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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: And, welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is …
Chris: Chris. And before we get started, we just want to make sure everybody knows that we could use more volunteers to transcribe the podcast. Thank you to all the volunteers who have generously donated their time to doing this. We want to make sure that every podcast is accessible to as many people as possible, but we cannot squeeze more time out of writing blog posts and recording and all of the other things we’re doing. So, if you’d like to help us out by volunteering to transcribe a podcast, go to mythcreants.com/transcribe.
Oren: All right. So, for today’s topic, since unfortunately Wes continues to not be here…
Chris: Very sad. We have a cardboard cutout, but it doesn’t say a lot.
Oren: No, it’s very quiet. So there are only two of us. So, this raises the question, Chris: which of us is the sidekick?
Chris: Hmm. Maybe we should have a debatecast over it.
Oren: But we can tell that being the sidekick is not something one of we want, right? It’s a bad thing. So what even is a sidekick and why do we think that it’s bad to be one?
Chris: That’s a good question considering that, in a normal story, we have the hero, we have a sidekick, and then we just have the normal schmoes hanging around. The sidekick is usually at least more capable than the normal schmoes – not always but should be more capable than normal schmoes.
Oren: Right. The reason that I think the sidekick has a bad connotation is simply that it is associated with some very lazy storytelling tropes in comic books and superhero stories specifically, because what’s the difference between a sidekick and an ensemble cast? In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, are any of them Buffy’s sidekick or are they all just her friends who help out sometimes?
Chris: I do think I know what the differences between just any old member of Team Good and a sidekick.
Oren: Oh, yeah?
Chris: Although, I mean, we’re going to probably go back to Sandwich Theory, but obviously a sidekick comes the most from comic books, and, specifically, superheroes. I think the thing that distinguishes the sidekick from other members of Team Good is that they don’t have another obvious role like “mentor” or “love interest,” they are particularly tight-knit with the hero, and usually they lend their assistance to the hero directly. So, the quintessential sidekick is somebody who goes on adventures with the hero personally, has a platonic relationship with the hero, and just does tasks that help the hero in their adventures. I think of the quintessential sidekick outside of the superhero genre as Samwise Gamgee. Don’t get me wrong. I wish he was a love interest, but he’s not really written like a love interest. Even if we say there’s a lot of subtext here, they don’t really have falling-in-love arc. So he’s best characterized as a sidekick. He goes off with Frodo when the rest of Team Good stays behind and he specifically is there to assist Frodo in completing Frodo’s tasks.
Oren: And the reason why we tend to have a negative association with sidekicks is just that so many superhero stories have been really lazy with them and been like, “Ha! We captured your sidekick and put them in danger!” and that’s a commonly known cliché. And sidekicks have a reputation for being useless, especially when you compare them to a really competent hero, and it just feels like, well, why is the sidekick even here? That’s why I think the term sidekick has a negative connotation.
Chris: But I would say, for instance, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I would call both Willow and Xander sidekicks. In Teen Wolf, I would say Stiles is definitely a sidekick.
Oren: I was gonna ask if you thought Stiles was a sidekick.
Chris: I think Stiles is a sidekick. When you have the humorous best friend, that’s the obvious sidekick trope.
Oren: I actually think sidekicks get a better deal outside of superhero stories, because a big issue with sidekicks in superhero stories is that very often they are just a less-good version of the hero. They even have the hero’s same power, which is just boring as opposed to someone like Stiles, who is a sidekick for Scott but isn’t like Scott the Lesser. Stiles has his own set of skills that Scott doesn’t have. Same thing with the character Mackenzie in Lost Girl, who is basically Bo’s sidekick. She actually serves a very similar role to Stiles in that she’s the brains to Bo’s brawn. In those cases, the sidekick just gets a better rep because it’s not, like, Super Fast Guy and Slightly Less-Fast Boy.
Chris: Yeah. I like to think, in the superhero genre, that this could be an apprentice thing. A lot of times that’s not how it is, but you could make it feel less down on the sidekick, if the sidekick was always the next hero and training, the idea being that at some point, the sidekick will become their own hero and get their own sidekick.
Oren: Well, that has its own trope, right? That’s the sidekick graduation, because superheroes are basically franchises, and eventually you upgrade to getting your own franchise. Robin becomes Nightwing. And yes, even superhero comics can do that, too. It’s not like a sidekick in a superhero story is automatically bad. They just have to fight a little uphill.
