For years, Internet writers, most of them female, have found any and every chance to complain about the portrayal of female characters in popular media, especially movies. No feminine portrayal seems to be good enough. Either the main female character is perceived by these writers as being marginalized and/or objectified in a presumed effort to highlight the male protagonists, or they are simply "too girly" to be satisfying to the complaining poster. Even "strong" female types are criticized because, in order to be seen as strong (so the complaint goes), the female must drop all feminine pretenses and become a curvy male or "butch lesbian" stereotype. "Why can't a woman be a woman and be ...?" many wail.
Before I get into the damsel in distress idea, specifically, let's look at this quoted generic complaint. How many real-life women do you know, strong individuals who can take care of themselves AND others, who don't exhibit characteristics of both the masculine and feminine? Psychologists, starting with Sandra Bem, have been arguing for decades about the benefits of traits of both genders, to the point that many have even called for the removal of the labels so that we can perceive traits as more neutral--as expressive (people-oriented) and instrumental (goal-oriented). I have a post on this particular topic in my Psych Vocab blog. Every time I see a post or article with "female character" or some derivative in the title or description I cringe. Many times I read them with a growing concern that some people are arguing for the sake of arguing so that they can gain notoriety. After all, Internet life is all about clicks, shares, and likes, and unless you're creating "adult content" or posting something with cats, the best way to get a click is to fire up the blood! Who knows? Maybe some of these writers are doing something like I am, playing devil's advocate, arguing one position to get people to think.
The only problem with that assertion is that "devil's advocate" means you are working against group think, bringing up points that people haven't already thought about in their discussions in order to prevent us from blindly agreeing with what "everyone" says simply because "everyone" says it. Too often these articles about feminine topics feel like the same mantra--women are marginalized, mistreated, misrepresented, etc., etc., etc.--that has been mindlessly spewed over and over ad nauseam for decades. I'm not going to deny that some objectification and stereotyping in possible. However, a lot of the "message" is in the decoding. In other words, how do you perceive the characterization? Did any of these complainers actually ask the writers, directors, producers, or actors what the intention of the portrayal was supposed to be? I'm willing to be dollars to donuts that they didn't and instead decided to find an offensive interpretation in what may have been an initially innocuous or (gasp!) many-layered message.
*Full disclosure* I did not consult any original authors to come to my following conclusions on their intentions for the "damsel in distress" ideas. I am engaging in a thought exercise in the hope of encouraging true discussion, encouraging others to bend the lens and see other angles.
So, the most common complaint I come across any time a female character is in need of rescuing is that this presentation of a female objectifies all women. She becomes a prize waiting to be claimed by the male hero. She is shown as a helpless and useless piece of pretty flesh that can do very little for herself. Even, though not nearly as verbalized, she (and by extension all women) is lazy, waiting for someone to provide for her every whim so that she won't have to lift a finger or soil her hands to get anything she wants. Let's look at some examples from the (seemingly) most reviled source of this trope: Disney movies. Keep in mind that I did produce an earlier blog post on the lessons of strength of character seen in these princesses.
- Snow White: needs the male dwarves to give her a home and scare away the evil witch; needs her prince to kiss her to save her life.
- Sleeping Beauty: needs her prince to defeat evil and kiss her to wake her.
- Little Mermaid: needs the prince to acknowledge her (i.e. read her mind) and vanquish the evil witch.
- Cinderella: only way out of her destitute situation is through marriage to the prince.
- Beauty and the Beast: [okay, it takes a whole lot of stretching to find any damsel in distress ideas here, so we'll skip this one. Let's not talk about the expectations of illiteracy and home-making, as that's not the topic at hand here.]
- Peter Pan: Wendy (and the Lost Boys, by the way) require Peter to defeat Captain Hook and save them from walking the plank; Peter also has to swoop in to save Tiger Lilly.
- The Lion King: despite the fact that it's the female lions who hunt, Nala needs Simba to return in order to get rid of Scar.
- Atlantis: Kida is taken prisoner and has to be rescued by Milo and his friends, despite the fact that she is filled with the most awesome power humans have ever known.
- Mickey & Minnie Mouse: there are countless shorts and films in which Minnie is whisked away by someone, usually Peg-Leg Pete or Mortimer Mouse, and Mickey has to come to her rescue while she shouts "save me!" and flails her arms.
