An Introduction to Damsels in Distress
The damsel in distress is one of the oldest and most pervasive clichés in fiction and also one of the most reviled. So wide is the knowledge that damsels in distress are bad writing (or the meta-knowledge that other people think so) that it’s difficult to find articles that clearly, concisely explain why. There is no seminal essay challenging damsels in distress, the way there is with the manic pixie dream girl or the Smurfette principle. As a result, damsels in distress can feel like an empty taboo: a serviceable, time-honored plot device that everyone has decided to rally against for no real reason.
But the objections to damsels in distress are anything but empty. It’s both a hackneyed symptom of lazy writing and a harmful idea rooted in old-fashioned misogyny. This introductory post aims to lay out the serious problems with damsels in distress and why they rightfully belong on the literary scrap heap.
Defining the term
Conversations about damsels in distress often get derailed by arguments about whether a particular character falls into that category or not. These arguments are smokescreens; if you’re splitting hairs about what counts as helpless, the character is at the very least swimming in the same sea of toxic gender dynamics as the damsel in distress. In the interests of avoiding such a derail, I’ll define the term as specifically as possible.
A damsel in distress is a female character who gets kidnapped or placed in a perilous situation by a villain in order to motivate a male protagonist.
A damsel is almost always a loved one of the male protagonist, usually a love interest but sometimes a daughter, other relative, or friend. While she may have any number of skills or personality traits and may seem very capable in other scenes (see myth #1), she typically has no role in advancing the plot beyond motivating the male hero to save her, and her competence evaporates or proves useless in the scenes where she’s in danger. In plot terms, she’s essentially an inanimate object who could be replaced with any person or thing the protagonist cares about.
The villain or monster who kidnaps her is essentially always male. Sometimes there’s sexual violence or the threat thereof. In darker works, the villain may outright kill the damsel to further increase the hero’s motivation, overlapping with women in refrigerators. The damsel might be kidnapped abruptly while minding her own business, but often endangers herself due to her own stupidity; many damsels in distress are portrayed, intentionally or not, as vapid, useless women who can’t take care of themselves. Despite a modern push for more complex-seeming damsels, they are still often flat, one-dimensional characters who fall into various unflattering female stereotypes.
However, a character needn’t have any of these attendant traits in order to be a damsel in distress. She can be a complex, capable person who directly drives the plot in other scenes, but if she gets kidnapped and the male protagonist must save her, she becomes a damsel in distress.
Male variants do exist, but they’re vanishingly rare in comparison and they usually play out extremely differently. See myth #2.
What’s the problem?
In the first place, it’s the cliché to end all clichés. Even the damsels get sick of it sometimes.
According to a lot of people, the problem ends there. Damsels in distress are bad because they’re overused and usually prop up lazy writing, and because the damsels themselves are often one-dimensional characters with no narrative purpose except to be kidnapped. But if the love interest is complex and has an important role in the story, then it’s perfectly fine for her to get kidnapped and rescued by the male hero.
This view fails for two reasons. First, it’s essentially a meaningless metric. No one thinks they’re writing cardboard characters in a hackneyed plot, so literally everyone will respond with “My love interest is three-dimensional and important, so I don’t need to change anything.” At most, they’ll think they need to pile a few more scenes or traits onto her and then the problematic scene will become okay. This is how Hollywood continues to crank out cliché after cliché: When people say “Stop doing this,” they hear “Keep doing this, but make it look slightly different.” (See myth #4.)
Second, the problems with damsels in distress run far deeper than overuse and clumsy use. Our society is saturated with a stew of misogynistic attitudes. In 2015, women made up only 1/3 of speaking roles in movies, and just 22% of protagonists. Women are still viewed as less important and less capable and often treated as accessories to the men in their lives, regardless of their accomplishments. Successful women who take charge of their own lives are widely disliked for being bossy and emasculating. These aren’t outmoded ideas from the 1950s, but modern stereotypes that have real effects on women’s lives (see myth #3).
When you render your female character helpless so that a male character can rescue her, no matter how well-written or complex she is, you’re reinforcing all those harmful ideas. In some ways, it’s even worse when the character is otherwise interesting and capable. It reinforces the idea that, no matter what they accomplish, women will always be plot objects that exist to motivate the real heroes: the men.
The gendered asymmetry becomes undeniable if you gender flip any well-known damsel in distress. A man who doesn’t have any role in the plot except to get rescued feels underwritten and implausible and leaves the audience constantly expecting him to show more competence. In fact, in many works, the male lead and the female love interest face essentially the same situation (for instance, both entering the villain’s lair to confront the villain), but the female character fails and gets captured, while the male character succeeds and rescues her.