Chris: Yeah. I do think it depends on the sidekick. Some sidekicks feel like they have more of that growth potential than others.
Oren: I think using the sidekick as a student and making the main character a mentor is kind of an interesting storyline. It doesn’t get used as often as I would expect.
Chris: It’s true. But I think the problem with that is, you don’t want the sidekick to ever feel like they’re dragging the hero down, and one of the issues of doing the whole mentor-apprentice thing is the whole idea is that the mentor has to look out for the apprentice. When you have a mentor and the apprentice is your hero, you find a reason why the mentor can’t do everything for the hero. The mentor is contributing all of their knowledge, but they’re old and creaky now, or something like that. But I do think that the risk of that is that the hero is too capable in the same ways and then you get the idea that the sidekick is just annoying. They’re a problem the mentor has to deal with.
Oren: Even if the sidekick is the hero-in-training, there should still be ways in which they are useful. That could either be a skill that the hero doesn’t have, or it could be simply that the hero can’t be everywhere at once and the sidekick is at other places doing things, as long as you actually show that in the story. In the better versions of Batman and Robin, that’s what Robin does. There’s really nothing Robin can do that Batman can’t do better, but in the better versions, Robin is where Batman can’t be, and that’s what he does. And that’s how to use a sidekick who’s basically just a less competent version of the hero.
Chris: So, I think it might be worth just going over “Why sidekick?” What purpose do they serve?
Oren: Yeah. Why sidekick?
Chris: So the first purpose, especially in non-narrated media like a TV show or a movie or a comic book, is to give the hero somebody to talk to. This is especially important in non-narrated works because you usually have to use dialogue to convey a lot more information, and that includes how the hero is feeling, but it also includes what is happening. Having more dialogue there is especially important. Just having a person who’s around, even when the hero is out and doing dangerous things, so that you have can have dialogue in those situations, is really valuable. They also could just make logistics easier, because there’s somebody to drive the car or lug around the equipment or do other things while the hero is punching or whatever they do. And then, of course, as you mentioned, it does give you a person to damsel. I think it would be okay to damsel the sidekick once in a while, but the issue is that if you damsel the sidekick too much, they once again just feel like they’re dragging their hero down.
Oren: Yeah, and it’s a trope that people are particularly sensitive to because it’s such a cliche.
Chris: But also just having a character that, if the hero has superpowers, is not so powerful, does make threats see more dangerous. Even if you don’t damsel that person, the villains can seem more threatening to this other character that the audience cares about, which can be valuable.
Oren: You can also just use them to create some character contrast, which is fun. The most common version is the taciturn hero with the more talkative sidekick, which, again, you want to be careful with, because it’s easy to go overboard and that’s how the sidekick becomes annoying.
Chris: It reminds me of … its Claymore, right? The name of this anime?
Oren: Yep. That’s the one!
Chris: It’s kind of hilarious – well, super annoying. This is why I had to stop watching! Claymore stars a woman warrior who is super taciturn and just emotionless. But then they put her in this super emotional situation where she has to go and kill a former comrade. That’s supposed to have a lot of drama to it, except that they also don’t want her to show any emotion. So then they give her this little boy character, who hangs around with her, whose job seems to be to express her emotions for her.
Oren: And the thing is that honestly, it would it be better if he was a little boy. He’s not. He’s a teenager.
Chris: Oh, I remembered him as a little boy!
Oren: He’s a young teenager. If he was a little boy, he could at least be cute. Well, I thought he was intended to be cute and just came off as annoying instead.
Oren: I mean, I can’t say for sure. It didn’t look like he was supposed to be cute to me.
Chris: It’s anime; it’s kind of hard to tell how old a character is supposed to be sometimes. He’s just super whiny about stuff all the time, because he’s whining out her emotions and it just gets really annoying. So anyway, that’s where it can go wrong. That’s not a good thing to do. But still, having a chatty sidekick for a more taciturn hero, as long as it’s reasonably balanced, is not a bad idea.
Oren: No, it can work just fine. And you can also do a balance of, for instance, sincerity and snark. That’s the Teen Wolf style, because Scott’s not taciturn, but he is very sincere. Scott would never make fun of you. He’s just a really nice guy and he’s always warm and open. And then Stiles has that really razor-sharp wit that he that he uses.
