in the modern day.

Figure 1. A picture of Scabby the Union Rat, taken in New York City (Maraldo 2011) (photo by Jacqueline Bessey). [View larger image.]

[2.2] Steve's initial attempts at advocacy are unsuccessful. He initially returns with Tony to the apartment building where Scabby was set up and, snubbed by the front desk staffer, calls the building's manager; but she hangs up on him after he asks if she realizes "the Journeyman Plumbers of New York City are the men who kept your grandparents from dying of cholera." They next see Scabby outside a pizzeria, and the business's owner only agrees to negotiate with the union when Tony questions how much business he'll have if Captain America says he hates his pizza. Later Tony admits he felt as though he had "set up a protection racket," and Steve is shaken. Weeks of silence between them follow, only ending when Tony drags the Avengers to a "speakeasy." There Steve confesses that his view of gangsters was formed by Clutch Hand Morello burning down Bucky's apartment and by his mother, a nurse, treating Frank Scalise, and so the comment had made him doubt the rightness of his behavior. Tony tells Steve that it wouldn't "be extortion if there was, say, a partnership program." They eventually set one up, and ultimately Steve and Tony successfully both fight crime and advocate for union labor.

[2.3] They also start watching movies together at Avengers Mansion. The increasing strength of Tony's feelings for Steve is hinted at when Tony receives an e-mail about a blog featuring pictures of the Avengers in everyday life, titled "Average Avengers." One picture grabs Tony's attention: it's a picture of him looking at Steve, and he appears "so happy, and relaxed, and affectionate, and oh fuck. That was weeks ago, before the union stuff." Tony decides to ignore the attraction he has now realized he feels.

[2.4] All of this demonstrates the interplay of the two factors. Conflict arises as Steve attempts to bring the New York of his memories, where labor unions were highly respected, into modern New York, where they are not. This conflict is exacerbated by Steve's failure to find an effective method of advocacy: his first attempt, appealing to the building manager's gratitude to union plumbers, would have worked in the past but does not now, and the second, when Tony warns the pizzeria owner that he may lose business, is too much like the act of a 1920s gangster for either his or Tony's comfort. Ultimately, Tony's knowledge of the present helps him frame Steve's actions so that Steve's advocacy becomes successful, and in doing so, he creates a new home where Steve's values do not conflict with the mores of modern New York. Modern would-be advocates can find several lessons in their efforts. First, advocates must be passionate about their cause, as early failures are likely. Second, advocates should have a partner whom they can discuss issues with, who can help them learn and try a variety of approaches. Finally, a passionate appeal in an appropriate medium is often very successful.

[2.5] Steve applies this last lesson at a press conference, where he tells a reporter that he "support[s] [his] local union" because "it's the right thing to do." When someone says that doing the right thing all the time is boring, Steve responds, "The right thing is always the scariest, and the weirdest, and the saddest thing you'll ever have to do. If you're bored, it's because you've stopped doing it and you didn't even notice.'"

[2.6] This causes Tony to fall completely in love with him, and gets Steve forbidden by S.H.I.E.L.D. to talk to reporters for a while. When Tony rechecks the Average Avengers blog after seeing volunteers wearing "Average Avenger Local Chapter" T-shirts, he finds that it has been redesigned and now contains accounts of people helping other people. Reading them, he realizes that he is "watch[ing] a full-on movement blossom."

[2.7] What made Steve's statement so powerful? Partly the large and receptive audience, but also the fact that he spoke as the patriotic and ethically sound Captain America. People cannot resist a manifestation of America, surrounded by superheroes, declaring that using union labor is right, as easily as they could a stranger. Steve's appeal at the press conference rouses people to act, each mimicking Steve's own development as they first post about helping others and then use the blog to find ways of helping people beyond their local reach. Eventually they organize into groups, bringing Steve's advocacy full circle. Tony tells Steve, "Look how you're changing the world."

3. Further advocacy: Captain America on The Colbert Report

[3.1] Steve now takes up a new cause: gay youth (note 1). Telling Tony of a boy in Iowa who committed suicide because of bullying, and wondering if a role model would have helped, Steve asks Tony why he hasn't "told anyone [he] likes men." Tony refuses to answer, finally telling Steve that "no matter how many people you help, they're never coming back." Furious at the curt reference to all the friends who died during his years in the ice, Steve leaves after nearly punching Tony in the face.

[3.2] This beginning to Steve's advocacy of gay rights is different from that of his union advocacy. Steve was ignorant of Scabby's meaning, but he is not ignorant of bullying; the experience of being bullied was critical in his becoming Captain America. Moreover, where Steve could talk with Tony before, he cannot now. Tony could have faced similar harassment if he had come out when he was young, and doing so now could damage both him and his relationship with Steve. And it wouldn't bring anyone back, rendering the move pointless. This challenge is strengthened in Tony's attack on Steve's motives: Steve's New York is gone, and even if it could return, gay youth in Steve's time faced worse harassment. Once more, clashes result from Steve's values being out of place in the modern world, and his memories offer no useful way of resolving these clashes.