Our culture is strongly resistant to change, especially change regarding social roles, so criticism of the damsel in distress has been quickly met with a backlash from hegemonic voices who insist there’s no problem and no need for change. A lot of this backlash comes from, or is closely connected to, alt-right communities like GamerGate and the Sad Puppies who make no bones about their desire to put women in their place, but nevertheless it’s been successful at muddying the waters and propagating misinformation about gender dynamics in fiction. So I’ll take a moment here to debunk some of the most common myths about damsels in distress.
Myth #1: She’s not a damsel if she knows how to fight.
While the classic image of the damsel in distress is a screaming, fainting princess who doesn’t do anything except fall in love with the hero (and there are still plenty of examples of that type), the basic principle is plot agency, not personality. In the wake of Princess Leia, one of the most common types of damsel is the sassy warrior princess who knows kung fu and constantly talks back to the hero.
Another common misconception is that, if she has any moment of competence in the story, she can’t be a damsel in distress. Many recent works try to justify otherwise by-the-book damsels in distress by having them hit or throw something at the villain to distract him at a key moment in the final fight, allowing the hero to get the upper hand. Sometimes she even takes out her captors (lesser mooks, never the main villain) and only needs to be picked up. But, and this is the key point, the plot still follows the male character’s quest to save her.
All of this is akin to putting up different drapes and saying you have a new house. The window dressing might have changed, but the basic character role is the same: a plot football whose purpose in the story is to be rescued. She’s just a plot football with a sword now.
A true aversion is a scene where a woman gets captured in the course of advancing the plot herself, rather than as a secondary character in a plotline driven by a male character. She both gets into and out of the trouble on her own without involving a male hero at all, just as a man would be expected to, and the story follows her.
Myth #2: I can name a male damsel in distress, so it isn’t sexist.
This argument is false for three reasons. First, it misses the forest for the trees. Naming one male damsel doesn’t cancel out the hundreds and hundreds of female damsels. No one can tenably claim that male characters get damseled equally often. There’s a reason the cliché has a gendered name.
Second, your example may not actually be equivalent. When a male character get kidnapped, he’s usually treated with more agency. He’s less likely to be a love interest, more likely to be a point-of-view character, more likely to escape on his own, and more likely to actively advance the plot in other scenes. In other cases, the gender swap is played for laughs, the joke being that it’s funny to see a man being weak and helpless when we all know that in reality, it’s women who are weak and helpless.
Third, even if the male character is a true, bona fide damsel in distress, the cliché isn’t truly fair because the world we live in isn’t truly fair. Portraying a woman being kidnapped and getting rescued reinforces the pervasive view that women are useless and dependent on men; portraying a man the same way doesn’t. Which brings us to the third myth.
Myth #3: It doesn’t hurt anyone.
It’s just a story, right? You’re not actually locking women in towers, and just because you enjoy stories where strong, powerful men save helpless, beautiful women doesn’t force women to act weak and useless in real life.
But stories affect real life. Just about any young girl can relate to the disappointment of play-acting your favorite show or movie and being forced to once again play the girl character and sit in the corner waiting to be rescued by the boys. What we see modeled for us, especially as children, shapes what we understand as possible, and that affects both how we ourselves behave and how we view those around us. The idea that women need men to protect them is so pervasive that the army is only opening its final positions to women this year. The damsel in distress cliché reinforce the real-world attitude that women belong at home while men are the ones who should be out accomplishing things.
It harms men, too. Setting up men protecting women as the natural order of things (which you do, whether you intend to or not, when you show heroes behaving that way) places a heavy burden on men who feel pressured into a role they can’t or don’t want to fill due to disability, social position, or simple lack of inclination.
Myth #4: Other people do it, so I should be able to.
New examples of damsels in distress spring up every year in high-profile works like Batman V Superman and Deadpool. Maybe you look at these and feel that, if they were allowed to use damsels in distress, you should be able to as well. Or maybe you in all innocence wrote a story about a damsel in distress because that’s what you saw modeled in the media you consume, and now you don’t see why you should have to revise a perfectly good story.
But the ubiquity of damsels in distress is precisely the problem: Our society doesn’t value women, so it continues to make stories that portray us in harmful ways, and it doesn’t value women’s voices, so women are naysayed or simply ignored when we point out the problem.
You probably could get away with a damsel in distress in your story, just like all those high-profile works. But you shouldn’t do things that harm people just because no one will stop you. You’re better than that, and your readers deserve better, too.
Plus, you know, it’s a cliché.
Images are from King Kong (1933), Super Mario 3D Land, Spider-Man (2003), the Rocket Raccoon Free Comic Book Day 2014 comic, Disney’s Enchanted, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Deadpool.