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How We Overcorrected the Damsel in Distress Trope

The classic damsel in distress is a weak, passive character who lacks agency—there to make the male hero look heroic. In our modern times, many have criticized this trope, and tried to leave her behind. But as we’ve tried to correct this trope, there’s been an increase in borderline Mary Sue type characters who are almost too strong, too perfect, and not relatable. Here’s our take on the damsel in distress, and how in trying to fight against this originally sexist trope, we’ve created new problems that need to be solved.

TRANSCRIPT

The damsel in distress character has fallen majorly out of fashion—and for good reason – but have we overcorrected against her?

The classic damsel in distress is a weak, passive character who lacks agency. Constantly screaming, or in peril, she’s there to make the male hero look heroic. She’s the mission that he needs to fulfill if he is to truly become a hero

Hercules: “I wanna battle some monsters, rescue some damsels, you know, heroic stuff!”

And it’s not just that she’s physically weak, but she’s also often depicted as mentally weak – too emotional, unable to handle the pressure and compose herself to find a way out of the danger herself.

In our modern times, many have criticized this trope, and tried to leave her behind – especially the ways she upholds old-fashioned notions of gender and can’t escape her problems without the help of a man. But as we’ve tried to correct this trope, there’s been an increase in borderline Mary Sue type characters who are almost too strong, too perfect, and – because they seem impervious to suffering – unrelatable.

Michael: “What are we gonna do?”

Alice: “We’re gonna kill every last one of them.” ​​- Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

We’ve forgotten that the problem isn’t showing female characters as vulnerable. And if we ignore the distress a woman might experience entirely, we’re missing out on a whole host of stories where that pain and trauma speaks to something important about the experience of being a woman. Here’s our take on the damsel in distress, and how in trying to fight against this originally sexist trope, we’ve created new problems that need to be solved.

Who is the Damsel in Distress?

Violet Baudelaire: “The car is on the train tracks and a train is coming!” - A Series Of Unfortunate Events

The damsel in distress trope goes back a long way. In Greek mythology, Andromeda is chained to the rocks about to be devoured by a sea monster, before she’s heroically rescued by Perseus on the condition that she would become Perseus’ bride. Early film has the stereotype of the silent movie damsel tied to the train tracks by a dastardly villain, waiting to be saved by a dashing man. For years, the damsel was basically a stock plot point that provided motivation to the hero, and few really thought to question.

Video games have likewise often equated rescuing the girl with winning the game – like in the countless versions of Mario’s mission to save Princess Peach. So there’s a sense that the woman is a prize for the man’s heroism, but also, a vehicle for male pleasure.

Princess Tilde: “Can you get me out?”

Gary Unwin: “If I do, will you give me a kiss? I’ve always wanted to kiss a princess.”

Princess Tilde: “If you get me out right now I’ll give you more than just a kiss.” - Kingsman: The Secret Service

For her to be a valuable prize, she has to be an idealized version of womanhood: someone who’s young and beautiful and desirable, both to the hero and to us as an audience. In the horror genre, this manifests with the obvious sexualisation of the damsel in distress.

In Italian giallo films from directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava, victims are almost always women, with the audience placed in a voyeuristic position in relation to them. Often our point of view is aligned with the killer who stalks his prey, and so there is a kind of psycho-sexual excitement derived specifically from the woman being both beautiful and vulnerable.

At the beginning of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, the film that sound recordist Jack is working on has us sharing the eyes of the killer as he circles in on a sorority house, full of scantily clad women. Similarly in Berberian Sound Studio, the sound recordists work to find precisely the right scream to fill the voice of their victim, and again there’s an explicit link between the woman being vulnerable and being sexualised.

We also see the damsel in distress at home in the superhero genre. While these love interests may often be adventurous, daring and strong in their own ways, in their classic version they still have to be saved by the hero, or at least kept out of harm’s way by a male character

Gwen Stacy: “You don’t understand!”

Captain Stacy: “I do! Your boyfriend is a man of many masks, I get it. Give me this. Get in the car.” - The Amazing Spider-Man

Their vulnerability is equated with a preciousness or fragility. They aren’t necessarily weak, but they need to be protected at all costs because of how special they are, as this ultra-idealized version of femininity.

