Archive for February, 2012


Image belongs to Disney

I think it’s safe to say we all have heard the term “damsel in distress” at some point. The term is thrown around all the time and if you’ve read any of my blogs focusing on fiction, you’ll have bumped into it more than once. This character was such a damsel in distress, that character was great because she was so much more than a damsel-in-distress, etc. But what makes a character a damsel in distress? While I was throwing it around so much I realized it’s not always clear to people. On its most basic level, it simple stands for a woman in trouble, but where is the line  between an overworked and harmful stereotype and a capable female character who is simply human and needs help every once and awhile? Characters I deem a damsel in distress are, more often than not, much more capable than older, classic damsels in distress like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White who have become the face of the term.

So, let’s start the discussion. We’ll begin by saying a female character has been kidnapped in some story we’re reading. Here are the big questions I ask myself to decide whether she’s a damsel in distress or a fallible human in need of assistance;

 1. What is her role outside of this rescue? Is she dynamic in the story or stationary?  

Images belong to Nintendo

If a female character exists within the plot as only an object of desire, a prize to be won, and/or does not play an active part in the plot, there’s a major problem. These are the characters that stand on the side lines while stuff happens and others take action. Sometimes, this type is around in the story just to make a male character look good. This obviously applies to some of the worst examples of female characters like those from fairy tales, but many modern works of fiction also sport such types. Look at movies like the Spider-Man trilogy with female characters like Mary Jane who play the hero’s love interest and damsel in distress. While she is a character that was originally created in the 60’s, even in these movies made in the 200o’s Mary Jane remained in this limited role. I’ve also noticed a number of modern female characters that start of capable often have their roles decreased over the course of a story and are reduced into damsels in distress. This doesn’t apply to all damsels in distress, but certainly can.

2.  Does she need help or does she need rescuing (saving)?

Image belongs to Nintendo

There is no problem with a female character needing help nor does it matter if she receives help from a man or another woman.    The distinction between needing help and needing rescue lies here; if a female character’s time of crisis become a means to a male character’s glory a.k.a., the hero is rewarded with a girl, glory, or some prize for his valiant efforts, it’s a rescue. The rescue is often dwelled upon and the male rescuer showered with praise. Rescues emphasize the female character’s helplessness in an effort to make the male rescuer look that much more heroic for saving her from a dire situation.

There you go! The two big questions. If you’re still unclear after this (or just for fun), daydream a little and try switching roles–imagine the female in question as a male and the rescuer as female–to test whether the character in question is reasonable or a damsel in distress. Since we’re so used to seeing male characters in trouble who receive help (not rescue) it should be easy to see which situations are overblown and which are between equals.

It’s very easy to look back on the past and see the stereotypes that existed–heck, it’s like spotting a firework shot off in the middle of the night out in the country. However, it can be challenging at times to spot newer, more subtle renditions. After protest and complaints, societies tone down these stereotypes, but these issues don’t just disappear over night. So, analyze fiction and see if you can spot these underlining characteristics of a damsel in distress in some modern female characters.

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The Super Bowl. It comes only once a year, but when it arrives it’s the talk of the country. Like a hurricane coming, we get hyped and ready for its landfall, shut ourselves in a room with a TV for several hours when it does, and even after it’s passed, people talk, talk, talk all about the experience (or in some cases like myself, grab the only lifesaver (a.k.a. the only other show on at the same time that was new–Downton Abbey) in sight and hold on for dear life until the storm passes). Love it or hate it, the Super Bowl is a swirl of two things as big as America itself: football and commercials.

America loves football and companies pumping out commercials love our money  us and the Super Bowl just isn’t the Super Bowl without a good helping of both. While football players get in shape for the big game, companies pull out the stops, struggling to outdo the rest with the most humorous commercial that will stick in the minds of viewers like the cheese from those stuffed crusts will stick in a person’s arteries. But while some managed to pull off a good balance of humor mixed with consumerism, others lacked the creativity and resorted to using that old and slightly moldy ingredient from the back of the pantry: cheap sex and stereotypes. So, after the storm of the Super Bowl had passed and the end credits of Downton Abbey rolled, I booted up the old computer and gathered up the four worst Super Bowl commercials of 2012 (plus my own snazzy titles).

#4: Doritos’ “The Neanderthal”

Ah, the good old trend of making man’s two loves food and sex while giving him the I.Q. of a peacock. The thing about commercials like these is that they manage to insult their apparent target audience (men) while also insulting women. Like some of those rare commercials when Hardee’s takes a break from in-your-face sex and objectifying women, Dortitos gives us a commercial where the man acts like he has a very limited capacity for thinking and can only focus on two things at a time. In this case, food and TV or food and sex. At the same time, Doritos manages to insert a lustful and naked woman in a commercial that has absolutely nothing to do with that; at least companies like Victoria’s Secret have an excuse for the content of their commercials.