Chris: So, obviously, the actor – I forget his name right now – really elevated the role of Stiles. Stiles, I’m pretty sure, was originally intended to be a much more typical humorous sidekick or humorous best friend character, where in a lot of these cases, we want the hero to be bland and relatable – this is definitely Scott – and be taken seriously, but we also want to have a lot of silly self-deprecating jokes. We don’t want to give them to the hero, so we give them to the sidekick because it’s okay for the sidekick to come off as silly and it’s not okay for the hero to come off as silly. So that was definitely the formula intended for Stiles. His character is silly and self-deprecating, but it’s also so much more than that. He basically took over. I mean, Scott never stopped being the main character, but there was no question about who was the fan favorite.
Oren: Yeah, Stiles really stole the show. You can also get into a situation where the main character is just kind of boring because you give all of the fun stuff to the sidekick. That’s what happened in Lost Girl. Mackenzie is just a much more interesting character than Bo is. Bo is just kind of, I don’t know, just too flat. She’s got her tragic backstory and her superpowers and her, like, “Oh, woe is me as a succubus!” thing, and it’s just altogether not that interesting whereas Mackenzie just has a constant spark of life and is really fun to watch.
Chris: Yeah. I do think a lot of this is that writers want the main character to be really relatable and don’t really want to take risks with the main character, whereas the side character is allowed to be quirky and unique and so they become more interesting but possibly less relatable. Which, I do think a good sidekick should be interesting, because the point of them being there is not for the audience to place themselves in their shoes, usually, so they should be a fascinating person. And we already talked about making sure the sidekick has some kind of valuable skills to contribute that are hopefully different than what the hero has, so they cannot steal the hero’s spotlight and the hero doesn’t steal their spotlight, but they also are contributing something because dragging the hero down will make them annoying. Another characteristic that I think is really important for a sidekick is for them to be emotionally supportive of the hero, because, again, the big point of the sidekick is to give hero somebody to talk to. We want those conversations to feel like good conversations from a friend, which means the sidekick shouldn’t be judgy or controlling or jealous or resentful or feel that they’re friendzoned or any of those things. This is of course leading up to my big manifesto on why Willow is better than Xander and Hermione is better than Ron.
Chris: Pretty comparable, actually, because the problem that happened with both of these cases is that we had two sidekicks – I would consider all of those characters sidekicks. We have a woman and a man, and the man was just given the like humorous factor. The man just became the comic relief, mostly. And then the woman was given both the skills and emotional support role, because of course we can’t have a male emotional support character! That would just be a travesty! So then there’s a useless male sidekick and a really, really competent woman sidekick. It just feels like the guys are dragging down the story.
Oren: And what’s funny is that both like Hermione and Willow are also humorous.
Oren: So the idea that Ron and Xander are there as the comic relief, well … everyone on Buffy is funny. So we don’t really need a comic relief. And Ron is frankly just not a very funny character most of the time, except for occasionally when we laugh at him, and then I just feel bad because he’s kind of pathetic.
Chris: In both of these cases, it’s really weird. I think that the easiest solution is just to give the guy the emotional support role instead of having him be jealous and resentful. I mean, Xander is just really an ass a lot of the time.
Oren: Yeah, he really is.
Chris: One of his characteristics that they use consistently, and I think they just find that in group arguments and discussions it’s convenient, is to have Xander always jump to “that person/monster/thing is terrible and we should get rid of it or kill it!” or whatever. He immediately jumps to the hateful, violent solution, whatever it is, and I think they just want somebody to argue that side when they’re having group discussions. So he has that trait consistently, but it just makes him a bad person.
Oren: Especially since the hatred seems to stem from the fact that the people he hates get to be into Buffy and he isn’t. He doesn’t get to bang Buffy, but they kind of do, and so he’s mad about them. And this goes on for a long time, even after we’ve stopped making jokes about how Xander would like to sleep with Buffy. They keep that dynamic. It’s very strange.
Chris: Xander and Ron don’t really have any powers or talents or anything to contribute. That would be better if they were like the group moral character – if they were genuine instead of being judgy and immature, which they both are. It’s amazing how similar these two situations are. They could not have powers and not have talents if they contributed by nurturing the other characters and being that sounding board, but they’re not allowed to be that either.
Oren: Just another example of how sexism can hurt men too.
Chris: Right. I definitely feel with Xander that it’s a huge missed opportunity because there’s like one conversation where he gets just close enough to it to taunt you with it before he just turns into an asshole again.
