Troublesome Tropes:  The Damsel in Distress

Troublesome Tropes: The Damsel in Distress

Alright everyone, it’s February. Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, and couples everywhere will soon be buying each other chocolates and roses to celebrate the execution of an ancient martyr. Well, I figured I’d celebrate Valentine’s Day in my own way while at the same time discussing a common trend in in media that I find to be… well… troublesome.

A Bit of History

I’m not the first person to take a bite out of the damsel in distress trope and I’m probably not even the most qualified. Growing up I LOVED damsel in distress stories. As a nerd with all of two regular friends it let me live in a fantasy world where I was a badass, which I still pretend to be, and had a girlfriend, which is a thing that I have long since given up on. Rescuing Marian from the Shadow Warriors in Double Dragon was great because then she’d come and kiss you, which is awesome even though at the time I was also pretty sure she had cooties.

DD End

And you get to see her butt!


Now the world and I are twenty years older, but I do not believe that the trope has evolved much. Now, I get that when I was a kid video games were aimed at boys because girls were too busy with their Easy Bake ovens and Barbie dolls and other toys that I kind of wanted to play with, so It makes sense that all of our protagonists were dudes out to rescue our imaginary girlfriends. Also, with limited time to set up their story there wasn’t much room to develop the main character, much less any supporting cast. This meant that Peach, Marian, Pauline, Zelda, and ninety percent (an estimate and potential hyperbole, not the result of vast quantitative research) of the female cast of early video games could have effectively been replaced by a briefcase (or an elephant) and provided the same contribution to the game. Hell, as a kid I was pretty sure Zelda was the dude in green and he was just collecting triangles, because I got a used copy without the instruction manual.

Wait a second though, that was classic video games and to be honest newer media is a lot more complex. It would be easy to find some examples and say “See! Women have two roles in games! Motivational corpse and briefcase for retrieval!” The thing is, I don’t think that just the presence of the damsel in distress storyline is enough reason to write off a game or to cry foul. That’s also just not the point of the article.

The point of this article is to examine the trope itself, to discuss how it can be troublesome and how it can tell good stories. So the questions I would ask you to keep in mind while reading this is not “Is this a case of intentional sexism.” The question would ask you to keep in mind is “Is this trope used for good storytelling.” Because look, my favorite movie is a damsel in distress story, but the plot device of Princess Buttercup’s kidnapping set the stage not only for Westley’s adventure but for the growth of Buttercup, Fezzik, Inigo, and Count Rugen, who finally found peace over the Spaniard he murdered so many years ago.

Pictured: Closure

Pictured: Closure

The Actual Problems

So let’s talk about the trope and why it can be problematic. The first issue is that it can be a lazy storytelling method. You need a reason for the hero to kill the bad guys, so you have the bad guys take away his girlfriend/daughter/sexy lamp. This can lead to a very flat story with a male lead who has two character traits, badass and protective, and a female lead whose only character trait is victim. Still, given enough time, stories that start out like this can become interesting. Princess Zelda, one of the iconic damsels in distress in video games, is now a wise, intelligent and capable leader even if she is also constantly being kidnapped. She also gets a lot more character development than Link has in any medium other than the Nintendo Power comic for A Link to the Past.

The other problem is that sometimes distress is forced in on an otherwise powerful female character, which not only ends up making no sense but also seriously reducing the female character’s significance. To be clear, I’m not talking about every time a female character gets captured. I’m talking about a female character becoming inexplicably useless so that the hero can have someone to rescue. Remember the Mortal Kombat live action film? Remember Sonya Blade being a badass special forces commando and killing Kano with a scissor-kick neck-snap? Then remember when, at the end of the film, Shang Tsung grabbed her by the bicep and she immediately lost all capacity to defend herself or even struggle? What was particularly weird about this is that not only was she reduced to crying for help, but she cried for it from Liu Kang. Why was this weird? Well, even though he was the hero, it had been Johnny Cage that she had been building a connection with over the course of the film, but since it was Liu Kang who was going to fight the bad guy it was him that she had to cry for.

And Yes, It’s Also Kind of Sexist

Alright, I know I promised that this wasn’t what the article was about so I’m not going to focus too heavily on this.  Why not?  Because everyone has.  Honestly, if you haven’t figured out right now that consistently portraying women as helpless every time the hero needs someone to save is kind of sexist, we’ve kind of got a problem.

