Posts Tagged ‘damsel in distress’


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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Damsels-in-distress, evil stepmothers, wicked queens, and valiant, nameless princes. If you ever meet someone who has never seen these and other stereotypes, it would be appropriate to ask them (politely) whether they’ve lived under a rock for very long. Most of us are subjected to these at very early ages. We’ve seen them in Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, all of which are more commonly known by their Disney versions, the king of reproducing classic fairy tales to be fed to a modern audience and by fault the king of regurgitating old, undying stereotypes at a new, young audience. Let’s break it down.

The Damsel-in-distress

The damsel needs no introduction. Most of us have been well acquainted with her since childhood when our eyes beheld Disney’s Cinderella (who fell so low she had to be helped by a few incoherent mice). However, broken down to the basics, the damsel is beautiful, innocent, hapless, and most often young and at the mercy of another person, be it a step-mother or someone else. In some stories we really have no other characteristics to go by but that and a good amount of those are the female character’s physical appearance.

The Evil Older Woman

Also, in classic fairy tales such as Cinderella or Snow White the young, innocent creatures play opposite to less attractive-to-haggard, older women who are vain and greedy, but often in a more powerful position and more cunning. Whether they are witches, queens, or step-mothers, they are free of male dominance (although some of them are supposed to be married) and have control over their own lives and choices.

So, what does that say to children? Powerful women are undesirable and wicked? Think about it: how many little girls do you meet who play queen? Girls like to play princesses who are subjugated, but they never play powerful queens. Personally speaking, as children, never did any of my girl friends nor I pretend to be a queen because we thought of them as mean old women, an idea that was certainly strengthened in our minds by Disney, if they did not completely give us the idea. These portrayals also fuel incorrect messages of “good” and “evil” by the way that it is related to physical appearance; the beautiful are good, the ugly are bad.Also, these fairy tales like to pit women against women (or more correctly, girls against women). This supports a societal concept that the U.S. has fueled of women putting each other down, ideas that run strong today in stories recreating (or attempting to recreate) high school mean girls scenarios. Instead of being taught to help and support each other, girls are taught from a very early age to be wary of possible threats from their fellow females.

Cat fights of a previous century.

Prince Charming

Needless to say, the rescuer is always some prince on a white horse (in some cases, literally). Here’s a question: can you remember the names of those Disney princes? Some of them didn’t actually have names such as the prince from Snow White and Cinderella. Both are forever destined to be “Prince Charming,” the nameless and soulless guys with a kingdom and an apparent need to rescue girls they have artificial crushes on. Let’s face it; the so-called “romance” in these fairy tales must be physical attraction. The only other explanation would be that the two lovers knew each other in past lives thus they already have gotten to know each other, but I don’t think that kind of romance scenario was so popular back when these stories were made. Anyway, in the end, the two beautiful young people end up in a bland, unrealistic love.

Disney: Teaching girls to look for the man on the white horse since 1937.

However, it is also important to point out that while the princesses give priority to beauty, the princes impress the idea of masculinity for boys. This deepens harmful traditional stereotypes that restrict people in real life. In Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts Through Disney Princess Play by Karen E. Wohlwend, a study done on young boy and girls is noted, to have found that “girls as well as boys positioned male characters as powerful and female characters as weak, even suicidal, victims.” So, while Disney’s fairy tales are just tales, sweet and innocent, the ideas within them hold more weight in a child’s mind than one might think.

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