The Villainization of the Damsel in Distress, and Why That’s Not Always Good

damsel in distressSome of you may remember that I wrote a novel called The Darkest Hour. I’m currently working on edits right now to make it all polished and perfect. In the course of the editing process I have had various people read my novel to give me feedback. This has been so helpful and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate these people and the time they took to work with me to make my story better. It takes a village to write a book.

Having said that, one comment I received has stuck with me. The comment was regarding musings by my narrator near the beginning of the book. My narrator is a girl named Rory who has found herself caught up in the politics of her surrounding micro-nations because, it turns out, she’s a princess. So much for her dreams of being a chemist. At the point at which this paragraph takes place, Rory is injured and in a prison, with little hope of ever getting out. Things are looking pretty hopeless. Here is the paragraph.

But then, maybe one day Philip would throw open the door of the prison, stride down the hall, smash through the bars, and carry me away to live happily ever after. Hey, just because I remember weird things about chemistry doesn’t mean I can’t also fantasize about my knight in shining armor.

The comment I received about this passage was along the lines of:

Why is she wishing to be rescued? She should be her own hero. Creating a female character who wishes to be saved by a knight isn’t a good example for our daughters.

Obviously, receiving negative feedback is always hard. I’m not nearly as thick-skinned as I pretend to be, so this wasn’t my favorite bit of feedback, but it proved very helpful. I’m incredibly grateful for the person who made it because this comment made me think. A lot. And not just about my protagonist, but about what exactly a strong female character is.

Now, I can’t say I was surprised by this comment. A Damsel in Distress is a familiar trope in fiction. We are all familiar with it. Many of our Disney Princesses are damsels in distress. Damsels in Distress are everywhere—or at least they used to be.

Now we live in an age where girls are taught that they can be anything and do anything. This is awesome! I can’t believe I am lucky enough to live in such a time. The change happens in our culture as more and more people realize that everyone, regardless of gender, deserves respect. Old ideas, stories, jokes, and tropes have fallen as people realized they are insensitive and mean. The Damsel in Distress is one of these tropes.

Damsels in Distress have become taboo, even villainous. Agents and publishers encourage writers to leave them out. Writers join groups centered around strong female characters, and a strong female character doesn’t need a knight in shining armor. She can solve her problems and fight her own battles, whether those battles are bullies in high school or a vast army of supernatural beings.

Writers, particularly female writers, create female characters that can chop down armies, zombies, werewolves, and anyone else that stands in their way. They write girls who can throw left hooks and fix cars and design bridges and shoot a three pointers. That is a great message to send. It is one I want my daughters to know. I want them to believe that they can do anything and be anything.

Note: my experience revolves around writing and more specifically young adult writing. I am sure there are plenty of exceptions and plenty of damsels in distress still being created, but I see that trope as one that is being discouraged.

As I considered the comment about Rory and that she is, in fact, a damsel in distress, I questioned my entire book. That is part of who Rory is. If I take that out, I loose so much of her character I don’t know that I could recover the story. Was my protagonist actually a villain? Had I made the ultimate mistake and created a weak female character? Was I worthless as a writer for including a girl who wishes someone would rescue her? Is she unrelatable, unlikable, and unredeemable because she is weak?

As I thought about why I made Rory the way she is, I realized I made her that way because I have felt like that before. I have wanted to be rescued. Does wanting to be helped make me weak and pathetic? Can you honestly tell me that you have never wished to be rescued? Sometimes I don’t want to be strong. Sometimes I don’t want to be the hero. If that makes me weak, so be it. I have wished for rescue. Many times. Why did I write a story about a girl who wanted to be rescued? I have wanted a knight in shining armor, desperately. Despite that desire, in my darkest moments, when rescue didn’t come, I rescued myself.

Wishing for someone to help us, like Rory does, isn’t what makes us weak. It makes us human. What makes us weak is refusing to be a hero because we are waiting for someone else to be one for us. I have often wished for rescue, and when it didn’t come, I cried and my heart ached and I felt like the world was ending, but the next day I tried again. I got up. I kept going.

I don’t think it’s bad to have characters that are tough and are ready to take on the world and who don’t need anyone’s help. They can teach us great things. But I can relate to the weak ones better. Rory’s story is about a damsel in distress. She is a girl that doesn’t want to fight battles and change her world. She wants some knight in shining armor to do it for her. But despite that wish, (spoiler) she does learn to fight her battles and change her world because she has to. That is her strength.

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