This damsel in distress might feel super old fashioned, but until pretty recently she still continued cropping up a lot. In the 2000s, Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane got placed in this position in all three movies of the Spider-Man Trilogy – so much so that she remarked in an interview about the third movie, ”still, she’s pretty much a damsel in distress. I didn’t want her to be so much in peril in the second movie, but no one went along with me on it. In this one, I get to throw one cinder block. Watch for that. That’s my action moment. Otherwise, I scream a lot.”

Likewise, actress Keira Knightley felt her character Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean had originally been written to be too passive and defenseless. And she was elated when the director and two writers decided to let her get in on the action.

Hollywood actresses have in fact been battling to imbue their characters with more agency for a long time—– Karen Allen spoke about how she tried to make sure Marion Ravenwood didn’t come across as helpless when she was in peril in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, while Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy consciously responds to “damsel in distress” situations by fighting back.

Carrie Fisher: “George Lucas… didn’t want a damsel in distress frightened incapable of dealing with the situation without the guys. So he wanted a fighter.”

But the fact that it took decades of critics and actresses specifically fighting against her speaks to how embedded the figure is in our culture. And this is partly because of her connection to the “trapped princess” trope who’s often a presence in the very first stories that we encounter as kids.

The “Princess in a Castle” - Is She as Weak as She Seems?

The Disney princess who gets saved by her dashing prince is one of the quintessential damsel in distress tropes. But actually, if we look at many of these “trapped princess” characters as purely weak, we are ignoring their inner strength. We’ve talked before about how a cultural misreading of Cinderella overlooks the huge amounts of strength and fortitude she displays in dealing with her abusive upbringing through kindness and imagination.

Cinderella: “They can’t order me to stop dreaming.” - Cinderella

And we see similar characterisation in both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, who also have been dismissed as simply passive damsels in distress. Yes, both require saving by a Prince in order to live happily ever after, but they aren’t the stereotypical weak, overly forlorn damsels without any character or agency. They have rich interior lives, and are the emotional hearts of their respective stories. If anything, it’s their Princes who have the more one-dimensional roles in these stories.

Still, because of the perception of old-school Disney princesses as passive, over the years there’s been a conscious shift in Disney’s heroines away from these more imaginative, dreaming young women and toward women who are more daring and physically adventurous.

We started to see the seeds of this change in the Disney Renaissance era from 1989 to 1999. Ariel may be rescued by Eric, but she also rescues him, and from the start she’s eager to seize control of her own life and leave the ocean behind.

Belle too may be trapped in a castle, but really it’s her who saves the Beast from his curse, flipping the traditional fairytale narrative on its head. Jasmine does have to be saved in Aladdin, too, but she’s incredibly vocal about not being an object to be owned and controlled by a man. Nala’s always the one pinning Simba, Pocahontas saves John Smith, and while Hercules may save Meg from the underworld, the damsel in distress moniker is one she balks at.

Hercules: “Aren’t you a damsel in distress?”

Meg: “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this, have a nice day!” - Hercules

More than any of these, though, 1998’s Mulan was a watershed moment in detaching the Disney heroine from the damsel in distress. Instead of being saved by a man, she literally gets to inhabit heroic characteristics previously reserved for male characters. And she actively rejects the path that’s set out for women in her culture. When we see her being made over to meet the matchmaker who plans to marry her off, it’s not a sweet coming-of-age moment, but something awkward and uncomfortable. It’s Mulan who saves herself, and her community at the same time.

Recent heroines like Moana, Raya, Rapunzel and Elsa all have Mulan’s same defiant spirit, and all to some extent save themselves. Many also take after the way Mulan rejected traditional femininity. Pirates of the Caribbean’s Elizabeth Swann is introduced to us early on as she’s being sewn into a corset, metaphorically holding her back, and the same image is used in Brave, with Merida literally breaking free of her corset when she wins her archery competition

Likewise, In most superhero and action movies today, if a woman ever comes close to the damsel in distress treatment, it’s quickly averted or subverted as she proves she’s tough as nails. The damsel in distress trope then has been consciously and deliberately left behind…

Dolores Abernathy: “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel” - Westworld 1x05

…and it’s undoubtedly positive that we’ve retired the cardboard damsel whose only solution is to be saved by a man. . Still, in simply replacing her with the steely female badass, has the culture lost something, too?

