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A Penny For Your Thoughts

June 22, 2010

What’s with all these Pennies? Surely it can’t be a coincidence that there are Pennies in three of my favourite pieces of celluloid. Can it only be happenstance that two Pennies lack a surname? Can it be one massive bazinga that all three are unattainable objects of affection? Can it be more than coincidence; can it be fate?

“Is there a point to this?” I hear you ask.

Probably not, but don’t tell me what I can’t do.  I’m answering these questions anyway.

The Pennies

Penny Number One is the long-lost love of the tortured Scotsman Desmond Hume in Lost.  The daughter of the mysterious Charles Widmore, this Penny is a class above the rest in terms of social status and in terms of her sheer determination.  Even after a heart-wrenching conflict, Penny spends several years of her life devoted to finding her beloved after he disappears during a sailing race around the world.  She enjoys yachting with Our Mutual Friend, defying her father and long-awaited phonecalls.

Penny Number Two is the girl-next-door-but-really-across-the-hall in The Big Bang Theory.  This plucky aspiring actress stands in sharp contrast to the nerdy Leonard and Sheldon, but she blends surprisingly well with our geeky friends, even – fleetingly – coming into a Facebook-affirmed relationship with Leonard.  She won’t get your arguments about whether Babylon 5 is actually worth watching, but she will get her way: which frequently involve a curious fashion sense and a severe lack of adhesive ducks.

Penny Number Three is the good-hearted volunteer who gets caught up in the worst love triangle imaginable in Doctor Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog.  As the shared affection of cocky local superhero Captain Hammer and our tragically heroic villain Doctor Horrible (aka. “Billy”), her life is thrown into chaos as their rivalry escalates.  It’s plain to see some kind of harmony is on the rise when she’s enjoying frozen yogurts, helping the homeless and maintaining her strictly regimented laundry schedule.

So now that the introductions are out of the way, let’s get cracking.

The Threepenny Opera

When creating characters, a lot of thought should go into names.  When chosen carefully, they can reveal a surprising amount about the character.  The very name “Penny” conjures a wealth of character traits.  The decidedly sing-song tonality (come on, linguistics students, help me out here) laden the name with associations to idyllic childhood.  Penny sits along side Bobby, Tommy, Shirley and Becky in the cast of a ’50s television series.  The name embodies a certain quality of innocence, and, lo and behold, our three Pennies all carry some combination of a) kindness, b) naïvety and c) perceived perfection.

A very sing-song sound, indeed.

Dr Horrible‘s Penny abounds with innocence and a moral centre – her understated demeanour coupled with Felicia Day’s startled eyes put her in the tried-and-true ‘superhero’s woman’ category, and her hopeful yearning for a better world, be it a new Caring Hands Homeless Shelter or even a simple signature from a fellow-launrdy-buddy, enhance the ingénue quality about her.  She’s not oblivious to trial and terror, but her optimistic approach to even the darkest situation (“It’s okay.  Captain Hammer will save us.“) display her innocent belief in the inherent goodness of humanity.  After all, most of her songs are thematically centred on unabashed hope:

“Even in the darkness every colour can be found
And every day of rain brings water flowing to things growing in the ground”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Big Bang‘s Penny.  She’s hardly innocent as a porcelain doll, and her promiscuous, hard-partying habits are far from subtextual.  However, her vivacious and intrinsically sweet personality consistently shine through as her “true” character.  Additionally, her inexperience in the world of science and geekdom, through which the perspective of the show lies, compensates for her rebellious moments.  She’s naïve in terms of the main character’s field of knowledge (and undoubtedly stupid in Sheldon’s opinion), and this enhances her perceived “innocence.”

Whilst Lost‘s Penny doesn’t abound with emphasised inexperience, her incredible ability to show character strength after character strength paint her in an unwavering positive light.  She doesn’t stand for being mistreated by anyone – not Des, not her father – but her warm heart never fails to shine through.  Not to mention, her dedication to finding Desmond is impressive.  After all, whomever has the commitment to establish a Portuguese listening station in the hopes of locating a missing person is clearly a hopeful spirit.

