Well if there is one trope that needs to be rescued, it’s certainly the Damsel in Distress! I’m super proud about this non-pun but I don’t want to admit it cause it’s pretty lame.
A little while ago, in a review of a re:Zero episode, Crow and I mentioned that Emilia’s role had been mostly assigned as Damsel in Distress for the last few episodes. And some readers were not in agreement! We talked it out and it was all good. But whether Emilia was or was not a Damsel in Distress is not what I got from the discussion.
What I got is that people seem to think that “Damsel in Distress” is a bad thing! As if it was an insult to the character and the presence of the trope itself is some type of sign of lack of quality or something.
And I call foul!!! A Damsel in Distress is a narrative trope and a character archetype that exists in pretty much every form of storytelling for a very very long time. I mean more or less forever. It was used in the earliest tales we know. Those that existed only in oral tradition because writing hadn’t been invented yet. Or so I’m told. I don’t have much proof of that one but it has been around for a while.
And as such, it’s the type of trope that has myriad interpretations.
By strict definition, a Damsel in Distress is a young lady who is in some type of trouble. And that is what drives the plot forward. That’s all. A damsel in distress can simultaneously be her own hero for instance. She can be a fully capable and invested character with agency. We all need help at some point, it’s not a bad thing. and nowadays, she doesn’t even have to be a she.
Like any trope, there are better and worse examples out there. However, in and of itself, Damsel in Distress is not an intrinsically negative definer. But that doesn’t seem to be the general understanding and I think that’s too bad.
Look, I can’t deny that the Damsel in Distress has ironically been used as a crutch. It’s an easy way to get audience sympathy and develop a character in one fell swoop, without too much effort. It instinctively establishes motivation and allegiances with minimal exposition.
And maybe because it can serve so many narrative purposes and is fairly easy to use, we can argue that it has been somewhat overused throughout the years. And sadly, the damsels in distress themselves can become nothing more than MacGuffin under those circumstances. But they don’t have to.
I really like Penguindrum. I’m going somewhere with this. Although I also like to randomly declare my love for Penguindrum from time to time. Keeps people on their toes! Penguindrum uses a Damsel in Distress trope as the central and most important motivating and unifying plot point of the entire show. And the damsel in question, Himari, is also one of the main characters. She is both a literal and thematic representation of the trope on every imaginable level. Himari is the quintessential damsel in distress. And Himari is a fantastic character that deserves all the praise she can get.
Ikuhara seems to like the trope. Anthy was also a damsel in distress, although arguably subverted but not really. We can call her a deconstructions of the trope or a subversion since she ultimately was far from helpless and could have assuaged her distress by herself. But that’s splitting hairs. Most of the series revolved around getting a young woman out of a difficult position. And her emotional vulnerability was just as debilitating as anything else.
And I know she is much maligned by fans, but Tower of God’s Rachel manages to be both a Damsel in Distress and an antagonist. Her helplessness drives much of Bam’s actions and ultimately may spell his doom. You know, fans may have very negative feelings about the character but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially in an antagonist. Rachel’s character archetype did an incredible job at getting a reaction out of the audience. In many ways, she is one of the most successful characters I have seen in a long time. And that may in part be due to the unusual weaponizing of her damsel status.
These are just a few examples but there are a lot of characters that are clearly damsels but remain fantastic, complex and engaging. If you have played the Steins;Gate visual novel, you know that all the characters (boys included) embody the trope in turn. And this is what I’m trying to get to.
I chose a couple of anime and a visual novel to illustrate my point. But not just any, these are some of my very favourite pieces of entertainment out there. I really love these stories. Really really. I can critique them or entertain mental exercises to try to improve certain elements but at the end of the day, for me, they were perfect as is. Ok, Tower of God less so but I enjoyed it more than most. I wouldn’t change anything. Certainly not the central conceit and driving force of the narratives.
When I thought about it, I like a damsel in distress story. And I don’t want people to stop making them. I just don’t like bad damsel in distress stories. Actually, let me rephrase that: I don’t like bad stories.
Having a character (young lady or otherwise) find themselves in trouble as the driving force for a story isn’t a bad thing. At least I don’t think so.
But I do understand why someone might think of Damsel in Distress as a pejorative. I have seen, and possibly even used the expression she’s just a damsel in distress. As if that was an inherently lesser thing to be for a character. But I think what we reproach these archetypes is not their damselness or their distress, but rather a lack of development on other fronts.
However, just because the trope has been used badly in the past, doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. I might not be crazy about being told a character is wonderful, powerful and brilliant but being shown one that seems to just wait around for someone else to do all the work, but I do love seeing friends going to great lengths to help each other out!
For some reason, for a lot of reasons, in fact, we have started to look at the Damsel in Distress in a bad light. I think it’s time we take a second look at this age-old trope. So this post goes out to all the amazing, challenging, strong and indomitable Damsels in Distress that have given us treasured stories since the dawn of time.
You ladies (and occasional gentlemen and non-binary friends) are amazing have taught me so much!