What is a Strong Woman?

For a time, everyone seemed to think the “fix” for the damsel in distress trope was to create so-called “strong female characters” – which usually meant women with physical strength. Not only were these characters not damsels in distress, they were almost superheroines, constantly proving that they had all the same bravery and strength that the boys had

Jordan O’Neill: “Just treat me the same. No better no worse.” - G.I. Jane

By the turn of the millennium, you had characters like Lara Croft, the reboot of Charlie’s Angels, and Kill Bill’s Bride, all of whom were highly skilled, adventurous, strong, sexy heroines who never feel like they need to be saved. In fact, in the case of The Bride, the first time we see her she’s in total distress, shot in the head by her abuser, but in the very next scene, she’s fine. So immediately, we get the sense that she’s almost invulnerable

The irony, though, is that through telling nuanced stories about female distress, we can get a sense of real mental strength. In Room, Joy could be read as a riff on Cinderella – she’s trapped under the control of an evil abuser, and she uses imagination to cope with her trauma and care for the boy who depends on her

And while she’s eventually able to use her intelligence and bravery to escape, what’s even more impressive is the resilience she requires to not give up for the years before that’s possible. She’s also far from invulnerable, even after she’s out of the room. There are points when she’s effectively safe but she remains in distress

Ma: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m supposed to be happy.” - Room

Her strength isn’t in not feeling that pain, but in working through it, and finding new ways to keep going. In fact, if you look closer, a lot of our era’s most compelling female-led stories involve women experiencing a great deal of distress – from the imprisoned women of Orange is the New Black, and the abused handmaids of The Handmaid’s Tale, to the emotional youths of Euphoria, the victimized women of Promising Young Woman, and the privately suffering housewives of Big Little Lies.

Some of these stories contain moments or arcs of women fighting back and even acting like badassess, but plenty of their compelling moments and storylines also involve women dealing with suffering that can’t be easily cured or avenged. I May Destroy You is a story of a woman who’s assaulted and fantasizes about punishing the guy – but she ultimately has to find a way to come to terms with what happened to her without any satisfying payback moment. In shows ranging from Homeland, Sharp Objects, to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, complicated female characters experience distress caused by internal mental health problems, and there’s no external person they can fight to address these issues.

Putting the damsel in distress in a new context can also be powerful. Django Unchained’s Broomhilda is a straight version of the trope, needing to be rescued by her husband Django, but this is a rare example where the damsel isn’t a version of idealized white femininity. Actress Kerry Washington took the part because she believed it was “interesting and important” for a black woman to embody this trope onscreen.

Stephen: “Then why is you crying?”

Broomhilda von Shaft: “You scaring me.” - Django Unchained

Quote “as black women we really weren’t allowed that fantasy. Because of how our men were treated and how our families were torn apart we were never made to believe that our men could protect us and rescue us.”

There’s a real spiritual component to modern stories of inner female strength. In films like Wild, Tracks and Nomadland, the pain of the central female characters leads to powerful individualistic journeys that are about self-sufficiency and looking inward for the courage to keep going.

In today’s music and online culture, we’re also seeing a renaissance of the Sad Girl, who embraces the act of reflecting on the pain and angst we all sometimes feel. As long as we move away from the old-school helpless damsels, we can get a wide array of interesting stories that investigate the psychologies of women in distress. These stories are important because they show us it’s ok to be vulnerable, and it’s ok to ask for help. What makes us really strong is looking within, developing resilience, and finding ways to help each other.

Nancy: “You and your mom, you help each other through, don’t you?” - Room

SOURCES

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Andromeda.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Nov. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Andromeda-Greek-mythology. Accessed 17 July 2022.

Wilson, Morales. “Kerry Washington Talks Django Unchained, Working with Foxx Again, and

Scandal.” Blackfilm, 24 Dec. 2012,

https://www.blackfilm.com/read/2012/12/kerry-washington-talks-django-unchained-jamie-foxx-scandal/. Accessed 2 8 2022.