The word sidekick connotes unequal power relations: sidekicks are a hero’s support staff, his or her assistants. A closer analysis of the Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings narratives reveals that sidekicks are integral to the success of the hero’s mission. Sidekicks aren’t just helpers, but heroes themselves.
The consubstantiality of hero and sidekick(s) is predicated on the love they share. The ability to give and receive love infuses the team with hope and strength—because they have something to both live and fight for.
In this clip from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we see a vivid battle between humble love and angry hubris, between light and dark. Voldemort takes over Harry’s body, reviving memories of fear, danger, and loss in the orphaned wizard’s mind. Harry writhes on the floor like a serpent, seemingly consubstantial with his archenemy, as Voldemort taunts him for being “so weak, so vulnerable.”
Vulnerability transforms from weakness to strength as Harry’s friends enter the scene. Visible wounds on their faces symbolize the sacrifices they have recently made for the love of their friend and the world they share. Although loving others may make him vulnerable to loss, Harry draws strength from that vulnerability, casting out the Dark Lord using memories of love and laughter shared with friends.
Return of the Jedi showcases a similar exchange about strength and vulnerability when Luke Skywalker warns the Emperor, “Your overconfidence is your weakness,” and the Emperor replies simply, “Your faith in your friends is yours.” The conclusion of the original Star Wars trilogy reinforces the idea that love, mercy, and humility are indeed stronger than the anger, fear, and aggression that drive the dark side.
Throughout these examples, we see that sidekicks play an integral role in the fight against evil. Love, our heroes’ most potent weapon, is forged by their relationships: the heroes’ loving sacrifices for their friends and often grudging acceptance of their friends’ sacrifices for them. This shared love helps us understand Samwise Gamgee’s universal reminder in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers film: “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Challenging hegemonic masculinity?
Thanks for this post Lisa. Do you think that heroes like Potter and Skywalker (both white men) symbolize a different kind of masculine hero? Your post seems to suggest that the sidekicks' love and acceptance enables these male characters to transcend the limitations of hegemonic masculinity (which in your examples seem firmly embedded in the evil characters who reject such "weaknesses"). Interestingly, love is not a word that comes up very often in Elementary, and definitely not between Watson and Holmes. At the beginning of season 2, Holmes proclaimed that he was "post-love" at least romantically speaking, and although it seems clear that he does care for his colleagues and certainly his partnership with Watson, "love" remains somewhat unspeakable within the show. Much of this has to do with Holmes's cynical worldview and yet, some of his (and JLM's) finest moments have been when he's at his most vulnerable.
I was thinking about the structural similarities between the examples and arrived at the following observations. In each example you have an underdog story. The underdog, emerging from meager circumstances (an despised orphan, a farmer from a backwater planet, and a hobbit from the provincial Shire) and through struggle becomes the savior of the world. Skywalker and Potter actually become the paragons of their craft (Jedi and wizard) in part due to a sort of birthright and prophesied destiny. (I’m actually not that up on my Harry Potter, so I may be getting some of this wrong.) All three, despite their various abilities, are set against an evil figure who appears to be infinitely more powerful than they are. The uber-villain has come to their power through the same mechanism that the hero has come to his (wizardry, the dark side of the force, the rings of power)—which creates a backchannel connection between the hero and the villain. (Just as Moriarty and Sherlock are similarly connected.) The uber-villains are desiccated versions of the hero, consumed by their source of power: the Emperor is withered husk, Voldemort is gaunt vampiric figure, and Sauron is literally disembodied. (Also, Darth Vader’s pale necrotic, cybernetic body and Gollum’s similarly distorted cadaverous body.) Then, as you point out, these heroes are often pulled back from the brink of becoming the thing they most despise by their scrappy band of friends and/or allies. Can we do anything with these structural similarities? I'm specifically thinking that, in developing the relationship between the hero and his sidekicks, we need to develop some way of talking about how that relationship is triangulated with the villain as an alter ego for the hero. But I also want to interrogate the ideology that may be lurking behind the "love conquers all" thematic you have identified here. Perhaps too there is something about the notion of articulating that love is a "weapon" that might ought to give us pause.
Thanks for these responses, Natasha and Jeff. I do think that the heroes I've analyzed operate outside the constraints of hegemonic masculinity. Most obviously, they violate hegemonic masculinity's emphasis on individualism and physical strength. Holmes's "post-love" state is an interesting counter-point to the trend I've analyzed. Natasha's post about Watson's struggle to assert her place in their partnership suggests that Holmes is losing out on a colleague and friend who could make him "stronger." And that idea of love being a source of strength or even a weapon does trouble me, too. However, I appreciate that the weapon of love is often used for its protective capabilities--insulating the heroes from the "dark side," compelling them to make moral choices, etc. Jeff, I appreciate the additional layer you add to our understanding of hero/sidekick/villain relationships and their triangulated nature. In my book on media marathoning, I offer a more comprehensive profile of hero and villain, united by the synecdochal relationship Kenneth Burke articulates between hero and villain. The Matrix's Oracle also offers an interesting take on this relationship when she tells Neo that Agent Smith, "is you, your opposite, your negative—the result of the equation trying to balance itself out."
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