And also, yes, it can be troublesome for feminist reasons. What do I mean by that? Well, the damsel in distress has been the primary role of female characters in media for a long time. At best, this just means an over-representation of women as week and constantly in need of rescuing.  At it’s very worst, this results in the female character being a prop or prize to motivate a male character.  Look at the arcade classic Caveman Ninja, also known as Joe and Mac.  While I thoroughly enjoy the game (the gameplay is, in fact, pretty solid for its time), the plot today would be so regressive that people might see the caveman setting as an in-joke.  Hell, at least Marian was Billy Lee’s girlfriend, well, maybe.  In the arcade version the two brother’s murdered each  other over her affection at the end, and because beating people up always makes girls like you she would always smooch the winner.

My point here is, if any character has so little active contribution to the plot that they could be replaced by a sexy lamp or suitcase as most distressed characters, especially the damsels, have then you’re basically saying that this character is only human and female because nothing motivates a man more than a pair of breasts.  And as a man, I find THAT offensive.

On that note though, to my fellow feminists, can we please stop calling this “damseling?”  There’s already a verb in the trope, it’s “distress,” as in “distressed” or “put in distress.”  Honestly, calling the trope “damseling” is kind of sexist because it implies that a character being captures or rendered weak and helpless makes them female.  I don’t know if Anita Sarkeesian popularized that term or if people were using it beforehand, but it is at best incorrect grammar and at worst loaded language.

Of course, it’s really up to the consumer to determine if the current representation of women in media is problematic to them, and unfortunately I do not believe that I have consumed enough modern entertainment to make a case on the current state of this trope.

The Other Side

So are there good things that can come out of this trope? Well, if it’s used right then sure. Being exposed to danger, or even captured, can be a strong source of character development whether they’re capable of freeing themselves or not. In Chrono Trigger for the SNES, the protagonist Crono is captured at one point and while there is a method to free yourself, Crono’s friend Lucca eventually comes to his rescue if you do not pull it off in time. Even if you do, she’s well on her way and shows up part way through the escape. In the same game there is a point where the character Marle needs to be rescued, and the experience of having been put in distress is used to grow the character.

There are plenty of ways that any trope can be used to improve a story. There are also ways that any tropes can be used to create a cheap backdrop against which action happens. That second one isn’t always bad though. I mean, I liked Taken as much as the next person, but it’s not a story I’d care to watch too many times no matter how cool Liam Neeson is.

Anyway, Happy Valentine’s Day guys. I’m off to beat people up until a girl falls in love with me.

  • Zump

    I have a question regarding Lunar Silver Star Story. The whole game is about saving the main character’s love interest, but there’s one part that irks me. About 2/3rds of the way through the game, there’s a dungeon where both the girls in your party (your white mage and better black mage respectively) are rendered ill by a magical song and have to be left behind in a nearby village while the guys brave the dungeon and stop the source of the songs. But before and after this incident, the girls are shown to be pro-active, brave, steadfast, independent, possessing minimal emotional problems, and never get captured/kidnapped. The white mage actually gets a nice damsel-out-of-distress moment later on when she breaks herself and said black mage out of one of the villains’ traps and gets away, and the black mage grows into a capable leader of a magical kingdom by the end of the game. They’re even recognized as being every bit as heroic as their male counterparts by the end of the game.

    So I guess my question is, are they now categorized as damsels-in-distress/weak female characters and nothing but simply because of one incident in which they couldn’t help themselves, or are they still positive female characters?

    • I don’t think a game has to be either perfectly feminist or perfectly horrible. Is it problematic that this song conveniently knocks out only the women and forces them to be damsels? Yes. Does that stop them from being interesting and strong characters in other parts of the game? No. The question to ask is why this plot took out only female characters? Is it just because they were the mages? Why do we always make women the mages? It’s a good scenario to spark discussion and deeper thought about our tropes and tendancies as writers in the fantasy genre.

      • Zump

        Would they necessarily qualify as damsels in that situation, considering at the time they’re in a village beset by a plague that has affected both men and women (which makes it problematic that they were the only characters in the party to get sick)? Wouldn’t they just be characters in distress as opposed to damsels, since they are active elsewhere in the game? I’m just taking into account what the situation would be like if the reverse happened and two of the male characters got sick instead.