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Brainwashing & Bucky Barnes: The Subconscious Magnetism Of Our Favourite Characters (2017)

Updated: Mar 13

As a movie, comic and video game fanatic, I’m consistently intrigued by the characters that individuals find themselves relating to.

Whether it’s aesthetic, quirky, emotional or otherwise, there’s something endlessly fascinating about the characters that we find facets of ourselves in. If you were to ask me to pick a handful, I’d choose the likes of Star Lord, (for our shared love of 80’s music and complete inability to dance,) Charlie (of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, for our shared, shy high school experience,) and, at a push, Agent Peggy Carter, (undoubtedly for her fierce pursuit of women’s place in the world and unwavering tough face… I totally have one of those, right!?) All of them, upon the surface, obvious, relatable facets of personality, dodgy dance moves and flawless lipstick.

But what occurs when we look a little deeper?

My favourite characters are, unequivocally, Captain America and The Winter Soldier. Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. Steve Rogers is an icon, a pinnacle, someone we should all attempt to be a little more similar to — fiercely loyal, brave, and bold. The picture of strength, the fight against evil, a golden boy draped in red, white and blue.

Hard cut to James Buchanan Barnes. The Winter Soldier. A man kidnapped, brainwashed, made into something he never wanted to be. A killer, a monster, a creature that lives without free will. They stripped him of his personality, removed his ability to make choices, filled his head with doubts, rules, suffocating boundaries. They broke him, and rebuilt him into something dangerous.

On the surface, I thought, they’re just my favourite characters… Aren’t they? Or is there some subconscious magnetism at play?

I’ve written previously about Netflix’s Jessica Jones reflecting a 3-year relationship of my own. It was terrifying, and liberating, to see my experience played out on a screen, using characters I knew, in a format I could access. To watch it unfold was visceral and upsetting, but ultimately, eye-opening. The situations were almost scene for scene. The dialogue was almost verbatim. What I didn’t find, however, were the lasting repercussions of my personal experience. Jessica’s penchant for Jack Daniels didn’t reflect my own coping mechanisms. Her public panic attacks didn’t take the same route as my own. Her relationship with Luke Cage wasn’t familiar to me. I could see myself in the situation, but not the result.

That’s where Bucky Barnes comes in.

Mind control, (also known as brainwashing,) is the concept that the human mind can be altered or controlled by certain psychological techniques. It is said to reduce it’s subject’s ability to think critically or independently, to allow the introduction of new, unwanted thoughts and ideas into the subject’s mind, as well as to change his or her attitudes, values, and beliefs.

HYDRA forced Bucky Barnes into a chair.  When they re-wrote his psyche to perform the tasks they needed, I still didn’t see the similarities. When memories, his appearance and his reactions, were warped and changed, I still didn’t see the similarities.  When he was made, against his will, into something he never wanted to be, I still didn’t see the similarities.

Mind control is a funny thing. You can’t always see it happening, redefining, twisting. I couldn’t see that he was isolating me, turning me away. I’d been popular, surrounded by friends, but I suddenly had no-one but him. I depended on him for every emotional need, because he’d made it that way. I’d been happy, laughing, bright, until he snuffed it out to keep me quiet and docile and obedient. After removing my ability to make choices, he’d berate me for being unable to do so. He’d tell me I was strange, unloveable, too this, or too that. He’d constantly dangle the threat of a break-up over me, like a particularly toxic carrot. I wasn’t to wear those shoes, or dye my hair that colour, I wasn’t to go here, or be friends with that person.  He stripped me of my personality, removed my ability to make choices, filled my head with doubts, rules, suffocating boundaries. He broke me, and rebuilt me into something dangerous.

Many years after the toxic relationship has passed, I’m still feeling it’s icy tendrils licking at the corners of my mind. I have a room-spinning panic attack when I realise the bedroom of someone I’ve been dating, looks acutely similar to my abusers. When a date runs their hand along my spine, I shudder. When a partner becomes emotionally dependent, I immediately detach. I squirm and wriggle out of conversations, events, situations, internally steadfastly refusing to connect. I make my excuses, find reasoning, and cut off any hint of a relationship. I find it impossible to connect with anyone on any kind of level surpassing platonic.

Eventually, I meet someone. She’s incredible. She’s vibrant, and loving, and beautiful. 

But I am still terrible. Strange, unloveable, too this and too that. I am heavy with a brain full of grasping, cold, hooked hands and a heart coated with black muck. Despite the abuser being long out of my life, and no feelings harboured, there’s an iron grip around my throat. My ears are full of cruel whispers. The twisted, nightmarish HYDRA agents lay heavy hands on my shoulders, pushing me down, further down. Like the conflicted, fractured Barnes, my resistance is in vain.

When I am forced to cancel plans with her due to a brief illness, and a week later, a world-shattering, (unrelated) panic attack, I am consumed by fear.

“She’s going to leave you,” They whisper, long, thin, bitterly frozen fingers wrapping around the inside of my head, heavier ones dragging me down by the shoulders, “She’s going to leave you, because you’re strange, unloveable, too this and too that — you’re not worth it.” 

The frozen fingers prod and poke, and the thick, rough hands drag at me until I am drowning in guilt. I am treading water in an attempt to stay afloat, but the water is cold and I can’t catch my breath. I can’t pull myself higher, and as I succumb and sink below the surface, I close my eyes to save witnessing the light fade out.

But there’s a hand.  Slender fingers, and an amber bracelet.  A red tactical glove on a super soldier.

It pulls me out, high enough to breathe again. It laces through my hair, and takes my hand gently. It murmurs soothing reassurances — there’s no berating, there’s no unreachable expectation — there’s just, “I’m proud of you,” “you’re worth it,” and “tell me how I can help.”

The picture of strength, she’s the fight against evil, a golden girl draped in red, white and blue. She makes me feel like I can be better, deserve more, that perhaps, despite brainwashing, I am worth more.

Much like my favourite, one-armed super soldier, I’m positive my recovery will be fraught with mistakes, trauma, good days and bad. There will be nasty whispers, heavy hands upon my shoulders, icy invasions behind my eyes — but simultaneously, there’s a super soldier; with crystalline eyes, a kind smile, a gentle touch, and a slender hand reaching for me beneath the waves.

I am strange. I am loveable. I am too this and too that.  They broke me, but, much like Barnes taking over the Captain’s shield, I will be rebuilt into something wonderful

Look for yourself in the media you consume — you might just be surprised with the catharsis that occurs when you find an unexpected match.


Originally posted on in April 2017

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