Let's hear it for the sidekicks

Being a sidekick is more important and rewarding than some people might think.

Published: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 11:33 p.m.

This holiday season, Americans were flocking to movie theaters to see the last installment in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It is a movie, rich with action and unusual characters. But it is also a film, deep with symbolic imagery and social commentary. It makes profound statements and raises serious questions about industrial development, race relations and war.

An additional message is the importance of sidekicks.

When the King of Gondor unsheathes his sword at the gates of Mordor and turns to his friends with a last word of encouragement, he cries, "For Frodo!"

He doesn't say, "For Frodo and Sam." But at that minute, Sam was carrying Frodo up the mountainside. Sam had hidden the ring in the tower, rescued Frodo from Shelob the spider, and performed all manner of heroic acts that allowed Frodo to reach his goal.

But does Sam get mentioned? Nah, it's always Frodo.

When you think about it, a lot of great heroes have had sidekicks, without whom they would have been lost: Don Quixote and Sancho, Heracles and Iolaus, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Dr. Who and his Companion.

In fictional portrayals, these characters serve an important function for viewers and readers. We may watch the superhero, and want to be like that - but deep down we know it isn't going to happen. Either we don't have the talent, aren't willing to pay the price or just lack the luck to pull it off.

But then we look at the sidekick and know that they serve an invaluable function, too. And maybe we can realistically aspire to be like that, at least.

But sometimes it is hard being a sidekick when your partner gets all the credit for your work, and you feel invisible, like you don't exist except as an appendage to the great one you serve.

In the movie "A Beautiful Mind," there is a scene when a young mathematician and his mentor stand watching as a senior professor is honored by his peers.

"What do you see?" the mentor asks.

"Recognition," the young mathematician replies.

The older man sighs. "Think accomplishment," he suggests.

The younger man looks genuinely confused. "Is there a difference?"

Any good sidekick will tell you that recognition is not the same as accomplishment. A sidekick can get a sense of accomplishment from what they do, but is unlikely to be recognized.

I've always been struck by the two-edged hypocrisy of "academic honesty" as practiced in our universities. If a student were to put their name on a professor's work and submit it, they would be kicked out of school and blacklisted. But if a professor puts their name on a student's work, well, that's just how things are done, and the student should feel honored.

Busy academicians don't have time to write all the words for which they are the official author; they have grad assistants, post docs and author's editors to fill in the blanks.

National Secretaries Day was started as an occasion to honor those who are often unrecognized for their contributions. But secretaries aren't the only ones who serve in the shadows. Sidekicks also function as assistants, counselors, deputies, aides, managers, coordinators, lieutenants, crew members or support staff.

So why do they do it? Why are sidekicks willing to work quietly in a self-effacing way, never getting credit for all they do, accepting second billing or none at all?

For one thing, while the world at large does not acknowledge a sidekick's accomplishment, the heroes themselves usually do. Sidekicks are often rewarded generously for their efforts because the hero knows their worth.

For another, sometimes things are more fun and exciting in the orbit of true greatness than if they were to strike out on their own. I know a researcher who has chosen to live a professional life in the shadow of one of the top names in our field. This surprises some folks, since this person's own credentials are so sterling. But being a pretty good professor elsewhere would probably never compare to the challenging and important work done with the great one; even his table scraps are more of a feast than can be found in most jobs.

This person knows what they want to do, and is willing to ignore the social costs of being seen as a mere sidekick.

Frodo was the ring bearer, a hero indeed. But the movie makes it clear that Frodo would never have completed his mission without Sam. Here's to sidekicks everywhere!

Colleen Kay Porter is a University of Florida researcher and the mother of five.

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