For a long time, the “damsel in distress” has become almost as much a death sentence for a character as calling them a Mary Sue. Critics sneer at female characters who need help or—heaven forbid—are captured. And goodness, if your character is kidnapped more than once, well, that’s just poor writing (just look at the criticism leveled at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy).1 Clearly that must mean the character is only there to “serve as a trophy”2 for the protagonist and has no personality of her own. Clearly she’s a terrible character just because she needs saving.
I’m not a fan of this argument.
A “damsel in distress” is, by definition, a woman (a damsel) who’s in some sort of trouble. But that’s not how most people use the term.
Most people use this term derogatively, to point out a character who they consider poorly-written because she is in trouble, in need of saving, and—they argue—thus is an objectively weak character. These people argue that damsels are inherently bad because they suggest women need men in order to be safe, that women who are captured are weaker than their (often male) captors and rescuers.
I’ve got a few problems with this line of thinking because I don’t think damsels in distress are inherently weak characters.
Now, before I get too far, let me define how I’ll be using the term “weak character”—that is, what I think people mean by “weak” or “strong” characters.
While I do think the quality of writing is part of what people mean when they talk about “weak” or “strong” female characters, I don’t think it’s the main aspect people are criticizing when they claim a woman in need of rescuing is a “weak” female character. I think what most people mean when they use this term is closer to what the word suggests—a character who is weak, that is, insufficient in some way, shape, or form. Either they lack agency (that is, control over their own lives), they lack power, or they lack respect—either respect from their peers in the story or respect from the audience. A weak character is one that does not deserve respect because they are deficient somehow. A strong character, by contrast, typically does not have this “deficiency,” whatever that deficiency may be.
(I also think failing to define what we find lacking in “weak” female characters to be part of why we have so many discussions about needing “strong female characters” and yet allegedly nothing seems to change—or it doesn’t change the way people want—but that’s a topic for another day.)
For now, let’s talk about the problems I have with the idea that all damsels in distress are bad.
1. The trope itself isn’t inherently bad.
As YouTube writing analyst Literature Devil reminds us, writing rules are pretty much made to be challenged.3 Tropes that are supposedly inherently bad are never inherently bad. For instance, many say that overpowered protagonists are the product of bad writing, but One-Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100 totally throw this idea on its head with their absurdly-overpowered protagonists who still remain interesting.
Again, as Literature Devil points out, anything that seems like a bad idea can become a good one if executed properly.4
So of course, I argue that if done right, a female character in need of saving can be a good storytelling tool for building drama and tension. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Overly Sarcastic Productions is known for their discussions of writing tropes, and their video covering damsels in distress echoes my sentiments exactly. “I love this trope…” Sarcastic says. “[F]rom a purely logical standpoint, damseling can be super useful.”5
How? Plenty of reasons.
If a character we care about gets captured, it immediately creates tension. Sure, we know they’re probable going to get rescued… but how? “How are they going to get out of this one?” is a powerful question. If your audience is asking it, you’re on the right track.
“Damseling,” as Sarcastic calls it, is also an excellent tool for “all kinds of interesting character interactions and subsequent character development.”6 Again, Sarcastic outlines why:
“Rescues are fun, villain-hero dynamics are fun, distressing your characters is fun, and I think that one of the most entertaining ways to elaborate on your established characters is to drop them into a new and dangerous situation and watch how they react…”7
Throwing characters in situations where they’re challenged and in danger is always a fun time. You get to see sides of the characters come out that you wouldn’t have otherwise. You get to see them at their worst, and it often brings out their best. It’s always satisfying to watch a plan come together as characters each bring something to the table to stage a daring escape or rescue.
And more than that, it’s interesting to watch the villains talk to the captive in the meantime. Think about it: in what other situation does the villain have such a perfect opportunity for one-on-one time with one of your heroes? This is a situation that brings out aspects of the villain and the hero we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. For the villain, we get to see them at a time when their plan is going well, in an indisputable position of power over the hero. This gives them the chance to show what kind of character they are: will they gloat? Are they largely ignoring this temporary success in favor of focusing on the long-term objective? Will they attempt to win the hero over to their side or are they largely disinterested in the hero? This is also, of course, the prime time for the villain to explain their side of the story. While we’re used to villains monologuing, it is a trope for a reason: it’s a great way to show the villain’s viewpoint and motivation, as Nerdsync points out in their excellent video “The Incredibles: The Art of Supervillain Monologues.”8
Villain-hero dynamics are also a good reminder of how powerful, intimidating, horrifying, and terrible the villain is… and why it’s not really such a surprise that the hero could fall to their devices in the first place. Because…
2. Just because a character needs rescuing does not make them a weak, useless, ineffective, unadmirable character.
First off, let me point out the obvious double standard: do people complain about a male character being a “damsel” or “weak” if they get captured, subdued, or find themselves in need of rescue? Sometimes. But ordinarily, no.
Do we consider Harry Potter a “damsel” and weak character because Voldemort got the jump on him during the Triwizard Tournament? No.
Do we consider Tony Stark weak because he was kidnapped and held prisoner by terrorists? No.
I don’t remember hearing anyone complain when Mr. Incredible had to wait for Helen and the kids to come release him from Syndrome’s prison in the original The Incredibles. Bob didn’t do anything to facilitate his escape; he’s just hanging there in the electric stocks. But nobody says his character is weak (at least not for needing to be rescued).
So why is it okay to automatically classify a female character as weak just because she needs to be saved?
