If you spend any amount of time in either feminist or gamer circles online, chances are you know about Anita Sarkeesian. If not, you should absolutely check out her web series Feminist Frequency, because what she lacks in delivery (seriously, Anita, I love you, but learn to inflect) she makes up for in detailed research and thought-provoking questions. Her most recent endeavor is the unnecessarily controversial series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which is a fascinating look at the patterns surrounding female characters in video games, but I am not actually going to talk about that today. Instead, I’m going to talk about one of the tropes she examined–damsels in distress–and how reversals of it often fall far short of actual subversion.
Basically, I want to talk about dudes in distress.
As I’m sure you are aware, the “damsel in distress” trope is when a female character gets kidnapped by the big bad, and the protagonist has to rescue her. It is one of the most common plot lines ever, and an alarming number of movies seem to be built entirely around this premise. See: the entire Taken franchise, most of the Die Hard and Bond franchises, Star Wars Episode IV, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, pretty much every recent superhero movie, The Princess Bride (seriously, Buttercup has to be rescued like ten times), Pirates of the Caribbean, Django Unchained–in fact, this trope is so common, TVTropes.org made sub pages for each variety of media in which it appears, instead of putting them in drop-down menus like usual. What’s more, the trope gets broken down into nine different types of damsel-in-distress story lines, each with its own trope page. It happens a lot, okay.
This trope gets subverted in many ways, one of the most obvious of which is by replacing the damsel with a dude. This does happen semi-frequently–the above picture is of Tuxedo Mask from the Sailor Moon franchise, who is just absolutely stellar at getting himself into deep shit and needing a rescue. I picked that example because I recently re-watched the first feature-length Sailor Moon movie, Sailor Moon R, wherein literally the entire plot is that Tuxedo Mask got kidnapped by his mind-controlled ex-boyfriend and must be rescued. He’s like the quintessential dude in distress.
But here’s the thing. As I was watching the movie (and laughing uproariously at the terrible dubbing), I noticed that while Tuxedo Mask was absolutely playing a damsel, he also got to break out of his prison himself–at a key moment, which lead to him defeating the bad guy and saving Sailor Moon and her friends. In fact, when you look at distressed dudes across the board, most of the time they are allowed some agency in their escape. In Finding Nemo, Marlin never would have found his son if Nemo hadn’t escaped the aquarium on his own first. Whenever male heroes like James Bond or MacGyvre or Jack Bauer get captured, they engineer their own escapes with ingenuity and bad-assery. Finding a dude in distress trope played straight is actually really hard, because they’re exceedingly rare; usually the man is plotting his own escape, making him an active character, while damsels generally just sit around waiting for the rescue to happen.
And that’s the key difference. More often than not, damsels in distress are portrayed as helpless–either unwilling or unable to do much besides scream, cry, or sulk. Sometimes this is played to the point of absurdity, like when Buttercup in the Princess Bride literally spends the whole period leading up to her unwanted marriage reminding everybody that Wesley is going to save her, instead of–you know–running away (O from Savages also comes immediately to mind, but that character is so terrible that I don’t even want to talk about it). This helplessness is seen as perfectly normal, because the prevailing cultural assumption about women is that they are helpless.
This is stupid.
I can understand why people make such frequent use of the damsel in distress trope. It’s a fast way to motivate your protagonist, and pretty much all audience members are going to sympathize with the “rescue princess” goal. Nobody wants the princess to die. What I object to is the way that damseled women aren’t allowed to fight for themselves. If you can’t find something more creative and must use the damsel trope, can you please make the ladies more like the gentlemen, and give them some damn agency? It’s okay for a Strong Female CharacterTM to need a little rescuing once in a while–we all need rescuing once in a while–but she should still have the gumption to try for a solo escape. She does not cease being a person with goals and brains just because someone succeeded in capturing her.
TL;DR: Women are not helpless. I’ve watched girls barely 5 feet tall drop dudes nearly twice their size. It’s not unrealistic for a damsel to engineer her own escape. I promise.
“When I look around the world, I don’t see too many damsels in distress. If they’re a damsel in distress, they’re manipulating some guy to help them.” -Sigourney Weaver
P.S. Anita Sarkeesian also started a tumblr cataloging all the video games that use the damsel in distress trope. There are more than 400 listed so far. Depressing, isn’t it?