Oren: It just sticks like that. One character that is actually a really cool sidekick, that I think everyone could benefit from watching, is Watson on the show Elementary. This is Joan Watson played by Lucy Liu. This is a case where when I heard Watson was going to be a woman, I was like, “Okay, well, they’re obviously doing a romance between Sherlock and Watson because everyone wants to do that, but you’re not allowed to because it will be gay and apparently we still can’t do that with those two characters, even in the year of our Lord 2019.” But, surprising me, they did not do a romance. The producers promised at the beginning they weren’t doing a romance, and they kept their word for all of the show. I was, frankly, amazed. I was floored that they didn’t ever go back on that. But the thing that makes the Watson character interesting as a sidekick is that, first, she has all the things we’re talking about. She has the skills that Sherlock doesn’t have, which in this case are people skills and medical skills because she’s a doctor (and Watson’s always a doctor, but various versions of Watson have played that up more or less). She’s got the emotional support. This is a more interesting version of the damaged Sherlock. It’s not the only time we’ve ever seen Sherlock with damage, but it’s just way more interesting than most of the other versions that I’ve seen, where Sherlock’s been through a lot and that’s why he’s a terrible person, but you have to accept it. Whereas this version of Sherlock is more like Sherlock’s been through a lot and he’s a poor baby who needs help. She is his apprentice and becomes a detective as the show goes forward, and becomes a really good one even if I don’t think she’s ever quite as good as he is. But whatever, we get to see her solve her own crimes.
Chris: Wow, that’s fantastic.
Oren: Yeah. I love that. That was just a really cool character growth for her, to the point that she feels like a co-protagonist as much as a sidekick.
Chris: Starring two characters in a TV show like that is hard not to do that if it lasts long enough. If they’re both getting screen-time all the time together, it starts to feel unfair that the sidekick is not getting their share of the spotlight, which is a lot of these times. This happens a lot in a larger Team Good and ensemble, because it seems more natural that one person is the hero and is taking all the spotlight. And I think, again, shows last a while, whereas when you have a novel, that might not come up so much.
Oren: Okay, so I’ll admit with Sam that Sam actually gets this really complete arc that is ruined by Frodo not dying at the end of book two. I was very upset, even though I knew Frodo didn’t die. Because it looked like Frodo was dead, and Sam is ready to take up the ring and continue the quest, and I was like, “Yeah, Sam! Freaking get it, man!” And then it’s like “No, actually Frodo’s alive.”
Chris: I’m pretty sure Sam even gets scolded for doing that.
Oren: Does he?
Chris: I think so. I think there’s some character like tells them, like, “Oh, Sam, you shouldn’t have lost faith in your master” or something.
Oren: I mean, maybe. I wouldn’t put it past Tolkien to do that. That’s not the part I remember, but I’ll take your word.
Chris: I do remember there being some little suggestion from some knowledgeable character that maybe … maybe Frodo’s just not happy after he wakes back up.
Oren: Frodo is an ass, so that fits.
Chris: I’m sure he has his reasons, but yeah, he is an ass. But yeah, Tolkien’s whole master-servant relationship is just kind of disappointing, which … if that’s the role of a sidekick, that explains why nobody wants to be the sidekick. And that’s especially interesting because, again, part of our connotation around sidekicks is that they have a platonic relationship with the hero, and it has been interesting to see, as we progress, how a lot of these relationships are luckily getting less heteronormative, but there are some people who are relying on heteronormativity to make audiences think that there’s not going to be a romance. When you have a lot of characters, we’re spending a lot of time together … usually it comes when the sidekick is worshipping the hero. That’s gonna be interpreted as romantic, because why would they be doing that otherwise?
Oren: Yeah, it’s just kind of weird otherwise.
Chris: I think in a lot of cases, like with Tolkien, again, he was really into hierarchy. Which was weird, because the whole point of his book is that even hobbits can do good things to save the world, but no. He was super into hierarchy. So he really liked this master-servant thing, and that’s why he was doing it.
Oren: Yeah. Well, I mean, there’s still gonna be masters and servants, even when like the hobbits get to do stuff, right? I mean, come on, we don’t want to get too wild.
Chris: In The Name of the Wind, I think that was just a way of giving the hero more candy.
Oren: Oh yeah, with with what’s-his-name. Bash? The guy. What’s his name?
Chris: The elf guy – the fairy guy. I’ve already forgotten.
Oren: Yeah, the very old guy. That guy. Apparently he worships Kvothe and is like, “You’re so cool. You’re the most cool!” and it’s like, are you into Kvothe?
Chris: You certainly seem to be.