[3.3] That night, Tony discovers that Steve has snuck onto The Colbert Report. While on the air, Steve admits he loves men to a stunned audience, going on to say,

[3.4] People watched our press conference and they listened to us. The work I did helped these people realize how brave and capable and amazing they are. That's something that I need, I think. I need to know that I'm alive for a reason.

Yesterday, a boy killed himself. He loved other boys, and he was bullied for it, and he took his own life. When I learned about him, I thought, this is something I can do. I can tell people who I am, that I'm a hero and I love men and it's not wrong. I can make them listen, and maybe I can make it easier for somebody else.

[3.5] Tony rushes to find Steve and ends up kissing him "in front of half the neighborhood."

[3.6] Steve's coming out is a complete response to Tony's challenge. Yes, the past is gone and his lost friends are irreplaceable, but the aid he and Tony can give is so great that it is self-justifying. As at the press conference, Steve seizes an opportunity and uses his credibility to tell viewers they aren't alone (note 2). All of this allows Steve to advocate change and create a new home where he and Tony can grow closer.

4. Conclusion: Becoming an advocate

[4.1] Hetrez ends here, noting that the Average Avengers movement ultimately grows into a successful political party and leaving to the imagination what actions were undertaken by those inspired by Steve's public coming out. Given this somewhat bare ending, what are readers to leave with?

[4.2] One takeaway is the course of Steve's advocacy, which suggests to readers a course to becoming advocates themselves. First, a developing advocate needs to find a cause to be passionate about and someone to work with. Steve chooses his causes as a result of having grown up with labor unions and having been a victim of bullying (and possibly of harassment related to his sexual orientation, although this latter goes unmentioned in the piece), and he had Tony to discuss his actions with. Similarly, a person who has faced harassment, bullying, profiling, or other mistreatment will likely be able to find reasons to advocate lessening such social harm and having a partner gives them someone to share their successes and setbacks with. Again, advocates' actions must be ethically sound or doubt regarding how helpful the actions really are will arise among both the advocates themselves and those they are attempting to help.

[4.3] Having found a cause and a partner, advocates should start at home. Steve's efforts to change New York both benefited New Yorkers and inspired him. Other advocates would similarly benefit from the results of their labor. Then, as Steve did, they should combine the credibility their successes give them with their message, use modern methods (such as mass media) to inspire others, and take up new causes when they feel they have succeeded in their first. While they might not feel the benefits of their advocacy as personally as Steve does (for example, directly improving the conditions of people in his hometown of New York, gaining Tony Stark as a boyfriend, and receiving public acclaim for his efforts, a reception that simultaneously demonstrates to Steve and to others that there is a role and a place for Steve in the present world), the aid they can offer is so great that refusing to give it would be unethical.

[4.4] Have readers taken this course? On this topic, the reception of this piece speaks volumes. Since its publication on January 4, 2012, "Average Avengers Local Chapter 7 of New York City" has received over 40,000 hits and 150 positive comments. The comments note a strong desire for such groups to exist, and many commenters describe feeling comforted and inspired to act by the piece while lamenting that such groups are not more common and that they can find few ways of taking action. In January 2012, an Average Avenger Tumblr was created (http://averageavenger.tumblr.com), with a T-shirt design and a call for ideas. In June, however, its owner admitted having difficulty maintaining it (there had been only two posts since the end of January) and asked to hear from anyone willing to help. These suggest that most fans remain at the first stage and are having difficulty finding partners to join with. They also point to a limitation of "Average Avengers": while inspirational and suggestive, the story is unable to help readers along the course it proposes. Of course, developments may continue, and thus this lack of movement may turn out to have only been temporary.

5. Notes

1. The primary romantic relationship in this work is between Steve and Tony. (For those questioning the appropriateness of such a relationship, I recommend elspethdixon 2008.) As slash naturally involves a discussion of the difficulties faced by same-sex couples, the Steve/Tony relationship allows the topic of gay youth to be raised and depicted with ease.

2. It is worth noting that Steve's statement is similar to those in the It Gets Better campaign, in which people post recordings of themselves to offer emotional support and reassurance to GLBT youth who might not have such support available otherwise.

6. Works cited

elspethdixon. 2008. "A Sword, a Horse, a Shield: The Steve Rogers/Tony Stark Ship Manifesto." Post to ship-manifesto community, LiveJournal.com, July 10.

hetrez. 2012. "Average Avengers Local Chapter 7 of New York City." Fan fiction. Archive of Our Own, January 4. http://archiveofourown.org/works/312527.

Maraldo, Eileen. 2011. "Meet Scabby, the Union Rat." Examiner.com, June 22. http://www.examiner.com/human-resources-in-new-york/meet-scabby-the-union-rat.

Wright, Bradford W. 2001. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.





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