Can the Sidekick Protest? The Dissonant Sidekick and the Limits of Representing Difference in Contemporary Media

Curator's Note

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?


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?

Yes, if you had to line up the examples listed in the above post, from least successful to most successful in terms of their representations of marginalized people, The Lone Ranger would be off by itself as a pretty clear failure. I selected it as a way into the topic because it so clearly fails, even as it tries, however superficially, to be politically progressive. (In this way it is similar to Avatar, which purported to offer an environmentalist and anti-colonial message, while being unbelievably orientalist.) Verbinski et al. clearly want the film to offer a critique of racism, colonialism, Manifest Destiny, and unbridled capitalism. So, in the film we witness the exploitation of Chinese mine workers, a Comanche elder discussing the violation of peace treaties, and the cavalry pursuing and ultimately slaughtering a Comanche community. The villains of the film are the railroad magnate Latham Cole, his henchman Butch Cavendish, and cavalry Captain Jay Fuller, who conspires with Cole to genocidally purge the railroad’s path of Indians. We are also told that Tonto’s behavior (Depp’s Jack Sparrow-esque scene chewing) is the result of Chavendish slaughtering his entire village when Tonto was a child. (In the The Lone Ranger television series Tonto’s village was destroyed by “rogue Indians.") Jackie Goldberg, writing for the French publication Les inRocks, celebrates the film as a “progressive” interrogation of American history and notes, accurately, that the film ultimately indicts the law itself as being corrupted by “rapacious capitalism” (see also A.O. Scott). Of course, all of this political gesturing functions as a cover for the Disney-theme-park-ride of a film, and the "progressivism" does nothing to mitigate Verbinski's decision to keep the minstrel Tonto. (And everything Goldberg notes as progressive in the film has been part of the “revisionist” western genre for at least fifty years.) Still, something in the internally inconsistent logic of The Lone Ranger produces an interesting effect, wherein Depp’s Tonto seem a reluctant participant. In trying to rehabilitate Tonto, the film makes him all the more dissonant and spiteful. [In places, I read Tonto as wanting to escape the movie. In the first sequence where Tonto is introduced, he tries to escape from Reid but finds himself literally shackled to Reid, and subsequently Tonto repeatedly protests the selection of Reid as his partner but relents, with resignation asking, “But who am I to argue...?” Here I’m projecting my own discomfort onto the film and Tonto specifically, imagining the character as expressing my desire for escape, but I don’t think I’m alone in this discomfort. 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. As I stipulate in the beginning of my post, The Lone Ranger is "an aesthetically and politically irremediable film,” but, having granted that at the outset, I’m interested in the way the film’s own logic collapses on itself in a potentially productive, if not redeemable, way.] Having said all of this—perhaps too much—let’s not ignore the other film and television texts noted above, which provide more sophisticated examples of dissonant sidekicks! Tonto is admittedly an outlier (an instructive outlier I hope) among these examples.

Do you think this is universally true, or do any of the above listed examples (or others you might think of) actually challenge this privilege? Is the problem inherent to the genre (broadly or narrowly construed), and, therefore, is the genre irredeemable?

"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?

In my dissertation, I planned to write about the queer inflected friendship between Watson and Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock. I ended up cutting that section for various reasons—for one thing, there has been a flood of Sherlock scholarship and criticism. Emily Nussbaum, for example, said everything I wanted to say about the series but said it better. However, the evolution of the Watson sidekick is a great example of how the devoted life partner sidekick has taken on a more active and even antagonistic role in the hero/sidekick relationship. Watson in Doyle’s original novels was essentially a sounding board for Holmes to unload exposition. Fast-forward to the Rathbone/Bruce movies and Watson becomes a bumbling comic relief figure. Then there's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), where Watson helps Holmes cope with cocaine addiction and mental illness. House, MD gives us the prototype for the anti-social genius figure, from which Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009), the BBC’s Sherlock, and CBS’s Elementary are derived, I would argue. (We’ll hear more about Elementary in Natasha’s post on Thursday!) In contrast to Basil Rathbone’s hyper-competent Holmes, these Holmes are addicts, anti-social, and mentally ill, and, consequently, become dependent on their Watson figure, who serve among many other functions to challenge and correct the anti-social behavior of Holmes. The Watson character evolves from a sidekick into a partner and friend. The dynamics of attraction and repulsion between Holmes and Watson become central to these adaptations and are incompatible with the subservient sidekick. With regard to my specific research on male friendship. The Watson-Holmes relationship in Sherlock exemplifies the romanticization of male friendship. Just as the “bromances” hybridize the romantic comedy with the buddy picture, Sherlock maps a same-sex, if platonic, love story onto a buddy adventure story. The hero-sidekick relationship in someways is the opposite of this dynamic: the hierarchy in the relationship separates the hero from the sidekick. I’m interested in how a "post-closet” culture (to use Steven Seidman’s term) renegotiates same-sex male friendships in narrative texts of all media. Sherlock does this by using the hero/sidekick and detective procedural structure to tell a love story between two men. There are superheroes of color and white sidekicks, but I don’t have a great example off hand. Blade (of the comic book and film series of the same name) is an African-American hero, and his “sidekick,” Whistler, is white, though Whistler is really a mentor figure as much as a sidekick (cf. my post on Eleanor’s topic "High School for Superheroes and Sidekicks”). A highly problematic example of the western genre turning itself inside out would be Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles in which Cleavon Little plays the hero and Gene Wilder plays his sidekick. However, in many ways that entire film operates under the comic incoherence of a black man being a sheriff in the old West and, consequently, is the satirical exception that proves the rule. Examples are easier to find with the police genre: Idris Elba has white sidekicks in Luther and I would argue that Brad Pitt is Morgan Freeman’s sidekick in Se7en.

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.

Let me make an analogy: A lot of the “westerns” I study—Brokeback Mountain, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, City Slickers, and Deadwood—so dramatically undermine the conventions of the genre that it becomes difficult to apply the label to them without some qualification. The more entrenched a genre is, the more it is able to be manipulated for potentially progressive and subversive ends—consider how the French New Wave repurposed American genres, e.g., Godard’s Alphaville or Breathless or anything by Jean-Pierre Melville. So too the the hero/sidekick formula seems to lend itself to playful subversion. Some part of the power of Elementary is how it creates the hero/sidekick scenario and then undermines it—and the series keeps flipping the script (pardon the cliché) by having Holmes and Watson swap mentor/protégé roles throughout the series.

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