Recently, Anita Sarkeesian released the first video in her series called Tropes vs Women in Video Games. Its content is entirely about the use of one of the most common literary devices pertaining to women in entertainment: the Damsel in Distress. I’ve seen a few of the related video responses, and I’ve spent a good portion of my free-weekend-time reading the comments and critiques people have given her or engaging in an actual conversation about it. And I’m noticing one common theme among a lot of the people responding to this.
Many of them don’t really seem to understand what the Damsel in Distress trope is at its core, citing their disagreement with categorising Zelda as a damsel. If they do understand it, they don’t understand how its constant use can be harmful and problematic to our society. Also, they wilfully ignore the creation of a similar category of these characters: the Helpful Damsels.
There are probably more than a dozen explanations of what this trope really is, but I’ll save some time and put it out there like this. The Damsel in Distress is essentially any young and presumably innocent woman who has been captured. This capture can be filed under physical detainment, curse or possession, or any other form of psychological captivity. There is only one person who can save this woman: the altruistic hero. You know that he’s altruistic because there are often stories intertwined with the original that show the moral impurities of the previous would-be rescuers.
The essential story element is the heroic effort to save this woman. In the past, it was often a woman of the upper echelon, specifically a princess. Today, you’ll probably see a woman from the middle class reprising that role; in all honesty, you’re still more likely to find they’re middle-upper class and higher. This is also systemic of an issue about the perceptions of class hierarchies in entertainment, which is a conversation for an entirely different day.
Sarkeesian also puts forth a category that we’ve seen many times before: the Helpful Damsel. Her examples of this range from the damseled characters providing the hero with pieces of useful information to giving him items that will provide useful on the journey. We’ve seen these sorts of damsels in the past, too.
Final Fantasy X’s Yuna is a great of example of a character that maintains growth, is well-liked by fans and can be useful but is repeatedly made into a damsel. She’s physically captured by the Al Bhed to stop the journey, she’s physically taken by Seymour and forced to marry him, and then Mika psychologically imprisons her by holding the fate of her friends’ lives as a result of her actions. Her power is taken away from her in all of those moments, leaving it up to the hero (Tidus) and company to rescue her. She’s helpful, but she’s also left weakened. This then turns to another annoying plot twist (which should build her strength of character) that she’s threatening to commit suicide in order to save her friends, even though we know she’ll be saved by her summoned aeon. Her sudden ingenuity is delightful but also a poor piece of writing, since she could’ve done it before she even married Seymour. Much of this is to place the story back on Tidus and his character development or understanding of the world he’s been placed in, not to enhance Yuna.
In other areas of popular culture, one of the most well-known examples of a Helpful Damsel is Rapunzel. The entire story is about her being stuck in a tower against her will by an evil witch; the tower essentially has no way of entering it as it has no stairs or doors. The only way in is by climbing her hair, which then begs the question of why her prince didn’t rescue her immediately and continued leaving her in a tower. But she provides him with assistance in her “rescue,” using her hair as a ladder or rope. In other variations of the story, the witch can levitate which reduces the necessity of Rapunzel’s hair; this somehow makes Rapunzel unaware that her hair is really bloody long. Her captivity plays on the prince’s attitudes and perceptions, as does the eventual moment when the witch sends her off into the world to “fend for herself.” We don’t get to see her development to the world in most variations (Disney thankfully addresses this), and we’re only privy to how these events of Rapunzel’s life affected the prince. It’s awkward.
Either way, Rapunzel is placed in this story as a damsel in distress (she’s detained in a tower) who is also helpful (her hair is a ladder, and she recognises this at some point). We see this in video games all the time. The newer incarnations of Princess Peach, even when captured, provide her hero (most likely Mario) with assistance; the number of times she’s detained in the entire main series is overwhelming when compared to the times she is not. There may be a handful of examples where she’s not captured, but there are far more times where she is. That’s what continues to make it problematic; one swallow doesn’t make a summer.
The same goes for Princess Zelda, which is an example that Sarkeesian uses and people hold issues with. The biggest issue seems to be that Zelda is exceptionally helpful and is thusly not a damsel in distress. The problem with that is that this trope applies to temporary points of time, which doesn’t negate the fact that while Zelda can be helpful, she still becomes a damsel at some point in time.
While it’s wrong of the video to say that Tetra is Zelda (because she’s not – she’s a descendant, which is more a case of semantics and story accuracy), it is fair to say that Tetra is a strong female so long as she’s a pirate; the moment she reveals herself to be a member of the Hyrulean Royal Family? Bam, she’s kidnapped. That’s not even the only case of being damseled in Wind Waker; it starts off with Aryll being kidnapped, starting Link’s journey with Tetra.
