Dystropia: How The Damsel in Distress Has Evolved
Somewhere situated between Easter Island and Papua New Guinea, perfectly pinned on a straight line between the Great Pyramid and the Nazca Lines lies the Isle of Dystropia, the place where every cliché and worn-out convention sticks out like rubble in the sand. Pawing through the debris, you'll find the trope that may just make or break your story. Each installment, we'll explore a different literary platitude, examining it for its various strengths and weaknesses. Set sail for Dystropia, where you might just learn something about your writing and yourself.
Ah, the Damsel in Distress. How ageless this trope, the image of the hardly-dressed lass tethered to a boulder whilst Leviathan menaces over her, his tongue flickering fire through his jagged teeth. But hark! Herein the knight-errant draws nigh to save the day!
As you can imagine, how this age-old story arc relates today is largely linked to feminism and how women in fiction are portrayed in general. This trope is not just tired, sometimes it can be downright insulting, not only to your characters, but to your audience. Explore the history of this cliché and see where it shines and where it blows smoke.
When To Steer Clear
Let’s first get some unfortunate implications out of the way. While rarely (if ever) touched on, being locked in a dungeon by a mad scientist (or whoever) heavily suggests rape. What else is she doing there, if not to satisfy the perversions of an evil villain? Even if the fair (often virginal) maiden is used merely as bait to attract the hero, you gotta ask what Dr. Evil is doing with his captive in the meantime. Not to mention, every happy ending of this sort results in a kind of forced marriage. You can even say something about some of the monsters that kidnap young ladies – aren’t dragon necks a little phallic? What’s that about?
But the most unfortunate implication of the Damsel in Distress is women are inherently weak and their only strength is their beauty. Just look back to one of the trope’s earliest examples, the Greek myth where Andromeda is chained to a rock to be devoured by Poseidon’s sea monster pet, Cetus. In the nick of time, she’s rescued by Perseus, fresh returned from decapitating Medusa, who proceeds to break every rule in ecology and slays the weird sea beast. Naturally, after this, the mythological couple get hitched.
But what terrible crime did Andromeda commit to deserve becoming a monster meal? Her mother Cassiopeia had merely boasted that she was more beautiful than Poseidon’s daughters, the Nereids. Even the once-beautiful Medusa got the short end of the stick in this tale – Poseidon rapes her, which enrages Athena, so she gives the Gorgon sister her hideous appearance, then Athena later helps Perseus murder her. Athena was kind of a bitch.
Snow White, Rapunzel, Saint George and the Dragon, Sleeping Beauty and even Guinevere are all classic examples of the same pathetic characters that are apprehended and have no say in their destiny, even when they are inevitably rescued by a male figure.
The Damsel in Distress trope is important because it fulfills the “need” in the classic three-act story arc. You know, the problem or conflict or “why the heck are we reading this” thing. It’s essential to have conflict in your fiction, but the problem with the Damsel is she could just as easily be replaced with a mythical object. St. George could just as easily slaughter the dragon to rescue the Holy Grail as he could his fair maiden. And if you didn’t realize, reducing your characters to objects is two-dimensional hack writing.
So is using a so-called “distress ball,” or any scenario where you make your characters act inexplicably moronic in order to be captured. For example, when your (nearly always female) character decides to investigate on her own or refuses to listen to the Almighty Hero’s advice to “stay here.” Sure, this serves your plot well, requiring another fancy rescue, but it grinds against common sense and sometimes undermines your characterization. It also implies that women can’t do anything on their own. It goes without saying, this is lazy writing.
Where To Set Your Sights
Historically, women were in distress throughout the Middle Ages, but in a different way. They were generally given little freedom or rights and raised to be frail and pathetic (which puts forward the nature versus nurture argument). So if you’re writing a fantasy fiction piece that takes place during the Middle Ages, it might be strange if you employ some heavy-handed historical revisionism. Just something to keep in mind.
Thankfully, modern fiction has evolved. It’s not uncommon for a female lead to be the one doing the ass kicking, often rescuing a dude in distress (even if the dude is only captured to show how cool he is at escaping himself). You have your Buffys, your Beatrix Kiddos, your Éowyns. These are all good ways to show female characters can hold their own.
But if you don’t want to ruin her, don’t over-sexualize her, lest you end up with another Lara Croft. All too common in video games and comic books, having a female hero that’s nothing but T&A will derail what you’re trying to accomplish.
And what are you trying to accomplish? How do you ride that delicate line between strong, female leads and creating conflict or rescue situations? I would avoid the whole “tied to the train tracks” scenario altogether, or at least bury it with clever dressing. You can subvert it, putting a male in peril to be rescued by a girl or, even better, make a rescue redundant, i.e. the captured has already knocked out all the guards and freed herself before help arrives. This earns her the title of Badass Damsel.
Remember to show and not tell. If your heroine is all talk and no walk, you’re still not doing it right. And you can tell if your action girl is faking it if her performance is lacking or she’s overvalued. If she’s kicking ass and taking names, but is suddenly caught and proven to be a weakling, she’s known as a Faux Action Girl.
Other effective subversions include the Decoy Damsel (she wasn’t really in jeopardy; she’s really the mastermind and now the hero is trapped!) or the deliberately distressed damsel, who gets nabbed because she’s into it, for whatever reason.
Sloppy writing just throws the elements together in the same order as a thousand times before. Giving your damsels more of an edge in this way will make for much more impactful storytelling.
Out In The Real World
Here’s a bizarre anecdote: when I was in First Grade, I had a crush on a girl, but had no idea how to let her know. I daydreamed in class, during lunch, and especially during fire drills, of setting the school on fire so I could rescue her from the flames. Thankfully, I never did become a youthful arsonist, but the image stuck with me all these years.
I think a lot of men, consciously or not, want to rescue a woman, be their savior, be needed. That’s fine, but that attitude can do exactly what the Damsel in Distress trope does, turning a woman into an object to be won. It can neglect her needs and leads to unrealistic expectations. Just remember that real life doesn’t follow the three-act story arc. Somehow, despite being aware that Hollywood is fiction, we still allow ourselves to get trapped in these fictionalized ideals of what a relationship should be. Then we act surprised when a month-long fling doesn’t turn out so well. Like our stories, we need to be conscious of how we’re constructing the timeline of our own lives if we want to have a successful ending.
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