Pop a squat class, ‘cause Professor Xander is about to drop some knowledge!
I am vengeance. I am the night. I. Am. EDUMATCATIONABLENESS! Hope you all had a nice Labor Day. It’s time to look at one of the oldest tropes in the book. It’s a plot point used over and over in cinema and television that could use some analysis. What’s that? You already know what a damsel in distress is? Well aren’t you smarter than a fifth grader? Why don’t you go leave a comment below describing your superior intellect over that of a pre-teen and go grab yourself a soda pop! Mention my blog’s name to your fridge and the next soda you open will mysteriously burst in your face. Anybody left? Alright! Let’s get started.
Damsel in Distress
Damsel in distress is a term used to describe a female character that is thrust into some form of danger, leading to the protagonists (typically a male one) to go and rescue them. One could even make the argument that they’re living MacGuffins. The usual damsel in distress scenario involves the damsel to be kidnapped in some form or another, but distress can mean a number of things, such as being ill, in some sort of death trap, etc. Let me just stick my hand into my Disney movie bin and see if I can’t randomly find a good example of a damsel in distress…let’s see…Sleeping Beauty? That’ll do it.
After pricking her finger on the spinning needle, Aurora falls into a deep sleep, never to wake up. Because she is helpless to do anything to get out of this situation, she is a damsel in distress, only to be rescued by a handsome prince. It’s a very old trope, used countless times, but it has garnered much criticism over the years.
There’s nothing wrong with this plot device in theory; characters in peril raises the stakes for the protagonists and builds tension. The criticism comes in due to the damsel’s themselves. They usually just exist to be in danger, having beauty as their only defining feature, and provide no impact on the story. Case in point, Aurora. She is arguably the blandest Disney princess. Yes, mostly because she spends most of the film asleep meaning there’s little room for character growth or development, but she also exhibits no character traits. She’s just…pretty.
So, the question becomes, can you have a damsel in distress but still create a well written character to back it up? I’d argue that not only is this possible, but it’s already been done in some films. First example: Princess Leia.
Yes, she was a damsel who was in a distressed situation. However, she never intended to be rescued. The message she sent with R2-D2 was a request to get the Death Star plans to the rebels, not a request for someone to rescue her. She was ready to die for the rebellion. Not to mention that Luke never planned on rescuing her, it was a happy coincidence that he and his friends found her on the Death Star. As soon as she was rescued, she quickly sprang into action and took command of the situation.
Another great example of well written characters as damsels in distress can be found in the first Pirates of the Caribbean.
Elizabeth Swann does serve as a damsel in distress for the first half of the film, but she proves herself to be very self-reliant. When about to be killed by pirates in her own home, she quickly invokes parlay in an attempt to get the pirates to leave Port Royal. While kidnaped, she tries to kill Captain Barbossa’s. She would have succeeded had it not been for the curse keeping him alive. When stranded on island, she tricks Jack into drinking until he’s unconscious giving her enough time to create a signal fire.
What’s unique about this film is that there’s not one, but two damsels in distress. Elizabeth is one, but the other…is Will Turner.
In the first half of the film, he’s the one trying to save Elizabeth. In the second half however, the trope gets subverted as he gets kidnapped, and Elizabeth is the one trying to save him. Not only is this a good example of how men can serve the damsel in distress trope (a dude in distress if you will), but it also serves to show that even one of the central protagonists of a story can play the part of damsel in distress.
In storytelling, sometimes the damsel in distress trope has to be used. It’s only when there’s a lack of regard for the damsel’s character that the trope becomes a tired and archaic cliché. By focusing on giving the damsel a believable and realistic character or simply subverting the trope in an unexpected way will keep the damsel in distress to continue to be a classic trope rather than a cliché.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just some guy on the Internet.
So what do you all think? Do you have a favorite example of a damsel in distress? Any other tropes you want to learn about in this segment? Leave a comment and get this conversation rolling. Until next time, this is Professor Xander signing off.