I think it was the Nostalgia Critic who made a video about how baffled he was that women liked Loki better than all the buff heroes in Marvel since Loki wasn’t ‘very masculine’ and I was like, dude, how are you not seeing that that’s the whole fucking point.
Let’s look at the Thor/Loki dichotomy for a moment. There’s a very obvious yin/yang thing going on. Traditionally, this goes…
YANG: day, sun, light, fire, knowledge, science, masculinity, good
YIN: night, moon, shadow, ice, mystery, magic, femininity, evil
Thor and Loki’s respective appearances immediately set them up on opposite sides of the divide. Thor is a golden, muscular hero, a soldier, while Loki is a pasty, lanky master of deception, manipulation, words, and magic, all of which have traditionally been considered women’s weapons. There is this classic dichotomy in traditional mythology where men use (righteous) force while women use (evil) trickery and sorcery. In fact, Loki’s whole character arc stems from resentment that he can never rule Asgard because of an accident of birth – remember he spits at his father: ‘No matter how much you claim to love me, you could never have a woman Frost Giant sitting on the throne of Asgard.’
When women defend and even side with villains, people tend to explain it away as a female character flaw: women are either deluded enough to think they can ‘fix’ these characters or worse, they’re just masochists who love ‘bad boys’. What they forget is that women in both history and fiction have always been set up as the evil ‘Other’. Even if they’re not conscious of it, I think women instinctively understand which side of the yin/yang dichotomy they’re on. Women might love Thor, but they can’t really identify with him because he is a manifestation of divine, socially-sanctioned, male-coded power in a world where female power is typically seen as illegitimate or evil. But if you give your story’s antagonist ‘feminine’ traits in order to immediately distinguish him as the evil Other (and don’t even get me started on queercoding), then yeah, no shit, women are going to identify with that.
There’s a similar light/dark, warm/cold dichotomy with Steve and Bucky, which I think is a little more complicated since the androgynization of the Winter Soldier is more about labeling him as a victim than a villain. For instance, consider that the first time beautiful Sebastian Stan takes his shirt off in the Captain America movies is basically a torture scene.
Unexpectedly, we have gone from seeing the Winter Soldier as an unstoppable force to be feared to the ultimate victim. Stan, with his long hair and vacant expression, suddenly seems doll-like and fragile. Peirce backhands him to emphasize his subordinate position as Rumlow watches him with a predatory, borderline lustful, gaze (seriously, check it out). Bucky is pushed back into a lying position, he opens his mouth to accept a mouth guard, and the camera slowly pans up his bared torso before he starts screaming. All of these things are subtly sexual in the sense that they evoke the way female pain is typically portrayed in mainstream film (watch virtually any scene where a young woman is raped, beaten, or murdered and you’ll see a very clear ‘look how hot she is when she suffers’ mentality that hardly ever applies to male heroes).
As the Winter Soldier’s tortured screams make clear, this is not about fanservice; indeed the sexual aspect here is incidental and probably unintentional. This is not the ‘female gaze’ at work (if there even is such a thing in Hollywood cinema, which I would argue there is not); if Stan’s body were there for us to enjoy, he would have taken his shirt off in any other scene. Instead, it functions like the torture scene in Casino Royale (where Bond is stripped naked and literally threatened with castration): the male gaze is applied to a male body in order to subtly objectify/disempower a character and make the audience uncomfortable by emphasizing his terrible lack of agency. As with Loki, it’s a curious case of invoking sexism against women to either demonize or victimize male characters. The unintended side effect is that female viewers sometimes find it easier to empathize with these characters than with the more ‘masculine’ heroes, and naturally prefer to see the three-dimensionality still attributed to ‘feminine’ male characters than the stereotypical flatness assigned to actual fictional women.
“Feminized Men: Why do women identify with Marvel’s baddies,” ©plain-flavoured-english, originally posted 16 October 2014.