Okay, I can go on for a while longer, but I think you can start to see the arguments forming. You may even start to see some that were missed by other complaint writers. So, in all of these cases, it appears that the female characters need the male characters to rescue them, that they are pretty much helpless against their captors and the only way out is through the salvation from a male. And yet, there could be another, entirely different message embedded in all of these circumstances. A lot of the complaints about a damsel in distress is that it gives girls the wrong idea (you have to be helpless and should rely on others to save you because you're totally incompetent). Some have even proposed that the secondary message to boys is that girls are the inferior sex because you're going to have to save them from whatever they get into during your journey to becoming a "true hero" (an act usually fulfilled by saving a damsel in distress). What if there's another set of messages here?
Another way to look at the damsel in distress is the importance of a solid interconnected relationship with other humans. One of the important and (for some like myself) lessons about life, especially adulthood, is that you don't have to do everything alone in this world. You don't have to be the super-human who always helps but never needs help. It's okay to be vulnerable, to not be perfect. Even Fiona from the Shrek movies learns that freeing herself still doesn't remove her "curse", which can actually be interpreted as lack of self-love. It's much easier to love yourself once you see that others love you. I have personally felt so vulnerable and lost in life many times, almost like a prisoner of my circumstances. It took friends and family "rescuing" me as I stood helpless to show me that I don't have to do everything alone.
Another positive lesson from the damsel in distress is not that the female must rely upon the male hero, but that she can rely upon him to be there in her time of need. Perhaps another interpretation of Prince Philip defeating Maleficent is not that Aurora is useless, but that she has someone in whom she can trust to fight for her when she is helpless to do so for herself. Snow White's prince shows us the power and importance of love, without which life is pretty empty. Prince Eric's defeat of Ursula and his acceptance of Ariel help her make a very important adult decision--breaking some of the ties of childhood family in order to venture out and start her own. Let's be honest, Cinderella was getting nowhere with her steps regardless of her kindness toward them. She was in a battered relationship and her prince showed her that there could be a better life for her, that she didn't have to take the abuse. Peter Pan is responsible for his Lost Boys and the Darling children. His need to rescue them (and even Tiger Lilly) at the risk of his own safety is an illustration of the importance of a leader setting aside his (or her) own personal desires in order to do what is needed for those under his care. Nala saw Simba as additional aid because she and the other lionesses were beyond their abilities to oust Scar and his hyenas. Simba wasn't simply the "male" hero, he brought a different viewpoint to the dilemma faced by the pride. Like Peter Pan, Kida was the leader for her people. She was captured in her effort to spare her people from the threat they faced. Milo used his various skills and social network to save Kida in turn. A leader also has to know when to bring in an outside source of aid when the internal sources are insufficient for the problems at hand. Finally, the many times Minnie is captured, she calls to Mickey because she knows that she can count on him. His enemies, her captors, are always bigger and stronger than he is, yet Minnie has complete confidence in Mickey's abilities to help her when she needs him the most. I'm willing to bet many women wish they could say the same for their significant other; unfortunately, I couldn't say that about my ex-husband even when we were married and it always left me feeling more vulnerable, bitter, and helpless.
Maybe the idea of the damsel in distress is a lesson for our sons to teach them that it is part of their responsibility as a good life partner to defend the women in his life, to stand up for them and aid them when they might be too weak (or too proud) to call for help. Perhaps it's also a lesson for girls to learn to trust that others will be there for them when they need it.
Living life alone, with the idea that you have to be so strong that no one needs to rescue you from anything, ever, is extremely burdensome. Human beings are social creatures. We rely upon a community, even a loosely defined network of others, in order to navigate life's waters. When we build up such an impenetrable strong-hold around ourselves that it shuts out everyone else, we encounter devastating loneliness and depression that can leave us even more vulnerable that the most debilitating physical deterrent. Yes, it's good to teach our girls to be strong and independent and to teach our sons to be respectful of the females. However, it's also good to let the girls know that they have someone they can count on when things are so overwhelming. It's also good to teach our sons to be solid, supportive, dependable, reliable heroes when the situation calls for it. In the same token, it's okay to round that out by teaching our girls to be reliable rescuers and our boys to call for help when they need rescuing.