Oren: This just feels kind of unhealthy. One challenging thing I’ve seen done with sidekicks is the sidekick who was also an obstacle or provides some kind of problem to solve. It’s very hard to do this without making the sidekick seem really irritating. Liam from Teen Wolf is an example, who sometimes just crosses the line, and it’s just really irritating because he’s got anger problems and Scott had to turn him into a werewolf because of some really ridiculous circumstances.
Chris: That was amazing. We should tell you what happened there. So, the writers of Teen Wolf really wanted Scott to basically have a werewolf of his own. Like, he’s an alpha and they wanted him to have a beta for his pack or whatever. That would normally have happened through him biting somebody, but he’s a good guy, and they don’t want him to ever purposefully bite somebody. So they created this amazingly contrived situation where Liam is about to fall off the edge of a building to his death, and the only way –
Oren: Just one way!
Chris: – to stop him from falling is to grab his flesh with his teeth, of course, and yeah, it’s pretty amazing.
Oren: They couldn’t have just, I don’t know, maybe had a situation where Liam was dying and turning him would have saved him? I don’t know. No, it had to be him falling off the roof and we had to bite him.
Chris: That’s true. The dying thing would have worked better.
Oren: But anyway, once Liam is turned, he becomes an angry sidekick and he’s causing problems for Scott because he doesn’t know how to keep his werewolf-ness in check, and I’m not going to say that can’t work, but Liam really showed how difficult it is because he just seems irritating sometimes. It’s like, “Scott, just smack this guy. Make him stop.”
Chris: Yeah. I do think that it was part of an important arc for Scott about learning how to help other werewolves in his pack, and taking on new responsibilities, and all those things. I think what might help in these situations is to balance out how cumbersome the sidekick is with how helpful they are. How many situations did Liam actually help Scott out? Or was it that in every scene, he was he just a problem?
Oren: Ehh, I mean, I have to go and rewatch, but he certainly seemed to be a problem more often than he was helping.
Chris: It could be really hard because, for instance, Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is notorious for being a super annoying character. And she is really annoying, initially. There are definitely episodes where she’s better, but she’s annoying enough that it just taints her altogether.
Oren: And then she never really has anything to contribute. That’s Dawn’s other problem. Dawn’s not even really a sidekick.
Chris: Because she doesn’t contribute anything. She’s a damsel.
Oren: Yeah. Sometimes shows will take characters who basically can’t contribute and try to make them sidekicks. The Supergirl show did that with Jimmy Olsen. Olsen just a regular person. He doesn’t have any powers but they try to make him a sidekick. He decides he’s going to be a superhero, and he puts on some armor and a shield and fights crime just as a normal guy, and it’s just kind of sad. It’s not impossible that Olsen could have been a useful sidekick for his newspaper and research skills, but they just didn’t know how to do that in a superhero show. So instead they were like, “Yeah, I guess he becomes a superhero.” But they didn’t actually give him any powers, which seemed like the obvious thing to do. Just give them some powers. No. No, he’s going to be Normal Guy, punching crime in the face, and I don’t really think that works, but okay, you do you.
Chris: A non-powered sidekick character pretty much always has to do something with their intellect. Sokka basically becomes the planner and Stiles, again, does investigation and research – standard stuff.
Oren: I’m a fan of when the story is all about brains and then the sidekick is actually the muscle. You see that in some of the older Sherlock Holmes stories.
Chris: Oh, interesting.
Oren: Yeah, because in the older stories before, Sherlock had to be good at everything, very often you would see Dr. Watson like get in there and mix it up if it had to be done.
Chris: Yeah, that would have been really nice, because Sherlock just became ridiculously candied in the BBC adaptation. That’s why I stopped watching it. It was just too much. But there was an early episode where, again, Watson is the one who shot the gun and saved Sherlock, and that was fantastic. It gave him something to contribute, but nope! Later, we have Sherlock, action hero.
Oren: Yeah. It’s annoying. It’s definitely a misuse of Watson, and it’s too bad because there just aren’t that many IPs with that dynamic.
Chris: Yeah. It’s really refreshing.
Oren: So it felt like a really great opportunity, but they were like, “No, Sherlock has to do everything.” Well, speaking of doing everything, we do not have time to do anything more because we are out of time. But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons – perhaps our sidekicks! – first. We have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants, and we will talk to you next week.
Promo: If you enjoyed this podcast, and want to slip us some gold-pressed latinum, head on over to patreon.com/mythcreants. We appreciate it.[Closing theme]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.