Friday, May 24, 2013

Stressing the De-stressing of the Damsel in Distress

I dare you to say that five times fast!

There's an aspect of storytelling that often receives the eye of scrutiny - the Damsel in Distress (also known as the Persecuted Maiden). The name pretty much speaks for itself. Call it a trope or a device, but essentially it's when a young, beautiful woman is taken or captured by a villain or monsters that requires a hero to save her.

Now, I know I've seen this device used repeatedly in my watching of childhood cartoons enough that it pretty much lost its impact, but more importantly, what does this scenario teach? Women in danger can't help themselves? Only men can save them? No wonder this device has been under attack, with fervor, in the last couple of decades.

But here's the thing: I like the Damsel in Distress device, just not in the way that you would first imagine the use of it. It's not like the Dudley Do-Right example above, and it's a far cry from the premise of the famous Super Mario Brothers video games. I'm not the only one who's fed up with Princess Peach's repeated kidnappings either.

In an effort to shift this device, some stories have generated female characters who make males look like puny man-children (think Zena or Wonder Woman). This can work sometimes, but it raises other issues, like removing the character's femininity or further sexualizing them through scantily-clad armor. We now know that female-shaped body armor is more likely to kill its wearer than protect her, too.

This isn't to say that this other-end-of-the-spectrum doesn't have its place in the storytelling realm, but for me, the problem lies more in the character itself, or rather, the way the character is developed. Let me explain this with two different and popular games (games tend to be the most common place where you'll find this device in use).

Meet Ashley Graham from Resident Evil 4. She's 17, the US president's daughter, and you, playing as Leon, find her during your mission. This means you have to help Ashley out of a zombie / virus infected situation while accomplishing your mission. Not an easy task, made harder that Ashley gets into trouble, a lot, and makes things worse for no reason.

I still don't understand why she ran away from Leon ...

In contrast, we have Elizabeth from Bio Shock Infinite, a refreshing example to the Damsel in Distress device. She is quickly making a mark in the gaming community as one of the best non-playable characters for a reason. Sure, you rescue her, but no coddling necessary. She can hold her own, and even help in a fight.

Isn't Princess Leia also a Damsel in Distress? She certainly fits the criteria, and that's how Han feels about it, but the moment she's rescued from her cell, she arms up and shoots at the storm troopers more effectively than Han. I mean, someone has to save their skins. Of course, Luke turns into a Dude in Distress in the garbage ...

What's my favorite scenario, then? Well, I'll tell you that Tangled nailed it for me, a character who doesn't know that she is in distress, or, doesn't know that she has a reason to be. Rapunzel has been incarcerated in a tower her whole life, but she believes it is for her protection, not so she can be exploited. The guy comes along and saves her without knowing it, actually, so he can run off with stolen goods - initially. 

In the end, these characters end up helping each other. That's the trend that's starting to stick lately, one that may last for some time. Why? There's no definitive answer, but I'll take a shot - because it's equal opportunity distress. Regardless of a character's gender, everyone has a problem that causes them distress, and by helping each other out, they eventually overcome their adversaries. This can widen the appeal/market for any story.

My novel that's coming out has such a scenario, but I'll let you discover how this device plays out in October. It won't disappoint.

This isn't the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. The best thing about stories is they can be taken in any direction. Whoever you decide to be in distress, be they a damsel or a dude, it's about what works for you and your audience. I could go on with many more examples, but I need to get ready for CONduit 23. See you there!

I'll be sure to recap the convention on Monday. Promise!

What are your thoughts on the Damsel in Distress device? What's your favorite example? What's your least favorite example?

I'm David, and I sure love the smell of new carpet ...


  1. It depends on how it's handled. I like the way it was portrayed in Tangled as well. I think a strong female character being rescued isn't a bad thing.

  2. Equal opportunity distress...I love it! And I have that in my book too, along with a character who knows the best way to help out that damsel is to let her save herself sometimes. I love Tangled!

  3. Can't wait for October and Damsel in Distress works when used wisely. I said the topic fast five times. Success!

  4. I like the opportunity of equal opportunity distress too. As a mom of a teenage daughter, I'm not sure how I feel about this trend in female characters as sassy, smart-mouthed, don't need anyone role models (I wouldn't like it for my son either, but there is this trend with female characters). I'm not sure I like the idea that being a strong, independent and confident woman comes at a cost to kindness and graciousness. But then again, I suppose my way would make for a boring MC. ;)

  5. Snicker. What about a guy in distress? My current WIP has the girl rescuing the guy. At least at first, then we get to some equal opportunity saving where they have to work together.

  6. I like females who can help themselves, but my favorite and the one that I use in lots of my books are that men and women can be strong in different ways.
    Speaking of Tangled, when my daughter was packing for college last fall she asked where her frying pan was so she'd be safe.

  7. I love strong & powerful females who can take care of business and get things done. I like the idea of a woman rescuing a guy in distress. And, I did try to say it five times and couldn't even say it three times. I did have a little wine with dinner; maybe that's why I got so tongue-tied.

  8. Loved this post:) I love the Damsel in Distress concept, yes I hate female characters who just stay there waiting for the guy to rescue them but even if this happens she should at least give him a hand afterwards, so I aggree with you on the equality thing, I think it's much fun.

  9. I like the idea of equal-opportunity distress! Especially when there is plenty of mishaps along the path of un-distressing themselves. And learning that, while it's good to do what we can for ourselves, leaning on others once in a while isn't a bad thing for anyone, male or female.

  10. I love the Tangled example. I think the problem is when the damsel is useless, weak, or dumb. Leia is my fave damsel because she doesn't hinder her rescuer, but actually contributes toward getting them out of their situation.

    Great post, David!

  11. This is my first time visiting your blog, and I loved this post. It reminded me of Anita Sarkeesian's series on Damsels in Distress in video games. If you haven't seen it, it's a bit of an investment time-wise, but well worth it. (

    Your take on the trope hits on some good points too; DIDs aren't just a feminist issue as Anita points out, but they are casualties of weak story-telling. The most compelling characters can (or try to) contribute to their own rescue, whether they are men or women. Tangled knocked it out of the park in this sense.