This week’s question comes from contributor Phil Dyess-Nugent: What fictional older sibling did you most admire?
As the oldest of two myself, I always identified with the older sibling in any given TV show or movie. And while I always thought it would have been cool to have some super cool teenage big brother or sister to hold my hand and guide me into the very best high school parties, I really ended up looking at older siblings in movies as models for what kind of sib I wanted to be. For instance, while my brother and I seemingly modeled a lot of our fights on the exploits of Clarissa and Ferguson Darling from Clarissa Explains It All, I usually tried to take tips on how to protect and raise him, rather than how to strap him into a straightjacket tied to a bunch of balloons. The real model for this was, of course, “Big” Pete Wrigley on The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, who, while occasionally all caught up in his own shit, was a Wrigley first and anything else second. He took care of his eccentric co-Pete, and together the two went on adventures, found love, and rid their neighborhood of troubling land mines. To this day, I strive to have to the kind of relationship with my brother that the brothers Pete had, though maybe without the bunk beds.
Perhaps it’s because I have summer on the brain, or maybe it’s because I genuinely enjoy Christina Applegate. Either way, Sue Ellen Crandell from
Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead is my sort of older sibling. The premise of this film is ridiculous, yet Applegate’s character is still able to convey a genuine love for her family, even if it is heavily fueled by the desire for a fun-filled, “momless” summer. I applaud that determination and the amount of wherewithal she had while wiggling her way into a fashion career—and later Vassar College. Proving to herself more than to the audience that she has substance, she redefines her original idea of being a “free woman” for the summer and I find that admirable.
Let’s hear it for Jodi Kramer from Dazed And Confused. Sure, in the context of the film’s last day of school, she fucks up: She tells her hazing-happy classmates to go easy on younger brother Mitch, which only makes Wiley Wiggins’ incoming freshman a bigger target for the seniors’ paddles. But she fucks up out of an instinct to watch over Mitch, which I find admirable as a fellow big sib. If you look at Mitch as Dazed And Confused’s POV character, Jodi’s presence within the film makes for the ideal older sibling relationship: She’s around, but she’s not overbearing—the way she’s written, she recognizes that she and her brother on separate journeys. And in the end, Jodi doesn’t narc on Mitch when he comes home way past curfew and a little bit tipsy. Sharing a bloodline with someone who’d do that for you is worth the extra licks from Ben Affleck.
Was there anyone in the history of siblings as cool as Denise Huxtable? Just think about raiding that killer closet! She may not have been the best sister or daughter (ugh, at least she wasn’t Vanessa, who was probably more like my nerdy-ass self than I cared to admit), but hell, if she didn’t emit hip from every pore of her being. Denise may have been a flake, but as an impressionable youth staring wide-eyed at the television screen, I saw a beautiful, confident woman who always had cute boyfriends. Considering I also thought of Clair Huxtable as my surrogate mom, I pretty much just wanted to be a part of the Cosby clan.
Despite identifying to an embarrassing degree with John Cusack’s idealistic, lovesick Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything…, I could sense that he was in over his head. Unparented, underskilled, and far too crushable when post-high school reality comes calling in the form of a rejection from dream girl Diane Court and a seemingly inevitable army enlistment, Lloyd needs someone to look out for him. Luckily, Cusack’s real life sister Joan was on hand as Lloyd’s screen sister Constance Dobler, a beleaguered single mom (to remarkable little child actor Glenn Walker Harris Jr.) who, even from her cramped apartment and numbing blue collar existence, undeniably has the dreamy Lloyd’s back. Even though Lloyd has to remind her that she “used to be warped and twisted and hilarious” when she’s getting too uptight, she’s the one who fields Lloyd’s heartbroken, rain-soaked post-breakup phone call and urges him to come home—to her apartment, where the big sister who knows all about love’s disappointment truly understands. As an oldest child, I certainly could have used a battle-scarred, unceasingly loyal Constance to catch me before I shattered chasing my own Diane Courts.
At the risk of sounding slightly insane, I feel like Smallville’s Lex Luthor would probably make a great older brother. That is, as long as we’re not counting the Lex of the show’s series finale—who had no problem at all killing his own sibling. I think one of the highlights of the series early on was how Lex saw Clark as a younger brother, especially since his actual younger brothers were either murdered as a baby or bad boy Paul Wesley in a leather jacket. Being the oldest child in my actual family, it would be nice to be the younger sibling to someone like Lex, who would probably destroy anyone who ever tried to cross me. Plus, I’d be comforted by the fact that if I did die, Lex would do all he possibly could to bring me back to life as a clone. That’s the type of thing I look for in a great pop culture older sibling. That or Beyoncé.
