In the season one finale of The Magicians, a drama based on the best-selling books about a group of students at a magical university, there’s a moment when the show's protagonist begins to doubt that he's the hero of his own story.
Previously, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) was entirely convinced of his heroism; he had successfully traveled to the magical land he’d grown up dreaming of, and that land’s god had laid its hands on him and told him he was the one who was meant to save the world. He was the main character. How could he be anything less than heroic?
Of course, as those who've watched even a few episodes of the series (or read the books the series is based on) will recall, Quentin is not the smartest or the strongest or the best magician of his friends. He doesn’t have any special abilities, like Penny, who can teleport. He’s not as whip-smart as his girlfriend, Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), or his best friend, Julia (Stella Maeve). He’s not even as impressively bitchy as Eliot or Margo. He’s the hero mostly because he continued to believe in his world’s Narnia analog well past college and into grad school.
But that makes no sense, and even Quentin realizes as much. "The adult part of me, the part of me that understands how magic works, keeps screaming that it’s you," he tells Alice, insisting that she’s the hero, not him. And so he gives her the magical weapon that can save them all and tells her to use it.
It’s a moment that acknowledges the elephant in the room: Alice is much, much better suited to being a hero than Quentin is. She’s smarter than him, both academically and emotionally. She’s more skilled at magic than he is. Arguably, her struggles with impostor syndrome and her conflicts with her parents make her a more complex and interesting character.
And the same can be said for Julia, who's widely considered the most compelling character on the TV show and perhaps the secret hero of its source material. "Anything Quentin could do, [I] could do backwards and in high heels," Julia says to herself in the books. She’s smarter and stronger and better at magic even without the benefits of a cushy magic college education, and her story is fiercely compelling.
But neither Alice nor Julia is The Magicians' main character. Quentin is.
Alice and Julia and Quentin are the type of hero-and-sidekicks team that appears to be endlessly popular in pop culture, composed of at least one brilliant, hyper-competent woman who for some unclear reason is a sidekick instead of the hero, and a hapless, semi-competent guy who for some unclear reason is the hero instead of a sidekick. Think of Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, Wyldstyle and Emmet in The Lego Movie, Gamora and Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy. Pop culture is filled with brilliant female characters who know everything and can do anything — except save the day. They require their less-accomplished male friends to do that.
The hyper-competent female sidekick is often an attempt at feminism
This approach is kind of a halfway-there response to feminism. We all know it’s poor form to relegate your leading lady to the damsel-in-distress role, so let’s make her competent! Actually, we’ll do you one better: We’ll make her more competent than the hero. Girl power! Guys are always such bumbling idiots, right, ladies? Except, you know, when it’s important. When it's important, only a guy can get the job done.
And so we have Hermione and her Mary Poppins bag singlehandedly keeping Harry and Ron alive all through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. She wards their invisible tent, brews Polyjuice Potion, and hexes Harry into unrecognizability when they’re captured — but it’s Harry who kills Voldemort, of course.
We have Trinity in The Matrix, who is so heart-stoppingly competent during our first encounter with her, and who is allowed to accomplish so little throughout the rest of the trilogy while Neo repeatedly saves humanity, that film critic Tasha Robinson named the Trinity Syndrome after her. (Trinity Syndrome: "the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene.")
The trope is part of the double-edged sword of our very, very slow crawl toward telling more diverse stories across all forms of media. Culturally, we’ve begun to realize that it might be a good idea to expand our focus to include more than straight white cis men — but even as we begin to include more women and queer people and people of color and trans people in our stories, we continue to overwhelmingly reserve the hero role for straight white cis men. Everyone else is relegated to supporting roles.
(This, incidentally, is part of why so many lesbians and people of color die on TV: We’re creating more roles for them, but not necessarily hero roles. Supporting roles. Disposable roles.)
To be clear, I’m not saying that every story with a competent female sidekick and a semi-competent male hero is necessarily bad or even anti-feminist. The problem with this trope lies less in its individual occurrences and more in its sheer prevalence. As with the Bechdel test, the analysis that grows out of looking at this trope is most interesting when it’s directed at overall trends, not at isolated instances.
Because however well-intentioned any particular story’s use of the competent female sidekick trope might be, the enormous accumulated mass of these stories sends a very different message. It suggests that no matter how strong and smart and compelling a woman might be, she is still less important, less vital, just less, than any vaguely competent man. And no matter how hard she works, she will never accomplish more than he does.
On The Magicians, Alice and Julia are so self-evidently better suited to heroism than Quentin is that even he can see it. But will that matter in the end? In the source novels, it all comes down to Quentin to save everyone. After all, he’s the hero.