a very long ramble about damsels in distress

Hello again. So, this is the second installment of this column, which turned out to be a lot longer than what I expected it to be. Whoops.

In my last article I said that eventually I’ll get around to talking about the damsel in distress trope. Well, here we are. So why this topic? Because, frankly, it has evolved a lot during its timeline and man, it is a crazy journey.

Oh dear. Buckle in, because this is gonna be a doozy.

So, what makes someone a damsel in distress? A damsel in distress, to put it simply, is a helpless woman who later gets saved by some form of hero (this may vary; see any princess story ever). The damsel in distress basically serves as a prized object for the hero to save; she gives the hero an objective. It should be noted that most damsels in distress don’t take action to get out of their helpless situation, rather, they passively wait for the hero to save them. 

Furthermore, the hero is most likely male, and usually lacks a distinct personality (in a sense, they’re basically flawless). To explore this trope further I’ve catered a list of various damsels to examine: Princess Peach from the Mario franchise, the Disney Princess franchise as a whole, and Princess Fiona from the Shrek franchise.

Princess Peach:

Play any Mario Bros. game ever and the plot usually plays out like this: Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser (again…), and the Toadstool Kingdom calls on plumbers Mario and Luigi to rescue the princess. Cue playing dozens of levels (and various “Sorry, your princess is in another castle!” lines) in order to finally catch up to Bowser, toss him in lava or something, and get a kiss from Princess Peach herself. (Side note: how has throwing Bowser in lava not killed him, nor the various other ways the player defeats him?)

Princess Peach first appeared in the Mario games in 1985. That means that she has been repeatedly kidnapped by Bowser for around 36 years. At that point, Peach’s kidnapping is basically built into the franchise, and thus, successive Super Mario games will most likely have some form of Peach being kidnapped. It’s basically the franchise’s brand: someone’s gotta save Peach from Bowser or any of her other kidnappers. But, sometimes, the franchise switches things around; in Super Princess Peach, it’s Peach’s turn to save the famous plumber brothers, and in more recent games, Peach is a playable character. Furthermore, later female characters in the Mario franchise — Daisy and Rosalina specifically — have more distinct personalities. Daisy is hot-headed and Rosalina is aloof. Despite all of these developments, however, Peach definitely has more of a reputation for being a damsel than a hero.

The Disney Princess franchise:

Just to clarify, I’m going to be talking about the official Disney Princesses sans Pocahontas because that’s a whole other can of worms to talk about. This list will thus be Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (Aladdin), Mulan, Tiana (Princess and the Frog), Rapunzel (Tangled), Merida (Brave), Moana, and the latest one, Raya. Also, sorry Frozen fans, Anna and Elsa are surprisingly not part of this line.

To give a quick rundown of basic Disney Princess history in relation to the Disney Eras of filmmaking: Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora are part of the Golden/Silver era; Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Mulan are part of the Disney Renaissance; and Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Moana, and Raya are part of the Revival era. Keep that in mind for this next section where I dive into the evolution of Disney Princesses over the years and how they went from basic damsels in distress to fully independent female protagonists. 

The first three princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora) are your average damsels in distress; they’re helpless in their current situation and long for a prince to save them, for the most part (Snow White even has a song about this, AKA the wishing well song). Their sole purpose in the plot of their respective movies is to escape their terrible situation, and usually this involves a Prince Charming of some sort. And yes, while Cinderella does have a fairy godmother to help her out, the solution the fairy godmother gives is only temporary, meaning that she’s basically on her own once midnight strikes and the magic wears off (and technically the glass slipper she left behind should have disappeared with the rest of her ballroom wear).

During the Disney Renaissance (which included Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Mulan), the Disney Princesses start to develop a personality beyond getting saved by Prince Charming. Ariel has a deep curiosity about the human world; Belle wants to escape her provincial life (while being a total bookworm); Jasmine refuses to marry even though it’s needed in order to take the throne; and Mulan wishes to bring honor to her family despite not fitting into traditional gender roles. While all of them do have a Prince Charming figure in their movies, the Prince Charming figure does not influence their personalities in the beginning of the film. Rather, it is only after the Prince figure forms a bond with their respective Princess that the princess chooses to be with them at the movie’s end. Nonetheless, there are moments where these princesses have to be rescued: Ariel from Ursula’s sorcery, Belle from the wolves (and technically she has to be rescued from the Beast, which leads into a whole other tangent about Belle possibly having Stockholm Syndrome), Jasmine from Jafar, and Mulan from getting killed (though, special mention to Jasmine and Mulan for helping their prince outwit the antagonist —you go, ladies!). So here’s where the shift from traditional damsel in distress to fully independent princess starts to kick in.

Enter the Revival Era Princesses: Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Moana, and Raya. The princesses in this era have distinct personalities and aspirations that do not revolve around the presence of the prince. In fact, Merida, Moana, and Raya don’t end up with a suitor at the end of their films, and Merida’s film itself challenges the stereotype. The princesses who do get married (Tiana and Rapunzel) form a true bond with the princes in their movies, with both helping the princes through their major flaws (Naveen’s lack of purpose in life, and Eugene’s insecurities with identity). This era thus completes the shift: the princesses are no longer damsels in distress, but fully developed characters in their own right.

