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?
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)?
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.