This is the latest in my collection of letters to female characters who’ve inspired me throughout my life as a fangirl. If you have a character you’d like to write a letter to, click here for details on the book of letters I’m compiling!
When I was in high school, my friends and I were talking about our dream jobs, and one of them turned to me and asked, “Katie, you want to be a CIA agent, right?”
No, I didn’t want to be a CIA agent. But I did want to be you. I wanted to be you so badly that apparently my friends thought I wanted to follow your career path, too. But your career path was probably the only thing about you I never tried to emulate. (I think I made up for that by choosing to major in English in college like you did.) I was the only teenager I knew who owned not just one but two black pantsuits, which I often wore with turtlenecks. I wore my hair in a lot of low, sleek ponytails while I was in high school (and I continue to do so today). And I don’t think my love for coffee ice cream developed by coincidence.
High school is often the time when we desperately search for role models, for people to help us develop into the best adults we can be. I was lucky: I had inspiring teachers, I had great family members, and I had you. When other kids in my class dressed up as Lindsay Lohan for “Celebrity Dress-Up Day” during Spirit Week, I dressed up as you—not Jennifer Garner, but Sydney Britsow, complete with one of my aforementioned pantsuits. I got more than a few strange looks and there was even some snickering behind my back that day, but I didn’t care. I walked through the halls confidently—with my homemade CIA badge proudly displayed—because I was channeling you, and you walked with confidence and poise through things much worse than rooms full of judgmental teenagers. Thank you, for helping me to learn to walk with that same confidence and poise even when I wasn’t wearing a pantsuit or homemade badge.
You were a part of my life during some of my most formative years. Alias premiered when I was in eighth grade, and it ended just weeks before my high school graduation. During that time, my love for your story introduced me to fan videos and the concept of spoilers (which I gobbled up like candy). It inspired me to create notebooks full of collages with pictures from my favorite episodes and folders full of (pretty terrible) fan fiction. It brought me to the SD-1 forums, where I learned the many ways fandom can connect people from all over the world and can help us all feel a little less alone. Alias was the first TV fandom I was ever a part of, so—while I might not have followed your path to the CIA—you did end up influencing my future in a very real way. And I will forever be grateful for that.
I might be biased, but I don’t think you get enough credit, Sydney. You were so much more than just a superspy with amazing fighting skills (which is what most people say about you when you’re remembered); you were a female character who embodied the idea that strength and vulnerability aren’t mutually exclusive concepts long before it became more common in the media. And watching you show that to the world had a profound impact on me as a teenager and continues to have a profound impact on me today.
I am an emotional person. I always have been. I like to talk through my feelings. I cry a lot. I love hugs. And, as a woman, I’ve seen the way the world wants me to apologize for my feelings. I’ve felt the pressure to hide my true emotions and the intensity with which I feel them because I don’t want to seem “weak” or “crazy.” And it was even worse when I was a teenage girl. Because teenage girls are constantly being told that their intense emotions make them somehow inferior to other demographics. Teenage girls are taught to bury those emotions deep down if they want to be seen as “serious” and “strong.” They’re taught to be ashamed of their own feelings.
So thank you, Sydney, for teaching me that needing to cry doesn’t make you weak; it makes you human. Thank you also for teaching me that even badass superspies can smile big and often. When you were happy, you showed it. When you were angry, you showed it. And when you were sad, you showed it, too. You weren’t a robotic “strong female character.” You were a realistic female character. You were allowed to be scared and frustrated and jealous and giddy and grief-stricken and in love—and those emotions never took away from your ability to be the best at what you did.
Thank you especially for showing us when you were overwhelmed. You saw so much darkness and death, and you faced trials and challenges too numerous and painful to list here. And you didn’t always push through them like we’re often told to do because breaking down is seen a sign of weakness. You gave me such a wonderful example of how to handle life’s most painful and frightening twists and turns. You kept your head held high in order to get through the day, but when you didn’t have to hold it together, you allowed yourself time to feel whatever overwhelming emotions were coursing through you—sometimes by yourself but often in front of someone you loved. You showed me it was okay to need a hug when you felt like falling apart; even the strongest people shouldn’t have to stand alone through everything life throws at them.
You helped me learn that it was okay to say you’re not okay. My favorite example of that was your speech to Vaughn after your disappearance and his subsequent marriage. That moment taught me everything I know about being unapologetic about your feelings and owning your emotions, even when they’re not “pretty” or “nice.” Watching you tell Vaughn that you were ripped apart by what happened had a huge impact on me as a 15-year-old watching it for the first time. In that moment, I saw a woman being honest about what she felt, even though she knew it would make a man uncomfortable. I saw a woman showing anger, sadness, and confusion without apologizing or being painted in a negative light for feeling those things. And I saw a woman who’d been hurt verbalize that hurt without looking pathetic or weak because of it. That moment taught me so much about strength, self-respect, and honesty. And it was far from the only example of those qualities that you gave me as I grew up.
Honesty was such an important part of your character. A central conflict of Alias was your struggle to stay true to yourself in a world that constantly asked you to play different parts and wear different masks. In that conflict, I saw a reflection of my own struggle throughout high school to hold on to my sense of self in a world where it was all too common to pretend to be someone you weren’t in order to be liked. Despite the different outfits and missions and aliases, you always remained Sydney Bristow—a woman with a big heart, a steady moral compass, and a deep sense of conviction. And that helped me look past the things the world was telling me to be in order to see who I truly was and who I truly wanted to be—and that was someone who was a lot like you.
One of the most beautiful and admirable things about you was the way you never let the horrors you saw on the job and the betrayals you experienced in your own life turn you into someone hard and cynical. Early on, Vaughn reminded you that your job was to not let the darkness around you darken you. Not only did you not let the darkness darken you, you became a light in the darkness. You showed others kindness, you were willing to forgive, and you often found a way to smile even when life threw every possible curveball and worst-case scenario at you. Hopefully I never have to witness the violence you saw or feel the pain you felt so many times, but I know I’ve faced darkness in my life before and will face it again. And when I do, I have your example to turn to.
You couldn’t control every evil you faced, Sydney, but you could control how you dealt with it and let it affect you. And that’s something I hope to emulate. Sometimes I watch the news, and I get so distraught about the state of the world. But then I remember that all I can really control is who I am in the face of those scary, depressing news stories. And like you, I want to be someone warm in this increasingly cold and cruel world. You had a strong will and a soft heart, and I cannot thank you enough for teaching me that I could have both those traits and be taken seriously no matter what path I chose in life.
No matter how many years pass, a part of me will always be that girl with the black pantsuit and homemade CIA badge. So thank you, Sydney, for being exactly the hero that girl needed and will always need.