So, what to make of all that? This simple conclusion: maybe the entertainment industry has moved on from the damsel in distress trope and is ready to accept female protagonists as the center of their own movies.

Princess Fiona:

Now, what about a franchise that completely subverts this trope from the first movie? Enter the Shrek franchise and its princess: Princess Fiona. When she is initially introduced in the first Shrek movie, she has all the trademarks of a classic damsel in distress: trapped in a bad situation and in need of a prince to rescue her. She even starts off believing these things too. At least, until she gets rescued by Shrek as part of a deal he made to Lord Farquaad.

On Fiona, Shrek’s (and Donkey’s!) way back to Lord Farquaad, Fiona reveals that she’s not an average princess. For one thing, she can’t charm birds with her singing. Also, she’s apparently a master of martial arts and can kick butt. In addition, she can definitely give Shrek a run for his money with her belching. And yet she still believes in being rescued by a prince and finding true love with him, except, Shrek isn’t your average prince. For one thing, he’s an ogre. To further add, he’s an antisocial, lonely, and insecure ogre. And he definitely didn’t want to save Fiona in the first place. So, given these two personalities, it’s no surprise that at first Shrek and Fiona don’t get along. At least, until Fiona sees what Shrek is hiding inside his oniony self. Cue the falling-in-love montage (which, in this case, is a bunch of pretty gross stuff given that it’s Shrek). And then they return to Lord Farquaad, who later freaks out about Fiona’s curse and is swiftly eaten by a dragon. So Shrek and Fiona marry, and the rest of the franchise is basically them going on married couple shenanigans.

It’s clear from the first movie that Fiona isn’t a typical damsel in distress. She believes that someday a prince will come and rescue her from her situation, but she isn’t completely helpless (like, come on, she knows martial arts). The fourth movie especially highlights how capable Fiona is: she essentially rescues herself in an alternate reality where Shrek doesn’t save her. There is one perk to her wishing to be saved, though: it gives her faith in true love. When alternate Fiona rescues herself she becomes disillusioned and cynical, believing that true love is nothing more than a farce. And while alternate Fiona is still caring and kind-hearted to a degree, there’s no doubt that being imprisoned to the point of rescuing herself has traumatized her. In this way, alternate Fiona serves as a ‘what if’ to all damsels in distress if they were simply left in their terrible situations: if not rescued, will they end up snapping from their trauma? To be fair, Fiona was raised on this belief that a prince will come and save her, which probably made the damsel in distress trope fundamental to her life. That being said, maybe it’s a message that basing aspirations on this trope will only lead to disappointment in the future once it fails.

So, back to the whole damsel in distress trope. It’s clear that in present media, damsels in distress are being replaced with women who are capable of handling whatever the plot throws at them. This makes sense; back before feminism became mainstream, women were expected to be nothing more than submissive housewives, and the media would center female characters who were basically submitting to the will of the story. It should also be noted that many of the classic fairy tales parents tell their children are hallmarks of this trope (e.g. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, etc.), meaning that damsels in distress were probably present since peoples’ childhoods, especially in girls. Does that mean most of the fairy tales we’ve heard our whole lives are bad? Well, no. Fairy tales can be rewritten. I’ll explain how.

Damsels in distress seem to have one thing in common: they have hope. But instead of actively pursuing ways to escape their situation, they instead hope for a prince to come and rescue them. Hope is not, however, exclusive to the damsel in distress trope. Going back to the definition, a damsel in distress is essentially a female character who ends up being rescued. Hope plays no part in forming that trope, but hope can become a powerful character trait as female protagonists become the center of their own stories. Combine hope with desires, strengths, flaws, and other character traits, and soon it eventually forms the basis for a strong protagonist.

That being said, when fairy tales are rewritten so that the damsels in distress are in control of their own story, they essentially stop becoming damsels in distress. Take Tangled, which is basically a retelling of Rapunzel. Rapunzel herself is an extremely optimistic character who has been sheltered from the rest of the world. Despite this, she remains hopeful that one day she’ll get out and explore the world. This hopeful, optimistic personality even affects the cynical Flynn Rider, who, after hanging out with Rapunzel for most of the movie, decides to accept his past, take on his birth name (Eugene Fitzherbert) and move on from his life of thievery. That decision directly results from Rapunzel and the hope she gives to Eugene. In a way, both end up saving each other, with Eugene taking Rapunzel out of her tower to see the world, and Rapunzel helping Eugene come to terms with his past and thus choosing to move on from his criminal background. And that’s only one fairy tale.

Once female protagonists take the reins in their respective stories, it becomes clear that they don’t need some kind of prince to save them. The only problem is that many stories tend to center around “the man saving the woman,” thus reinforcing clichéd gender norms that really need to be retired. That’s why tropes such as the Damsel in Distress trope and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope exist: they’re basically female stock characters who only serve the “hero” of the story. It’s 2021. It’s time for the damsels in distress to take back control of their own stories.

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