The same thing goes of the other instance in which people are taking issue with: Zelda as Sheik in Ocarina of Time. The moment she reveals her true self, she’s captured. That’s what damseling is. She goes through the entire game as a helpful male who then succumbs to detainment by Ganondorf the moment she reveals herself to be Princess Zelda. It doesn’t matter what the story reason is (that she’s part of the Tri-Force); it matters that it’s the literary device being used.
The Damsel in Distress trope is, to quote Sarkeesian’s video, something that happens to a character. It’s not purely something the character is; that’s the distinction, and that’s why it’s so important to pick up on this subtlety when it’s used in a context similar to Ocarina of Time.
But you’re saying that it’s bad to use this trope! It advances plots and stories and has a purpose!
No one said this trope is bad. What we’re saying is that it’s problematic because of its overuse. Even if you examine modern incarnations of this trope, there’s still one commonality that causes problems: The vast majority of people in the Damsel in Distress role are females (hence the name). With games like Final Fantasy XIII, we’ve found that the primary hero no longer has to be male. The sad fact remains that the person in need of help? She’s still female. So at least we’ve advanced to the possibility to save someone, but we’re still saving a woman; men almost never require rescuing in the entertainment industry. They are more likely to be able to escape through their own engineering and cunning.
It’s not always a bad plot device to have someone in distress, to have a hero who wants to save someone who is in trouble. It’s the way the treatment of the characters is handled or how the characterisation of that distressed person is neglected. Another issue is that when a damsel goes through the capture, the story does not belong to her; it belongs to the hero. We see how it affects them, and we are rarely privy to any information as to how the detainment has affected the detainee. It merely becomes an “oh, thank you” and everyone continues on their merry way. That’s what makes it problematic.
This may be changing slightly, but it’s still happening. You can see it if you look at games like Borderlands 2 and how they handle their two female characters. At the start, we already have the damsel in distress: Angel. Angel’s being held against her will by her father because Sirens are powerful beings who allow Handsome Jack to obtain his ultimate goal. Later, when Angel forfeits her life to help your character, Lilith is then captured and made to do the same thing. Both women have been damseled in the course of the game. They’re both women who I would consider to be Helpful Damsels, and they’re both strong in their personalities. Angel’s a bit more difficult in this category because Jack occasionally uses her through psychological captivity to screw with you and mess up your journey to ruin his plans.
This isn’t an inherently bad thing; the Borderlands games are wonderful, and I enjoy them immensely. But it is important to see that these are two recent examples where there are still women being placed in roles where their power has been stripped from them. Lilith is a capable fighter, and we see that; Angel is brilliant, and we’re given clues to that through both side stories and her ability to try to help you outside of the mental possession. They’re great characters, and the story is still enjoyable. The problem is that both characters lose their power and are forced to do something they against their will, and that’s not something you generally see with male characters.
The point of this is that sometimes we want to see an equal representation of what’s actually happening in the real world. Women help men on a daily basis, doing more than just handing them information and items to make their lives easier. Likewise, men aren’t always the white knight coming to a woman’s rescue. Why is it that we don’t really see this reflected in our entertainment media? Why is it that women are rarely allowed to save men in the same way they save us? These are all valid questions that we should be asking.
We’re not saying to eradicate this story entirely, but we are asking for there to be either slight changes made to it (making girls less useless in their own escape, which has actually increased the number of ‘Helpful Damsels’) or to add other stories to the mix and provide options for a demographic of both men and women that is tired of the same lazy storylines.
In 2009, the Entertainment Software Association found that women were 38% of the gaming audience; I’m sure the statistics have increased, even if slightly, in the last four years. Even though things are changing (especially with indie games picking up some of the slack and the increased popularity in open-world sandbox games like Minecraft), we’re still seeing a large portion of the stories focusing on the same elements without offering any alternative stories.
Things are getting a little better, yes. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still issues that we shouldn’t address. This is only one trope out of many that we should be addressing; it doesn’t even hit on the others that are used to characterise females in games. It doesn’t even pick up on how we use effeminate men in games, and it doesn’t express the crassness of the stereotypes for masculinity that we still see. It doesn’t express issues with the portrayal and treatment of children. And it won’t even begin to address the many other areas of discrimination that we continue to see.
So for the tl;dr version of this entire post: Damsel in distress is an overused literary device that strips some or all of the power from a young female character by detaining her physically, psychologically or through a curse/possession. Her story is not her own and belongs to the hero as a means to progress his story. It is not something that a character is, but it is something that happens to a character; just because you’re a strong character at Point A of the story doesn’t mean you can’t be damseled in Point Z. It also doesn’t preclude you from helping the hero in some fashion. The problem is not that it exists but how it is represented and the frequency of those representations.