Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger was one of the biggest flops of 2013. In addition to being a pretty bad film, it was deservedly criticized for casting a white actor, Johnny Depp, as the Comanche sidekick Tonto. Granted The Lone Ranger is an aesthetically and politically irremediable film, it provides an interesting case study in how sidekicks are being reimagined. The sidekick can be distinguished from the “buddy,” because the sidekick is subordinate to the hero. Despite their junior status, sidekicks have begun to serve as dissonant voices in movies and television. The original TV Tonto (Jay Silverheels) was a docile and doting life partner to the Lone Ranger, but Depp’s Tonto, despite his minstrel clowning, relentlessly scowls at John Reid, the Lone Ranger. When Reid asks Tonto what ‘kemosabe’ means, Tonto replies, “wrong brother.” Behind the joke is a caustic inversion of the supposed meaning of kemosabe in the ordinal series, “trusty scout.” Likewise, when the Lone Ranger first exclaims his battle cry “Hi-yo, Silver, Away!” Depp’s Tonto scolds, “Don’t ever do that again.” This Tonto resists the programmatic of the film. He is a dissenting voice within a text that would like so much to render him inert. Despite the films best attempts to ally Reid (and white audiences) with the Indian sidekick, Tonto rejects this brotherly affection. The racism of the original television series haunts the new film and can neither be suppressed nor re-integrated into the new text.
Numerous other sidekicks in contemporary media refuse to get with the program and assert dissonant voices. In period pieces, women and people of color often function as persistent reminders of racism and sexism in American history: Elam Ferguson in Hell on Wheels, Dr. Algernon Edwards in The Knick, Peggy Olson in Mad Men, and Virginia Johnson in The Masters of Sex. But do these examples challenge us to confront this history, or do they offer anodyne stories of marginalized peoples overcoming social inequality? Genre pieces and adaptations feature dissonant sidekicks: Joan Watson in Elementary, Henry Standing Bear in Longmire, Kato in The Green Hornet film, and Lana Kane in Archer. These characters often mock the white male protagonist and call into question—however implicitly—their exercise of white male privilege. But do these dissonant voices represent a real challenge or merely a perfunctory acknowledgment of privilege that nevertheless leaves it intact?
Side Kick Booster Shot
Well, first of all, thanks for watching this film so I don't have to (feel free to disregard my comments as they're based only on the sample). I'm willing to go with you as far as thinking that these dissonant sidekicks are there to try to address a kind of crisis for white protagonists, and maybe some go further than others. But all I can seem to see in Depp's work here is inoculation."We know this film is untenable, but we're going to make it anyway. But it's ok, because we're at least weirdly reflexive about it." So I definitely come down on the "perfunctory" side--but I don't think it's a perfunctory acknowledgement so much as a peremptory dismissal of privilege. There's a long history of "sassy" characters of color, and that's what this feels like. So, does the Lone Ranger "develop" or show any kind of racial/colonial "progress" over the narrative?
I agree with Micheal's comment above that side kicks as an off shoot of the buddy film are all about containing a crisis white male privilege by glibly inoculating other voices.
"The film turns itself inside out trying to hold onto Tonto and, in the process, creates an auto-critique, in which even the characters don’t want to be part of the film." Wow, nicely put! What if the genre turned itself inside out? Are there any heroes of color with white sidekicks? Jeff, how does the reluctant sidekick fit into your broader interest in constructions of friendship? If the traditional sidekick is loyal almost to the the point of invisibility, is the reluctant one less affectively valuable? or potentially somehow more authentic?
This is an interesting post Jeff, and like the others, I have not seen this particular film nor am I in any rush to do so, so thanks for your insights. Based on your examples of contemporary sidekicks, I would have to take the position that the genre is indeed redeemable. Newer conceptualizations of the sidekick have provided fertile ground for important discussions about gender, race, class, and (white, heterosexual) male privilege, in both the historical and contemporary context. Admittedly, I am most excited by the construction of feminist-inspired characters such as Virginia Masters and Joan Watson because they offer compelling and complex portraits of working women in male-dominated professions. They are far from one-dimensional or invisible and in fact, refuse to take a back-seat to their male partners. Of course, all of this calls into question the ongoing relevance of the term "sidekick" - do we still need it or is it still necessary? With Elementary, the writers made it clear from the beginning that Joan is more than a sidekick; although as my post will discuss, the audience didn't necessarily agree with this last season.
Add new comment