Even though they’re not related by blood, Wallace Wells from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series is the best big brother the titular lovable slacker could ever hope for. Ably played by Kieran Culkin in the film version, but never as perfect as on the printed page, Wallace is the kind of guy who can drunkenly heckle a little girl, steal your boyfriend, and never be an iota less than charming while doing so. And he’s always there for Scott when he needs him, whether that means getting into an elaborate Bollywood-style dance battle, fending off vindictive former girlfriends, or kicking him to the curb when it’s time for the baby bird to fly. And unlike most relatives, Wallace only gets better when he’s drunk.
I also grew up an oldest sibling, and as such never particularly looked to older kids to admire, consumed as I was with the sacred responsibilities that being the oldest entails (my wife and other youngest kids everywhere may have just made retching noises—after angrily insisting on getting the same bedtimes). An easy answer would be Lindsay Weir on Freaks And Geeks, who, despite her experiments with identity, never loses her teasing affection for her little brother Sam. But I think my forever-crush on the Lindsay character both invalidates that one and makes me more of a Neal Schweiber (though I don’t have Samm Levine’s crack mini-Catskills timing). So it makes sense that I so enjoyed the levelheaded good humor that David Krumholtz brought to his role as Barry Schweiber, Neil’s older brother. We don’t see a lot of Barry—he’s only in one episode, “Noshing and Moshing”—but he comes across as a nerd who’s learned to be comfortable with himself. That’s certainly the kind of older brother I’d want.
This is one of those cases where I feel like I should pop a Geritol before offering my answer, but I think I probably most looked up to Keith and Laurie Partridge, the eldest kids in The Partridge Family. And, yes, that does more or less paint me as being Danny Bonaduce… not that I was necessarily scheming 24/7 (although I certainly had my fair share of misbegotten plans during the course of my childhood), but I was definitely way more of a weisenheimer than most kids my age. So why did I dig Keith and Laurie? Keith’s easy enough to explain—David Cassidy looked cool, but he was also an actual, honest to God rock star—but Laurie had a snarky reply to everything, something which appealed to my sense of humor and made me look up to her in a completely different way than I did Keith. I tried not to focus on the fact that I thought Susan Dey was hot, though, because that’s just asking for weekly therapy sessions.
As a precocious kid who at various points dreamed of being a freewheeling music journalist, I perhaps over-identify with Patrick Fugit’s overeager Cameron Crowe stand-in William Miller in Almost Famous. And as a hopelessly nerdy firstborn with no cool older sibling to turn to for guidance, I feel like I missed out by not having Zooey Deschanel’s Anita as a big sister. In the film, she’s a crucial bridge between the wild world of touring rock bands and the sometimes-stifling world of home, as she comforts and encourages William, while also pointing to the wide-open world ahead of them both. When she does leave home, she leaves him with the two best presents a big sister can give: an immaculately-curated record collection, and prophetic words of encouragement: “One day, you will be cool.”
I always, always wanted a protective older brother growing up, which was pretty much impossible seeing as I was the oldest sibling. So really, it’s not surprising that one of the most magical aspects of the Harry Potter series for me was the Weasley family. As far as I was concerned, Ginny Weasley had it made. So many older brothers to choose from! In just one family, there were prankster brothers, an unspeakably cool codebreaker brother, a stiff-upper lip brother, a dragon wrangler brother, and the short-tempered but quick-witted brother who was just trying his best. Yes, their protectiveness could get patronizing, and the glut of testosterone under one roof was probably pretty stifling at times. But while Harry Potter had dozens of fantastical scenarios I would have loved to take part in, my number one fantasy was just getting to spend a holiday at the Burrow with the Weasleys, magicking up junk food and playing Quidditch with six awesome brothers.
As a firstborn kid who grew up under the usual first-kid expectations, reading the fine print to make sure everything was above-board and developing a distinctly Amy Santiago need to be Most Appropriate, my choice for ideal older sibling is an unabashedly selfish and strategic one: Meg March from Little Women. Cool? Nope, quite the contrary. Emotionally supportive? Barely. But as an angel of the household who could always be relied upon to say the right thing in company, run the home, and know how to handle a fancy table setting, having Meg as an older sister would have put her in a prime position to run interference with the world on my behalf—leaving me free to break a few rules. (Just a few. Small ones.)
I’m glad LaToya brought up Smallville because when I heard this question my first thought was a similar soapy genre program. For about two or three years in my childhood, Charmed was a super important show to me. And while I liked put-upon put-upon Prue and free spirited Phoebe just fine, I connected most strongly to the always-practical Piper Halliwell. Although she started the show as the middle sibling (and only moved up to being the oldest once Prue died) she always felt like the most mature member of the group. You can add me to our running tally of eldest siblings, and I would have really appreciated having someone calm, rational, and loving to show me the ropes as a kid. Not to mention the fact that Piper’s ability to freeze people in time and/or make objects explode would have been super helpful for childhood shenanigans. Plus, a big part of her arc involved motherhood, so I would be guaranteed two adorable nephews to hang out with.