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!
21 thoughts on “Defending The Damsel in Distress”
Very interesting read. I thought your examples were great to prove your points about this trope. While I’m not a fan of damsels being used as plot devices instead of characters or only shown to be helpless, there could be twists in the story like the damsel egging on their captors or being productive in their own right. You certainly made me think with this post. Thank you!
I’m definitely cool with the damsel in distress trope. Granted, it can get a little old if it is used too many times in a row for one series but I think that’s true for just about any trope. Now the “Girl in the fridge” trope (I think that’s the name) where the heroine ends up getting brutally murdered or something is when I think the trope’s too far.
For example, I think for a scenario like this, you do want the damsel to be saved in the end. While there would be an element of shock value for example if Orihime, Peach, or someone like that got murdered before the hero arrives, I just feel so unsatisfied by an outcome like that. I think if you’re going to have this plot then it needs a happy ending.
I also do enjoy the twist where the damsel actually manages to escape on her own and ends up meeting the would be rescuers halfway through.
It is a girl in the fridge. Or in the box after se7en. I think it can occasionally be very powerful but I also don’t tend to enjoy it much
I don’t mind the damsel in Distress, I have been rescuing Princess Peach for years , Zelda too and it never really gets old. I do have an issue when the Damsel in Distress is created as a Mc-Guffin to give the main character something to do..
I want to be able to answer the question… so what would Peach be doing if she wasn’t captured right now… baking a cake and having a party in her cause…or studying a toad in zelda’s case.
I for one don’t think the trope really invalidates women as so many thing, because it’s always a girl that needs to be rescued by a guy.. we evolved past it…but in the most classical sense I can see how some would find it toxic, specifically in anime however I think those who are in the anime atmosphere.. know the trouble with that anyway as the anime fandom tends to be more liberal and all.. so I find it a bit moot to complain about.
I don’t think that’s what they intend to do anyway… it’s not to be little women.
It is meant to bestow us that feeling of fighting for a loved one , our damsel , and deep down we all want to rescue someone, so I think the trope has a lot of merit. I think a lot of us feel underpowered every now and again, especially in our demographic and the general fandom.. we all would like to be hero once… we never get that chance.
I don’t think the trope is bad, but I think it’s bad when characters get created for the trope rather than the trope being applied to characters as well. So.. maybe I like the trope.. but I don’t like to tropey characters?!
Have to be careful with this trope. There’s a lot of political baggage attached to it these days.
Merriam-Webster defines it as being “a state of danger or desperate need.” A damsel is “a young unmarried woman.”
Most people think of the D in D as at least vulnerable if not totally helpless. Very traditional view dating back as far as literature has existed. A feminine stereotype whose sole purpose is to motivate the hero to superior manliness some he can win her as his reward. She may even just be bait to draw him in to his doom. A trope some feminists think we’d be better off abolishing from literature. Eliminate the helpless woman as a concept entirely.
Yet *most* people become figurative damsels in distress when confronted by extreme danger. It takes intense training, a complete lack of awareness, or a good deal of self awareness to be anything else. The heroic gene is not widely distributed. Cowardice is how people survived.
I cant help but think of Orihime Inoue in Bleach. I always disliked that girl.
You got me curious. so Merriam-Webster says a damsel is “a young unmarried woman of noble birth.” I think that last part may have a lot to do with it. We have to care about damsels even if we know nothing about them or else the trope fails. That adds a layer to it. Interesting notion, thanks for sharing!
I really enjoyed this post, but some of it was lost on me as I haven’t seen the example used. And your mentioning Orihime brought up somehting I wanted to comment on in regarding the damsel in distress trope. Yes, it can have a lot of political baggage as you mentioned. But I think the bigger issue is how the trope is used in some shows.
For example in Bleach, Orihime has one of the most broken powers in the series, and she’s the one you make the damsel in distress. If she wanted to she could escape no problem. In SAO it’s taking Asuna who is a badass in the first arc and making her a helpless damsel in the second. So I think a big problem is taking cool badass characters and turning them into damsels in opposition to their previous portrayal.
This was a really interesting read! Looking at FriendlyOverlord’s comment above, I agree that sometimes people are often iffy with the idea of tropes, as if using them shows a lack of innovation or creativity. But while they can be used as a crutch, tropes are prevalent for a reason and not really because of laziness. Tropes become tropes because they have been popular, meaningful and even innovative. It’s all about the execution. Not to mention, no narrative is in a vacuum and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to create a story that doesn’t engage with some kind of ‘trope’.
With regards to damsels in distress, I think it’s pretty unfair to broadly dismiss a character who is ‘weak’ as badly written, personally because I think characters should have weaknesses. Likewise, I feel strength shouldn’t just be seen as the ability to fix your problems alone or otherwise. Even a character who lacks agency might do so for a very good reason but still show development and strength in other ways. This isn’t an anime but I remember there were discussions whether Breath of the Wild’s Zelda is a ‘bad’ damsel in distress. Yes, she has little agency and Link is the hero of the series that saves her as always, but I’d argue that she faces the inevitable destruction of her kingdom well. She gets frustrated, endures, and breaks down sometimes but these all make her human.
Talking about games, Ico was an old school game that was entirely build around a classic iteration of the damsel trope and it actively brought so much to the game. Not the character but the trope itself. Her helplessness and vulnerability drove the ludonarrative forward in such a visceral way.
That’s a great example. Ico wouldn’t have been nearly as emotive without the damsel trope!
For me the trope because an issuec when damsel in distress in the only purpose for which a character is used and they contribute nothing else except existing to be rescued. Bunny Girl Senpai used the trope well with its interesting characters who did need a rescue but were so much more than just hero bait.
I wonder if there are examples of good stories with cardboard damsels?
A book I read about writing once handed me a list of “all the things stories are about” which numbers about 90. It’s to some extent, also a list of tropes. I’m trying to wander around a point that all stories have a conflict and then resolve it, one way or another, and no matter what year you are in, no matter what world you are in, the conflicts pretty much stay the same as do the characters (or “tropes”) involved. Damsel in Distress can certainly be used in many different ways, and any gender or age or species even. I can see how our “modern” society which has gone overboard on what is acceptable in a story can view damsel in distress negatively, but like so many things – they’ve gone overboard. You make excellent points about how this trope can be used in many ways, and can apply to many different characters. A badly written, or unrealized “cardboard” character is simply a bad character no matter what their “trope” may be. a badly written “boilerplate” story is a bad story. It’s when you are completely immersed in a story and – maybe it happens more often if you are a writer who studies the craft – the light suddenly dawns that this is a damsel in distress, the hero’s journey, Omigod – THAT is a well written story. And there is surely no shame in that!
Nice to see someone defend the damsel in distress. I have a soft spot for the “weaklings”. I like how you pointed out that any gender can be in distress. It doesn’t have to be a she.
We’ve had some great boy damsels lately. I think it was actually pretty great for My Hero academia to make Bakugo, their resident strong tough guy into a damsel for one season. And it worked.
Two words I never thought I’d see paired together. Bakugo and damsel. It’s like pairing Goku or Ging with the word good father
I see your point.
I think this is a really interesting debate. Character archetypes and tropes (Damsel in Distress includes) are often viewed in a very negative light. The word “trope,” in general, I feel has some negative connotations attached to it, which isn’t really fair. It’s a way to describe a type of character or aspect of a plot. Like anything, a trope can be good or bad. It all depends on how the creator of a particular story utilizes them.
I’m a bit sad to hear that. I love tropes. But I agree, people sometimes think only novelty has value and that’s just not the case