Wednesday, September 4, 2013

UndieGirl on Tropes: Damsel in Distress

Hello lonely readers, I want to talk to you to day about a very serious problem plaguing our favourite fictional universes: the damsel in distress. You know the girl she’s beautiful and nice and small animals flock to her when she sings. She’s generally a joy to be around. The problem is that she’s constantly getting herself kidnapped and locked in a tower and/or tied to a train track. This results in an extreme level of manpain and the overpopulation of white male heroes. While manpain driven hero narratives are okay in moderation, in abundance they can be really fricken annoying, not to mention problematic but we’ll get to that first let’s talk about the damsel in distress.

The damsel in distress trope is fairly well known – but in case you’ve been living in space for the last 3000 years here’s the low down. Wikipedia says: “the damsel in distress, or persecuted maiden, is a classic theme in world literature, art, film and video games. She is usually a beautiful young woman placed in a dire predicament by a villain or monster and who requires a hero to achieve her rescue.” Basically she’s the one that gets the ball rolling, she is kidnapped or lost of hurt and they hero must rescue/enact revenge on those that dared to harm her.

There are a lot of things wrong with this trope – it’s often a point of discussion for feminist scholars – but for me the worst part is that this trope is so engrained in our cultural consciousness that you don’t even notice it most of the time.

A female character that is close to the male protagonist – usually a love interest, sister or daughter but occasionally a mother – is taken from him by the villain. This works as a catalyst for the adventure. That sounds familiar right? That’s because you seen and/or read that same story a million times before. It’s employed because it’s so recognizable, it allows the author to bypass the backstory and jump right into the adventure. The audience recognizes the familiar narrative and fills in the blanks. While this use of tropes in this way is actually a useful storytelling device, it also often results in people ignoring and/or dismissing the problematic aspects of the trope… and there are a lot of problematic aspects to the damsel in distress.

The most obvious (or what should be the most obvious) problem with this trope is that it turns female characters into objects. Think about the idea that the damsel is taken from the hero – this presents her as an object, a thing, a belonging that the hero must get back. If you think about it, you could replace the damsel in this situation with an inanimate object, like a laptop and it wouldn’t really affect the narrative. If you think it’s a little silly for someone to go out a dangerous quest to rescue a laptop then you are severely underestimating how much I love my laptop and you’re also proving my point… if a character can be replaced with a laptop then that’s a pretty pointless character.

Beyond the problematic gender power imbalance inherent in this trope, the damsel in distress as catalyst for a hero-driven quest narrative is just bad writing. It’s boring and there is very little substance to it. Like I said, if you can replace a character with an inanimate object (see the Sexy Lamp test) then it’s not only a waste of a character but it also undermines the hero’s emotional journey. If we don’t care about the girl he’s trying to recuse – and the relationship he has with her – then why should we care about the pain he’s experiencing.

Now before you all start yelling about stereotyping I am aware that women that are relegated to the role of damsel can be well-rounded three-dimensional characters but that doesn’t really make the trope any less problematic. We may have progressed a lot since Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were stuck in an unconscious state until the hero rescued them but the damsel in distress is still defined by her lack of agency. She still has to sit around and wait to be rescued.

There is a genderflip version of this trope, which is generally referred to as the distressed dude. The distressed dude has become more visible in recent years – although it’s hardly a new idea – but it doesn’t have the same connotations as the damsel in distress. There’s also the fact that the distressed dude if much more likely to either rescue himself or be rescued by a male character than he is to be rescued by a female character. On the occasion that the distressed dude is rescued by a female character it is often played for laughs. So while it’s nice to know that guys get captured too, the distressed dude is not nearly as progressive as you might expect. 

Due to the prevalence of this trope and increasingly genre savvy audiences, the damsel in distress is often acknowledged and played with in some way. She screams less and snarks more, occasionally she is allowed to help the hero and she (and others) will often refer directly to her damsel status. But these superficial changes and genre commentary don’t actually alter the essential nature of the trope. A damsel who is aware she’s a damsel is still a damsel.

Look I’m not saying that nothing bad should ever happen to female characters, or that they can never be kidnapped or harassed or killed. And I am not saying that if bad things do happen then male characters should just sit around and do nothing. But we need to let go of the idea that in order to give one character heroic agency you need to take it away from another character. Part of the hero’s quest often involves him being captured or placed in a perilous situation of some kind and occasionally they even need a little help to get away. But the difference between the hero and the damsel is that they hero is given the opportunity to get himself out whereas the damsel must wait to be rescued.

This is problematic because it perpetuates the idea that women are inherently victims, which gives the male characters a lot of power over them. The damsel needs the hero because she will literally die without him whereas the hero just wants his laptop back. That’s really not a good message to be sending, let’s just not do that anymore.