#3: Kia’s “Boys Like Cars and Sex, Girls Like Princes on White Horses” (alternative title: “We couldn’t get more stereotypical if we tried”)

Kia went all out with the stereotypes in this lovely little piece. In one commercial they throw several overused and limiting stereotypes around. While the woman dreams of pretty pastures and a beautiful prince on a white horse (I was already gagging at this point), the MAN of this commercial dreams about MANLY things like hot women in skimpy outfits, hot cars, racing, rock music tributes, more hot women, and other MANLY things. Did I mention how manly it was? He even steals his girlfriend/wife back from that prince just to show us how awesome he is. Now if only they could have inserted a man who was sweating profusely. Judging from this commercial, it looks like Kia thinks women don’t buy cars. It’s like they’re living in a twilight zone where the men of the household control all the money, therefore making it impossible for women to buy cars or anything without their husbands permission. …Oh wait. There was a time like that decades ago! Come back to 2012, Kia.

#2: GoDaddy’s “What The Heck Do We Actually Sell?” 

Here’s my question about GoDaddy: after watching that commercial, what do you think GoDaddy sells? My impression is they sell blondes and brunettes, but it’s possible they have redheads, too. Seriously, this commercial would be perfect if GoDaddy were a website for a brothel (like Craigslist) or porn, but once again, this is a company that has nothing to do with scantily clad women. In fact, GoDaddy is just an Internet domain registrar. (I had to google that to solve that mystery.) It could be that GoDaddy brings in a lot of hits on their site by making these porn star commercials, but a good portion of those are probably now-ticked off porn-oholics who found out there’s no porn on GoDaddy. Just think of all those nice, porn-addicted costumers you’re selling short, GoDaddy.

#1: Teleflora’s “How To Take All The Romance Out of Valentine’s Day in 30 seconds” 

Out of these four very annoying commercials, Teleflora’s takes the cake. Oddly enough, this is the only one that sells anything that could be even remotely related to sex, but it was by far the worst for me. As you probably noticed, each one of these ads seem to direct the ad to men, but this one is also the only commercial where this actually makes sense; Valentine’s Day is coming up so, it makes sense that Teleflora–a company that sells flowers–would be directing this at men. Unfortunately, while this is the one commercial where these elements made sense, it crashed and burned with a horrific boom. Why should a guy buy flowers for his love? It’s not because he loves her, not because he wants to make her happy, but for the pay off. After Teleflora gives everyone a chance to drool over the sexy woman getting dressed for the majority of the ad, we finally hear her speak. What does she say? Speaking in a condescending drawl to spell things out for guys she obviously thinks won’t understand unless she speaks slowly, she says you give a girl something and you get sex back. Wham! Romance just took a sucker punch to the gut from Business! The people behind Teleflora’s ads need to get a new job because if they’re able to suck the love out of Valentine’s Day and flowers and make a day about appreciating the man/woman you love sound like prostitution, they’ve got serious psychological issues.

On a final note, I’d just like to remind all of these companies that women watch football, too. They’re pretty forgetful after all.

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Some spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender episode 18 season 1!

Last week I discussed two characters–Sokka and Katara–from Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender who gave viewers some feminist/sexist scenarios in the beginning of the first season. In the end, while Sokka threw around phrases like “girls are better at domestics than guys” and “leave it to a girl to mess things up,” he wasn’t what I’d call a serious sexist–rather, he was just naive.  However, toward the end of the first season there is a full-blown sexist introduced. If you’re asking yourself “What the heck is she talking about,” hopefully the comparison I’m about to give you will explain.


So, I’m going to give you a little background that’s vital to the discussion. After Sokka and Katara find the long-lost Avatar, Aang, Katara begins her journey with him for two reasons: 1) Katara is perhaps Aang’s biggest supporter in the beginning and wants to help him–the Avatar–who could bring balance to her war-torn world, and 2) She wants to master the skill of waterbending. (For those of you who don’t know, “bending” is a skill that enables the “bender” to manipulate one of the four elements–water, fire, earth, or air. Each type of bending is inspired by a type of real martial art so, when one seeks to master bending, it’s like mastering a martial art with the addition of magic.) Katara works hard on her own to improve her skills, but she wants to truly learn and master it. Since no other waterbenders exist in her tribe, she’s forced to look elsewhere for a teacher. Luckily, Aang must master waterbending as well, their goals coincide. These two motivations are important to what’s about to happen, especially the latter.