All three are extraordinarily likable, and in the eyes of their suitors, they certainly embody the perfect woman.  Billy pines away for his Penny, Leonard longs for his Penny, Demond craves to be reunited with his Penny.  There has to be something about them that makes them worth the hours of effort required to steal their mail, sail around their world to impress their family and stalk their dates with your nemesis.

And herein lies, perhaps, the greatest connecting concept of all: all three Pennies are beyond the hero’s reach.  Penny, in all three cases, is a central love interest and much of the protagonist’s story involves attaining her; or, in more politically correct terms, winning her heart – and this is no small feat.  Billy must make a “real, audible connection” and get her out of the arms of Hammer, Leonard must fight debilitating stereotype and Desmond must face a disapproving father and three years on an island.  Penny is not sitting, ready and waiting, for the hero to whisk her off her feet.  Or if she is, she’s sitting on a chair that’s missing one leg on the top of an active volcano, guarded by a smoke monster, and surrounded by a lake of wonderflonium and one thousand roommate agreements.

The road to Penny is rocky and…

Wait a second.  Desmond was in the middle of the ocean, right?  For years, separated from his Penny.  He told her to wait for him, right?  Then a bunch of really wacky stuff happened, right?

Introducing Penny Number Four

 Lost loves its references, as evidenced by their easter-egg-named John Locke, Danielle Rousseau and Christian Shephard.  So it’s not out of the question to suggest the Penelope Widmore was, in fact, named for one of the most well-known Pennies of all literature:

Penny Number Four is a faithful wife to Odysseus in Greek and Roman myth, and notably in Homer’s Odyssey.  Despite her husband’s twenty-year absence, Penny staves off 108 suitors (ZOMG!  LOST NUMBERS!) to stay true to her one love.  She has wicked skills in shroud-weaving, shroud-unravelling and an admirable commitment to the cause.  And before you decry that she doesn’t count as a “real Penny,” I’m sure our manly sea-sailing Odysseus used an abbreviation now and then.

Desmond fought a one-eyed Russian. That counts as a cyclops, right?

So whilst Penny is doing her thing, Odysseus is fighting the Cyclops, Circe and the Sirens; fighting the long, hard road back to claim his love.  Although his Penny is classically painted as eternally faithful, her ambiguous decision to offer her hand to the suitor who could string her husband’s bow and her Athena-induced desire to “display herself to her suitors, fan their hearts, inflame them more” do throw a shadow of a doubt on the stability of their relationship.  She might be his – in much the same way Desmond’s Penny is his, or for a while, Leonard’s Penny is his – but that doesn’t mean things couldn’t change.  After all, everything’s coming up roses once Leonard and Penny become a couple, but their romance fractures spectacularly.  Meanwhile, Billy finally stumbles into the courage to talk to Penny (mission accomplished!), but moments later, she is saved (dubiously) by his arch-enemy and, in true comic book fashion, instantly becomes his girlfriend.  The road to Penny is rocky, but once the hero reaches the destination, they’re still in a field of boulders.

In Conclusion… More or Less…

So, thus far, we’ve concluded that our Pennies are often innocent and good-natured, embodying valuable moral traits such as faithfulness or a social conscience.  For this very reason, perhaps, they’re also primary love interests for our protagonists who must face trial and tribulation, often beyond the norm, to win the fair maiden’s heart.

Is the universe trying to form a unified theory of Penny?  I can’t say for sure, but if all Pennies would sing duets about cheesecake and polar bears, I wouldn’t complain.

[So… Do my thoughts on fictional Pennies hold?  Are they all wrapped in innocence and so much goodness it hurts?  Are their love interests always subjected to epic trials for their heart?  What’s the deal with not letting Penny have a surname!?]

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