The Competent Female Sidekick Trope

stana katic in Castle

I want to point out some interesting work from other sites today. The first is a short video that I found on whohaha.com. (If you haven’t subscribed to WhoHaHa yet, you really must.) The video is from Saturday Night Live and a bit gross, but give it a chance.

Secondly, a related post that is much less silly. It’s the long and thoughtful post at Vox titled “Every semi-competent male hero has a more talented female sidekick. Why isn’t she the hero instead?” by Constance Grady and Javier Zarracina.

The topic of the article is this:

. . . the type of hero-and-sidekicks team that appears to be endlessly popular in pop culture, composed of at least one brilliant, hyper-competent woman who for some unclear reason is a sidekick instead of the hero, and a hapless, semi-competent guy who for some unclear reason is the hero instead of a sidekick. Think of Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, Wyldstyle and Emmet in The Lego Movie, Gamora and Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy. Pop culture is filled with brilliant female characters who know everything and can do anything — except save the day. They require their less-accomplished male friends to do that.

Yes, men make films where the man involved is an idiot and a buffoon. But somehow a beautiful, smart and competent woman loves him and helps him solve his problem.

What hogwash. Demeaning to men and demeaning to women.

As my Twitter pal @syleegrrl pointed out when I tweeted a link to the post on Vox,

The message is that men can be goof-offs, overgrown children, muscle-bound killers, and there’s never any need to do better, be more. Coasting through life and phoning it in will be plenty. Yet women must be the best at everything just to be a minor character in a man’s life.

I copied this graphic from the Vox article. It gives you a few examples of this trope.

Poster showing several examples of the trope
From Vox: http://www.vox.com/2016/4/18/11433378/heroes-female-sidekicks

You may have seen the news that Stana Katic will not be back on Castle for season 9. Much as I enjoy Nathan Fillion, there really is no point to Castle if the overly-imaginative hero in the title doesn’t have his super-competent police woman to work cases with. Castle isn’t the best example of this trope, because Castle and Beckett work as equals much of the time. Yet it’s HIS name on the show, isn’t it? And the news indicates that Castle will go on without Beckett.

Or look at Bones. In the books by Kathy Reichs, Dr. Brennan works on her own, has her own agency. But on TV, Booth has to be there to solve the crimes.

If the default human in pop culture is the white heterosexual male, then the white heterosexual male must save the day, no matter how incompetent. As the Vox article points out, “This, incidentally, is part of why so many lesbians and people of color die on TV: We’re creating more roles for them, but not necessarily hero roles. Supporting roles. Disposable roles.”

Because however well-intentioned any particular story’s use of the competent female sidekick trope might be, the enormous accumulated mass of these stories sends a very different message. It suggests that no matter how strong and smart and compelling a woman might be, she is still less important, less vital, just less, than any vaguely competent man. And no matter how hard she works, she will never accomplish more than he does.

This has to stop. I think the answer is more women and more people of color behind the camera – writing, directing, producing.

For my part, I will continue to feature and promote films by women writers and directors, and films and TV shows that feature fully functional leading women such as Lost Girl, Jessica Jones, The Fall, Wynonna Earp, Happy Valley, Scott & Bailey and Orphan Black.

2 thoughts on “The Competent Female Sidekick Trope”

  1. Nice article. Excellent breakdown of ongoing and systemic problem across of popular media.

    Sadly, the male perspective is still considered the default in the minds of most television and movie writers. As such, they continue to be lead characters. By making the lead a buffoon and barely competent, the supposed default male audience member gets to imagine that he could be the hero since competency doesn’t appear to be a necessity for success, while having a competent sidekick allows the goal to actually get accomplished.

    At least it is a (tiny) improvement from women just being props and MacGuffins.

Share your comments