Something I see a lot in feminist circles surrounding video games is that damsels in distress are still a thing and people are angry about it. And I won’t lie– I hate seeing the old-fashioned, shitty damsel-in-distress trope too. Just as much as I hate seeing women getting fridged.
But I also get really angry when I see this sentiment that empowered women aren’t allowed to be imprisoned, kidnapped, or held hostage because if that happens they are objectified and thus are now a token to be fought over by men.
Stop. Just stop. That may be true in a lot of media, but the concept of rejecting disempowered women itself reeks of ableism, survivor shaming, and rape culture.
The reason why the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope is so bad is that the woman’s peril in it is systematic. Being a Damsel is the only thing that can happen to her in stories like that, that she must become meaningful to a male character by means of defilement or imprisonment. The Systemic Damsel erases the value of the disempowered beyond the value to another, male character.
But there are periods of our lives, and in fictional characters’ lives, where we and they do not have power. Where things beyond our control happen to us. Where we are rendered objects and manipulated. There is a Nadir in many stories where the hero is stripped of agency and hope. By denying women the legitimacy to be portrayed as helpless, to be hurt by others, you deny them these experiences and their development.
It’s a form of the Just World fallacy in a way. Clearly, she isn’t a strong, good female character if she gets captured or has her agency removed in any way. She deserves what happened to her because a better character wouldn’t have this happen.
Women are told all the time that they shouldn’t desire saviors because it’s sexist. Women with health problems and mental health problems are told constantly to persist under their own power, that they shouldn’t need anyone to help them. Women in abusive situations can feel as if asking for help or telling someone means they aren’t in control of their life, or are worthless. Women who have been sexually assaulted are told constantly to “be strong” when they may not be able to be so.
Not every solution can come from strength within. Not for any character. If anything, three things are suspect:
It is OK to hope for a savior. It is OK to need help. It is normal, even inevitable that external forces are going to kick the ass of at least one woman in any setting, just as likely as it would be for a male character. It is not your fault to be foiled, to be imprisoned, to have your agency taken away. External assistance is valuable for women as it is for men. It is not your fault if you are not able to fight your way out or overcome your predicament without help. Being able to help later (say, when your cell is open and you have a gun) doesn’t invalidate inability in the present.
You are, and your character is, not less of a woman for not being able to do everything on their/your own.
It’s the idea that being kidnapped reduces women to gender-and-sexuality-masculinity-affirming tokens that is the problem. Breaking systemic roles allows female characters to be anything, including who they already were, without being accessory to someone else.
A woman being held captive is not an event that happens to a man, or to someone else.
A woman being held captive is something that happens to her, and is part of her story and development.
‘Writing Better Damsels in Distress,” ©betterbemeta, originally posted 28 March 2015