Here’s a tricky thing to talk about: I love female sidekicks.
I blame Sally Kimball, really. She’s a secondary character in the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol, and a friend of the title boy detective. I don’t remember whether Sally got one single bit of character development, except for the fact that she hung out with Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, and if anybody tried to mess with him, she beat them up. (This happened less than you might expect for a kid whose nickname was Encyclopedia, and who spent all his time explaining to other people why they were wrong.)
Of course, these were books for young kids and the actual need to beat people up didn’t arise very often. An anecdote of the one time Sally did a badass thing on Leroy’s behalf appeared near the beginning of every book, and that reassuring mantra was always my favorite part. The important thing was that Sally was there, the security system that Encyclopedia rarely needed to call on. The point was that he could have.
I don’t want to beat people up; I hate violence and also I wouldn’t be any good at it. But the idea of a highly competent, potentially dangerous and always dependable woman standing at the hero’s back speaks to me in a very deep way. Zoe Washburne, nodding to Mal Reynolds and calling him “Cap’n.” Brienne of Tarth making the slow transformation from Jaime Lannister’s captor to his trusted Oathkeeper. Melinda May (not exactly a “sidekick” but dependable Second-in-Command of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), hating but earning her nickname as “the Cavalry,” because, even without superpowers, she is the fighter of last resort.
And then there’s Riza Hawkeye, the character I set out to write this essay about. Not to be confused with one of the Marvel Universe Hawkeyes (and don’t call Kate Bishop a sidekick unless you feel like dodging arrows), Riza is an Army lieutenant in Fullmetal Alchemist, the manga series by Hiromu Arakawa. I’ve written about the series, (and given a brief rundown of its anime adaptations) here before and I touched a bit on my love for this character. She’s level-headed and kind and low-key witty, good with kids and dogs, respected by her coworkers. She’s also a combat veteran, a first-rate sniper, and bodyguard to a dude who shoots fire out of his hands.
It’s also hard to talk about Riza without talking about Roy Mustang, the superpowered egotist/male model* she works for. And that’s when fangirling Riza’s type of character gets tricky. She first appears as a sounding board for his more prominent, flashier character. Early on she has the badass moment shown above — winning a fight by knocking him out of the way, because the genius** has forgotten his powers don’t work in the rain. (*Not actually a male model. **Also not a genius. I love him, but.)
Riza never gets reduced to a damsel in distress, but she’s an easy character to place in peril and create suspense. (Of course she is! Everyone likes her!) And she doesn’t always do the expected badass thing: at one point, she completely loses her calm in the middle of a combat situation, pulling the trigger with tears rolling down her face because she mistakenly thinks Roy is dead. And when she finally gets a backstory, late in the manga series, her history turns out to be implicitly tied to Roy’s. It’s not just that she’s his Number Two; it’s that she’s narratively destined to be.
So what do we say? Strong female character or not?
I bring this question up because there’s an essay that makes the rounds every once in a while, which I find simultaneously ingenious and wrong-headed: Tasha Robinson’s piece We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome. It’s worth reading for yourself, if you haven’t, but to distill the point that jumps out at me: Robinson uses Trinity, from The Matrix, as an example of a character who is introduced as incredibly badass and competent, then fades into the background. Nothing that she does in the movie is as exciting as her first scene. She “recruits” Keanu Reeves’s Neo but he turns out to be The One. This kind of characterization, the argument continues, gives us fictional women who are useful only as long as they support the male protagonists. These are not women that any audience member would want to be.
Now, the first part of this argument I find persuasive, and a good structural critique of how women are often portrayed in certain kinds of stories. But the idea that this has any effect on who viewers sympathize and identify with — that’s harder for me to sign on to. We’re sixteen years down the road from The Matrix and I do not, to my knowledge, associate with anybody who gives a single fuck about Neo. But every day — literally, I think, every single day — someone I know will quote the mantra that Carrie-Anne Moss mutters to herself as she make her way through a dangerous mission: “Get up, Trinity.” The way plots treat female characters is worth examining, and improving, but it doesn’t control how readers and viewers feel about them.
Back to my feelings on female sidekicks: don’t think it made me comfortable that, in all the pairs I was listing, the female character is playing backup to a man. I would have been happy to list female characters who bring another woman along to act as their muscle — but I couldn’t think of any. (Can you think of any? Can you tell me about them so I can get on that immediately?) In the case of Encyclopedia and Sally, it was the idea of a girl standing up for her male friend that appealed to me but I read those books when I was seven years old. I’m more than ready for some different takes on this dynamic.
There’s also the possibility of flipping the hero/sidekick notion on its head, and letting the physically strong, no-nonsense woman be the boss. What if we were actually getting a Wasp and Ant-Man movie, with Hope Van Dyne and Scott Lang, rather than the reverse? (You know who would have zero problem with this? Scott Lang.) And then there’s the first five minutes of the first episode of SyFy’s Killjoys in which. . .look, if you haven’t seen Killjoys, I’m not going to spoil it for you. I just wonder why you’re reading my dumb article instead of watching Killjoys right now.
As for Riza Hawkeye, I’m on record that Roy Mustang could be swapped into a female character, and it would make no difference to the story and definitely not to Riza. But that’s a job for fanfiction, as are the volumes I would gladly read about Riza’s solo adventures and her inner life.
But the truth is, I connect to Riza’s story as it is. Her connection to Roy gives the story a lot of its moral and emotional grounding. More than that, some of the moments when Riza is not doing the “right” strong female character things are my favorites. The scene where she cries breaks my heart, because I don’t see a woman losing her motivation when she doesn’t have a man to fight for. I see the facade of the impossibly perfect character whose first and only job is to be “strong” cracking under the demand of that impossible task, and showing herself to be human.
Also? She follows her guy around with a gun because he has absolute faith in her moral judgment, and she has permission to point it at him if she sees him making the wrong choice. And when that situation comes up in the narrative, she actually does it. Mustang is the commanding officer, but when it matters, Hawkeye is calling the shots.
Do I want to be that person? Do I want to know that person? Do I want a competent, snarky sidekick backing me up at all times, threatening my enemies at the same time she makes sure I do the right thing?
Some days, the answer to all of these questions is “Yes.”