At the end of the season, Katara and her friends at last reach another tribe where they should have no problems finding a master to teach them, the Northern Water Tribe. This is the sister tribe to Sokka and Katara’s, but it’s a very different society; while their tribe has been badly battered by the war, reducing the tribe to a small group who live in tents, the Northern Water Tribe has managed to elude much damage from the war and is a thriving city complete with fortification, canals, and other grand structures. As the kids will find out, the look of the society isn’t the only thing that’s different from their tribe.

Left: Southern Tribe/ Right: Northern Tribe

Master Pakku

Aang finds a skilled waterbending master in the tribe by the name of Pakku who agrees to teach both Aang and his friend. But when it is revealed to Pakku that this friend is female (Katara), he flat-out refuses to teach her no matter what she says or does and without even seeing what she can do. It’s a bombshell to Katara. In Pakku’s society, it’s not just that women don’t learn to bend, but that they aren’t allowed to. Remember, bending is essentially a martial art so, basically this society doesn’t let women learn to fight. Rather than learn to fight, girls like Katara who have the skill to bend are sent to learn how to heal. Thus, Katara is sent off to the healing hut with all the other women where, as Pakku says, she belongs. Once again, this show uses infamous cuts against women to portray sexism. Perhaps some people may find it cheesy to use such old phrases like that, but for me those are very telling statements that show viewers just how old-fashioned Pakku and his society are in their views of a woman’s role. While Sokka and Katara’s tribe may have had a traditional breakdown of jobs for men and women (as I mentioned in my last post), their tribe didn’t have the rigid traditions and societal rules that bind the people of the Northern Water Tribe. Master Pakku has grown up and grown old in this setting, creating a more deeply rooted sexist belief in him. Comparatively, Sokka is much younger when his beliefs are challenged and again, his were developed more from immaturity and naivety rather than having been pounded with the idea ever since he was born.

After coming such a long way to learn, Katara is frustrated, but isn’t about to let customs stop her. Her undeterred desire to learn to bend and determination not to let silly customs stop her eventually leads her to trouble within the society. When she’s asked to apologize to Master Pakku for disrespecting his customs, her patience snaps and she tells him off, even challenging him to a fight to the shock of everyone. She knows she can’t win the fight, but she has something to prove. What ensues is one of my favorite moments where Katara’s pure determination and raw talent is pitted against Pakku’s stubborn ways and seasoned skill. Katara’s reactions to the injustice being done to her are excellent and very satisfying, making this episode was one of my absolute favorites. Honestly, for every scene I come across in fiction where I’m willing a female character to do something  only to be disappointed for the umpteenth time (you know, like how you keep telling the heroes/heroines in scary movies not to go check on that noise in the basement?), I should just pop this episode in, sit back, and enjoy. Because unlike damsels-in-distress and other stereotypes, seeing a female character stand up for herself and take action on her own will never get old. For those of you who want to see this scene play out for themselves, here’s a link to the second half of the episode which includes the scene. (Sorry! It’s the best I could do since all the other videos out there are dubbed over with mismatched music.)


So, getting back to the two guys I’ve been talking about, while Sokka is able to open his eyes and learn once his ideas of men and women are challenged, Master Pakku is not willing to accept something that challenges his long-held belief system. In the end, he does reconsider his beliefs, but it takes a lot more effort to do so. For those of you who feel like it’s not very realistic that one girl could change this stubborn man’s beliefs, you would be right. That’s why the Avatar: The Last Airbender doesn’t do that. The fact is that all of Katara’s efforts are not what gets him to reconsider, but other circumstances lead him to realize his mistake.

Avatar: The Last Airbender managed to present the issue well without villianizing people or diluting the issue down. All the scenarios are classic–girls can’t fight, being told to swallow their pride, etc.–and that played out affectively. They’re classic for a reason as these beliefs and scenarios go way back in history and women had to make a huge effort to debase them. Some people still believe these old, washed-up ideas. It’s very satisfying see Katara and other female characters from the show hold strong against sexism, not allowing others to knock them down. I applaud the people behind Avatar: The Last Airbender who weren’t afraid to tackle the issue and did so in a way that really conveyed the emotions and thought processes of those on both sides well. And while sexism is really only brought up in the first season, there are plenty of empowering moments for the show’s female characters. As the creators said in a commentary for an episode in which another great female character is introduced, they don’t make “token” female characters; they create female characters who are vital to the story. “In many cases, [the girls] kick more butt than the guys do.” admitted one of the co-creators of the show (commentary for episode 6 season 2).

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