Look, here’s the thing: as Overly Sarcastic Productions points out, “damseling can realistically happen to anyone… ”9 —even Batman in the animated Justice League TV series—Yes, Batman, the caped crusader who, as Sarcastic puts it, is “crazy prepared and pretty much entirely self-sufficient.”10
“But,” some might argue, “the difference is that those characters still had agency: they had an active role in rescuing themselves. So of course they’re not weak! It’s the characters who just sit there waiting to be rescued who are the real problem.”
Firstly, this isn’t true of Batman’s situation; Batman actually requires Flash to free him in order to make his escape. And secondly, while this is a better argument to make, I still don’t think it’s wise to claim all characters who don’t get to help themselves are weak. For example, what if a character was beaten to within an inch of their life and needs weeks if not months to recover to the point of being able to rescue themselves? Are they still a weak character? What if a character has some sort of weakness or even disability that makes it impossible for them to participate in a plan to rescue themselves? Are they a weak character now?
No, of course not. Not due to that, at any rate. Whether a character is able to help with their own escape or not doesn’t necessarily define whether they’re weak or not. Just as with the age-old discussion about morality (“Is killing people always/inherently morally wrong? What about in self-defense?”), it depends a lot on context. See the previous example of a character who was beaten to within an inch of their life. They’re not a weak character just because they’re barely conscious during the rescue attempt.
I get it. We don’t want clichés. We don’t want to see female characters with the personality of a cardboard box who only exist for the hero to come and save them. But that doesn’t automatically make every woman who needs saving or help from time to time weak. It makes her human. Because…
3. Being a woman who needs help isn’t a bad thing.
Needing help doesn’t mean a character is poorly-written. Again, if we used this kind of logic against a character who’s male and must be rescued, we start to see this logic fall apart.
The fact is, no matter who you are, sometimes we’ll come across problems we just can’t handle. Sometimes we need help from others. There’s nothing wrong, unadmirable, or shameful about that. And saying otherwise by claiming anyone who can’t help themselves is a “weak” character is doing a disservice to people who truly can’t help themselves and need someone to lend them a hand now and then.
In fact, Sarcastic laments the fact that damsels in distress are seen as such a negative these days, “because I live for characters relying on and helping each other, and in my experience, nothing brings characters closer together than rescuing one another from the clutches of a diseased maniac or two.”11
The fact of the matter is, “damseling” a character actually serves to highlight a very important truth, Sarcastic says.
“[T]he characters are damseled because they lack total self-sufficiency. They need people because they can’t do everything alone. This becomes tangible when they are alone and can’t do something that they would really, really rather do, like beat the supervillain or escape the tower. …[A] lack of self-sufficiency is central to the damsel trope… because that qualification applies to literally every character in existence.”12
(And not just every character, but also every person in existence.) Which makes it realistic… and relatable. Sarcastic goes on:
“See, at its heart, this… reinforces one specific message: you can’t, and should not be expected to, do everything alone.”13 Rescue attempts allow other characters in the story to proclaim: “‘You aren’t alone, and when it counts, we’re here for you,’ and that is a sentiment that everyone can stand to hear. It’s just about the most heartwarming thing a person can hear.”14
This kind of message resonates with people. It’s something I think we all need to hear at least once in our lives. And it’s only possible to deliver this message if our characters are vulnerable enough to need help.
4. It’s okay to have vulnerable female characters.
One of the main reasons many people don’t like Mary Sues—or the prototypical “strong female character” is because they lack vulnerabilities of any kind. They are not weak in any area of their lives, and they are certainly not emotionally open and honest.
But here’s the thing: when you create characters like this, they’re not realistic, because they’re flawless. They’re being praised for being perfect, “superhuman”15 when nobody wants to see even superheros with no weaknesses.16
It’s not inherently wrong—your character isn’t necessarily poorly-written—just because they’ve been captured. Or need help. In fact, writing characters who don’t ever find themselves in need of help makes it very easy for them to get started on the path to becoming Mary Sues.
Yes, of course we want to see characters dig deep, push themselves beyond their limitations, and get themselves out of scrapes.
But once in a while, it’s okay to need help.
I just wish more people decrying alleged “damsels in distress” would realize that.
Notes and References:
- Vishal Y. R, “Why does everyone hate Spider-Man 3?” [sic], March 20, 2015, on Quora.com, message board, accessed February 26, 2019.
- Literature Devil, “STAR WARS: PALPATINE VS SNOKE [sic]),” YouTube video, 9:30, May 12, 2018.
- Overly Sarcastic Productions “Trope Talk: Damsels in Distress,” YouTube video, 12:52, September 14, 2017.
- Nerdsync “The Incredibles: The Art of Supervillain Monologues,” YouTube video, 22:00, June 19, 2018.
- Overly Sarcastic Productions “Damsels in Distress.”
- Melissa Anelli, Podcast, PotterCast, quoted by IAMA_dragon-AMA (sic) in “Book Hermione vs. Movie Hermione,” December 29, 2014, on reddit.com, message board, accessed February 26, 2019.
- Sophia McDougall, “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” NewStatesmanAmerica [sic] (blog), August 15, 2013, accessed February 26, 2019.
All photos are used under US “Fair Use” laws. Spider-Man, Tony Stark, and all related terms property of Marvel Entertainment, LLC; Mr. Incredible and all related terms property of Walt Disney Studios; One-Punch Man property of Viz Media; Mob Psycho 100 property of Funimation; Harry Potter and all related terms property of Bloomsbury Publishing; Batman and the Flash and all related terms property of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.. And I am not affiliated with any of them.