The Damage of the Damsel in Distress




The damsel in distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and then must be rescued by a male character, usually providing an incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.


From Damsel In Distress (Part 1):
The damsel in distress is not just a synonym for “weak”, instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we are told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths they are still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue.

Distilled down to its essence, the plot device works by trading the disempowerment of female characters FOR the empowerment of male characters.

Let’s compare the damsel to the archetypal Hero Myth, in which the typically male character may occasionally also be harmed, incapacitated or briefly imprisoned at some point during their journey.

In these situations, the character relies on their intelligence, cunning, and skill to engineer their own escape — or, you know, just punching a hole in the prison wall works too.

The point is they are ultimately able to gain back their own freedom. In fact, that process of overcoming the ordeal is an important step in the protagonist’s transformation into a hero figure.

In this way the Damsel’s ordeal is not her own, instead it’s framed as a trial for the hero to overcome. Consequently, the trope robs women in peril of the opportunity be the architects of their own escape and therefore prevents them from becoming archetypal heroes themselves.


The quotes below come from the video above (Part II). The full transcript can be found here.

So narratives that frame intimacy, love or romance as something that blossoms from or hinges upon the disempowerment and victimization of women are extremely troubling because they tend to reinforce the widespread regressive notion that women in vulnerable, passive or subordinate positions are somehow desirable because of their state of powerlessness. Unfortunately these types of stories also help to perpetuate the paternalistic belief that power imbalances within romantic relationships appealing, expected, or normal.


These damsel’ed women are written so as to subordinate themselves to men. They submissively accept their grisly fate and will often beg the player to perform violence on them – giving men direct and total control over whether they live or die. Even saying “thank you” with their dying breath. In other words these women are “asking for it” quite literally.


What we're talking about here as violence against women is women portrayed as the victim in stories, NOT women fighters in situations of equal power.


Although the narratives all differ slightly the core element is the same, in each case violence is used to bring these women “back to their senses”.
These stories conjure supernatural situations in which domestic violence perpetrated by men against women who’ve “lost control of themselves” not only appears justified but is actually presented as an altruistic act done “for the woman’s own good”.


In real life, ..."research consistently shows that people of all genders tend to buy into the myth that women are the ones to blame for the violence men perpetrate against them. In the same vein, abusive men consistently state that their female targets “deserved it”, “wanted it” or were “asking for it”..."


In this context it's dangerous that in video games so many players are encouraged or even required to perform violence against women in order to save them.


The womens' deaths are depicted are more meaningful than their lives.
these games usually frame the loss of the woman as something that has been unjustly “taken” from the male hero.

The implication being that she had belonged to him – that she was his possession. Once wronged the hero must then go get his possessions back or at least exact a heavy price for their loss. On the surface victimized women are framed as the reason for the hero’s torment, but if we dig a little deeper into the subtext I’d argue that the true source of the pain stems from feelings of weakness and/or guilt over his failure to perform his “socially prescribed” patriarchal duty to protect his women and children.

...these failed-hero stories are really about the perceived loss of masculinity, and then the quest to regain that masculinity, primarily by exerting dominance and control, through the performance of violence on others.
violent revenge based narratives, repeated ad nauseum, can also be harmful to men because they help further limit the possible responses men are allowed to have when faced with death or tragedy. This is unfortunate because interactive media has the potential to be a brilliant medium for people of all genders to explore difficult or painful subjects.

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