Yesterday was International Women’s Day, but also Wednesday, and so I spent some time in the comic shop indulging in the long standing comic shop tradition of airing-of-grievances. Comic shops tend to be a bit of a boy’s club, but I’ve never been to one that wouldn’t be ecstatic at the prospect of having more women around. So for any ladies reading this I encourage you to come complain with us, it’s very cathartic. Anyway, given the overlap of Women’s Day, comics, and grievances I couldn’t help but bring up for discussion one of my big storytelling grievances that seems to plague women in particular, the Hyper-Competent Sidekicks.
If you’re not familiar the trope is essentially when the sidekick is smarter or more talented than the hero and so begs the question, why aren’t they the hero? It’s an asinine and lazy storytelling tool typically employed to include but sideline female characters. A perfect example: Harmione is the infinitely more complex character of team Harry Potter. She is better read, a better wizard, constantly pushing herself and her study, strong enough to let go of her parents for their own protection, carries the team, mediates their internal dilemmas, forgives every slight, solves all the toughest puzzles, and all while shouldering the obvious prejudice of not being from a magical family. But Harry is the hero because…?
Don’t get me wrong I like the Harry Potter series, I’m not picking a bone with J.K. Rowling, just using it to point out a trend that across a spectrum of stories tells people women characters no matter how smart, capable or intriguing just aren’t as important. We rely on their support, but they shouldn’t have the spotlight. All to often they’re there in a shallow attempt at inclusion rather than genuine recognition that women are instrumental in any story with people in it. “Look we have a strong smart woman in our story, we care about women! Can we have a cookie now?” No, no cookie, because that’s just pandering.
Think about a genuinely strong, smart and female hero like Ellen Ripley from the Alien. Ripley isn’t a woman for having a woman’s sake, she’s not even the only capable woman on board, (shout out to Joan Lambert) she isn’t glaringly more competent than her male shipmates so we can revel in how great it is that there’s a strong female on the team, she’s just a character who happens to be female like half of human beings tend to be. Yes it’s important to her character that she’s a woman but it doesn’t define her character, it isn’t crucial to her role in the story it’s just genuine inclusion of women in the story.
So lets throw out the hyper-competent sidekick trope, it’s not hard to include strong smart women in your story, they’re everywhere in real life. And yes they’re out there supporting a lot of flawed heroes because that’s what strong people do, but let’s try harder to recognize them as the heroes as well.