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The Damsel In Distress—Why Female Protagonists Are Still Stuck In A Tower

Damsel in Distress, Tower, protoganist, lady with sword, dragons, pastels, illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy.jpg


What Is A Damsel In Distress, and What Is A Protagonist?

  • The Damsel in Distress: The traditional damsel in distress is a sweet, innocent, fragile, and most of all beautiful young girl who falls into some kind of danger and who the (mostly) male protagonist must save to win the day.

Personally, I don't have a problem with the damsel in distress trope. It's hardly dripping in originality, and there are far more interesting stories to tell, but we have enough ink for stories about heroes and damsels as well as other narratives.

  • The Protagonist: A protagonist is the 'chief actor' in a narrative; they make the primary decisions and drive the plot forward through their actions.

The Damsel In Distress Reloaded

The new and improved damsel is a bit more well-rounded; she has a character beyond beautiful and in trouble. She has *cough* agency. Maybe she's introduced as a badass character who falls into a trap. She at least tries to escape. She struggles against her captors, kicks them in the shins, etc., etc.

To an extent, I blame this expansion of the damsel cinematic universe for some of our more boring female protagonists.

Damsels Have To Be Perfect To Galvanize A Rescue

I get it; for a very long-time female characters were trapped in towers, besieged by dragons, spending the run time of any given story literally sleeping. And as we all know, if someone is in trouble, we need to test how close their personality traits lie in relation to sainthood before anybody gets a ladder and rescues them.

Female characters have largely been written based on their worth as something to be rescued. While I'm not going to outright say it doesn't exist, I've personally never come across a story where the Hero has to rescue a damsel who is a pain in the ass who no one but him likes. A story where the Hero's friends plead with him to leave her to the dragon, and he shrugs, "Yeah, she's a pain, but she's my pain," and charges forth into the great unknown. No, Helen needs to inspire Troy, or you're left with one dude banging his sword against a door.

She's Still Stuck In A Tower, But Now She Has a Sword

Storytellers have taken this traditional damsel character with all her sleepiness and sighing, given her some specialness (that she doesn't have to work for because that would involve writing, which yawn, who wants to write?) and thrown her into the protagonist role. Every other character still has to like her because she's still a damsel, but now she's the damsel with an inexplicable skill with a lightsaber. Here's the thing, giving sleeping beauty a sword and calling her a warrior princess does not make her one. Giving her some sassy one-liners doesn't make her a fully developed character.

Writing a character who is simultaneously the strongest character and the weakest character is going to lead to something smudged and potentially annoying. How can she spend her days hanging around a tower, waiting to be rescued but also be the main character in the narrative, the one needs to make decisions and propel the story forward? You will likely end up with a POV character who shouldn't be the POV character; the dude rescuing her should be the POV character. He'll be the protagonist, and your story will be weaker because you aren't following the Hero; you're following the damsel instead. This is something I've noticed in a lot of female-led TV shows and movies (like the TV series Foundation, which had me foaming at the mouth with annoyance.) The story is determined to follow the female character around, but they refuse to actually let her be the protagonist in the story.

What Motivates a Damsel?

Male heroes are often driven by morality, by revenge against something that happened to those that they love. A kidnapped girlfriend, a murdered wife, a slaughtered family. Money—don't ask me why, but even the pursuit of money is often framed as noble. Female characters are often still the victim, still locked in the tower, besieged by dragons, but now they are also the protagonist motivated because they were locked in a tower.

I hate to say this, I really do, but it's why so many female characters come across as whiny. When a male character finally breaks down his walls, connecting to his softer, more emotional side, and tells someone (usually a nice gal) about their terrible past, they aren't moaning about their own experience but the pain of what happened to their loved ones. Right or wrong, it comes across as noble. Harry Potter (who by book four was a bit of a moaner) didn't complain about his bedroom being a cupboard under the stairs; he was traumatized by his parents being murdered. It has a different ring to it.

We consume media, and that media tells us that women care most of all about, well, themselves. That they are solely motivated by past personal trauma makes women seem petty and small, not heroes, but victims... damsels in distress. Women are not like this (at least not all women), but like a snake eating its own tale, we are trapped in repeating what we are told.

The Modern Protago-damsel Gets Beaten Bloody

This drives me absolutely mental: writers need to stop abusing female characters as a sad replacement for backstory. The level of abuse a female character must endure to justify her actions is out of control. If I have to read another book where the female protagonist is essentially tortured for thirty pages, I'm going to scream. Is this a symptom of damselling our female protagonists?

We're following her around the tower, and it's frankly dull, so the writers feel the need to detail just how awful her experiences have been to fill the run time? Is it because she's a damsel masquerading as a protagonist, and as such, she needs to be in distress near constantly? Or is it a symptom of this belief that women are solely motivated by past trauma, and to justify their actions (and frankly their personality), trauma needs to be at a level 10?

I really don't know. I don't know why female characters can't be motivated by the small things that motivate male characters. Their parents were murdered, finding their girlfriends in the refrigerator, getting their carpet back, or, you know, money.

Female Characters, Damsels, and Perfection

Perfection is boring, but characters who are not perfect but who are treated as perfect are the most boring of all. This refusal to acknowledge the flaws of the female leads results in a disconnect, a lack of relatability. I, the reader/ watcher, find this character annoying, but no one in the narrative acknowledges that feeling. It's frustrating for the rest of us plebians to watch someone achieve so much while seemingly barely trying, but nobody in the show demonstrates a similar frustration. Nobody is just the tiniest bit bummed out that someone is so naturally talented that she doesn't even have to try.

It's imperative for your traditional damsel to be perceived as likable by the narrative; sadly, her docile temperament and pretty face save her. Without those characteristics, she'd likely end up trapped in the tower forever. A protagonist does not need to be liked by everyone. It's recommended that he, she, or they aren't because perfect characters who are universally beloved are neither sympathetic nor relatable. A persecuted, perfect protagonist is not a good protagonist; they are a damsel.

Worse yet, this is not a symptom of woke Hollywood refusing to paint their female characters as anything but a Mary Sue; it's a refusal to allow any 'good guy' characters to display negative emotions towards female characters. Bad guys are intolerant and are summarily owned by her *cough* witty comebacks; good guys smile and encourage her perpetually.

Can The Damsel Be The Protagonist?

Yes, she can.

It's not very unusual, in male or female characters, for the protagonist to be a little bit stuck at the beginning of the book, but they need to get unstuck through a character arc; rescues are for damsels, self-discovery is for protagonists.

If you have a damsel on your hands, you will likely need to tell a story about her, er… damselness. Transplanting the personality of a damsel, sweet, innocent, and perfect, into a protagonist role will end badly unless there is some kind of character investigation. It's like taking all Superman's characterization and personality traits and trying to turn him into a damsel; there will be significant leg work involved to make that realistic.

Writers want to write about damsels, but not about a damsel's story, they want their female characters to be perfect, beautiful, desirable objects to be rescued, but they also want them to be protagonists. They don't care about the damsel's story. They don't want to arc her into something more; instead, they want to wrap her in silk and preserve her just the way she is while still calling her the protagonist. It's the storytelling equivalent of trying to have it all.


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