Monday, November 18, 2013

Trope of the Week - #1 Damsel in Distress

I love to play with tropes in my writing and the single best way for me to lose a couple hours is to visit the TVTropes website. Since I do enjoy tropes, I thought it would be fun to start a Trope of the Week feature. The goal is of course to do these weekly as my schedule permits.

The structure of these will be simple, an introduction and analysis of the trope and how they can be used both well and badly. So lets kick it off with one of the most famous tropes: the Damsel in Distress. This is one where I have to put on my feminist hat because of all the tropes out there this is one of the easiest tropes for the writer to inadvertently fall into perpetuating sexism. However I personally love stories that involve a rescue (or an attempted rescue) so how do we strike a balance? First lets talk about what a Damsel in Distress is.
The classic Damsel in Distress in a young, beautiful woman whose only purpose in the story is as a living MacGuffin to drive the story. The trope in this form is deeply problematic because it A) treats a person as nothing more than a living prop and B) tends to portray deeply sexist stereotypes about women as passive victims. Plenty has been written about the sexism behind classic damsels in distress, the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series has an excellent 3 part analysis of the subject and much of what is discussed applies just as well to written fiction as it does to video games. You can watch the first part below, I highly recommend watching all three especially the last part which discusses how games can break out of negative portrayals of damsels:

I would like to discuss Damsels in Distress more broadly than just as a helpless woman in peril as Anita Sarkeesian does in her videos. In this broader trope the damsel can be any character who is in a situation they appear unable to get out of themselves. The classic fairy tale the Snow Queen has a young girl rescuing her brother in a story that I feel is certainly an example of a male damsel in distress (the new Disney movie Frozen is based on this story but apparently they didn't like the idea of a girl saving her brother so they changed him into a sister instead which really disappoints me). In this sense there's nothing inherently wrong with having a character who needs to be rescued, it's a classic trope for a reason. Sometimes characters end up in situations they need help to get out of and most readers like happy endings. The problem arises when the damsel is a cardboard cutout character who could be replaced with the Holy Grail with no significant change in the story and which promotes sexist stereotypes of women as helpless and passive victims who need the big strong male hero to rescue them (which is itself an example of a sexist stereotype of men). So how can you do a storyline that involves a character in a situation that may require a rescue attempt without falling into the trap of the negative sexist portrayal of a damsel in distress? Here are several things to consider when you write a story involving a rescue:
  1. The character to be rescued is far more interesting as a fully fleshed out character with their own personalities, motivations, and flaws, and NOT a flat stereotype or possession of the hero.
  2. Explore the relationship between the characters, don't just assume that because someone has been kidnapped that the hero must save them. Tell me why.
  3. Heroes, villains, and damsels are roles in the story and NOT limited by gender (or age, race, etc). How about a young woman rescuing her father? Or a veteran cop (of any gender) who rescues a kidnapped CEO (again, could be any gender).
  4. How about a character who rescues themselves or who is assisted in their escape by the hero but are fully active participants in it.
  5. The damsel is NOT a reward (actually just in general, women are not prizes to be won by the hero). Of course if two characters have a strong pre-existing relationship you expect an emotional reunion and I have no issue with that at all, but when there is hardly any prior interaction between the two characters, or worse none at all, having the rescue lead to a romantic relationship reduces the damsel to simply an object to be won and has some pretty creepy implications as to the motives of the hero.
  6. The damsel has a perspective and story of their own, tell it. Don't focus solely on the hero's journey.
In real life there are people who are victimized and need help out of the situation. You don't have to avoid stories that explore the ways this happens, including how it happens to women. However you can explore these themes without falling back on gender stereotypes (and not just stereotypes of women), treating women only as props, or glorifying/fetishizing the abuse of women. Now let's say for the sake of argument that you aren't a feminist and like stories involving submissive women who are rescued by men, so all this discussion of how it perpetuates sexism doesn't speak to you (in which case I'm not exactly sure why you're here as my fiction is probably not to your taste). I still argue that the classic form of a damsel in distress that I described as 'negative' is still a poor storytelling choice regardless of your views on gender norms. What emotional payoff is there to your readers if the damsel could be replaced with the statue of a bird of prey with no real change in the story? Not a whole lot. There is nothing there to make your readers truly care about the welfare of the damsel and it's lazy storytelling. Making her a full fledged character, even one who adheres to very traditional gender roles, is going to be far better than a cardboard cutout who only serves as a prize for the male hero. The more depth your characters have, the richer their internal lives and the more compelling their motivations, the better your story will be. People have a broad range of personalities, motivations, and abilities. Don't pigeonhole them into narrow roles and you can use a trope like the Damsel in Distress in far more interesting ways.

Tropes are tools. Use them wisely.