All about the damsel in distress trope

Today we’re talking all about a once fairly common trope that is slowly dying out or being creatively subverted in the field of literature and cinema. Here you’ll learn all about the damsel in distress trope and how to escape its clutches and create a more appealing and effective female character(s).

1. Who is a damsel in distress?

Damsels in distress are female characters who are only in the story to drive forward a hero’s narrative but serve no purpose other than to be his love interest or a sexual object. They’re helpless and incapable of rescuing themselves from the villain’s clutches and are either killed off in the latter half of the story or claimed as a prize by the hero after their rescue. Honestly, it’s a done to death trope that has either run its course or been subverted by countless writers in favour of more compelling heroines. Furthermore, these damsels have no attainable goals of their own and little to no character development, thus coming across as caricatures.

Damsel in distress hercules gif

2. History of this trope

Earliest examples of this trope date back to the Greek myth of Andromeda wherein nymphs who were angered by Princess Andromeda’s boastful but beautiful mother targeted the kingdom and sent a giant sea serpent to annihilate the kingdom. The king and queen, in order to appease the serpent decided to sacrifice their daughter and chained Andromeda to some rocks. Then, along came the hero of the story Perseus who set forth to rescue Andromeda as long as mummy and daddy dearest would allow him to marry their daughter (gee, consent of the girl much, Percy?). Soon after Perseus slaughtered the fuck out of that serpent, our damsel in distress was, of course, claimed as a trophy wife (quite literally!). 

More modern depictions of this trope can be seen in Spiderman wherein Mary Jane is constantly screaming at the top of lungs till her web slinger boyfriend swoops in or in King Kong wherein Ann Darrow is kidnapped by an ape, only to be brought down by men sent in to rescue her. Both fair and virginal damsels are completely helpless and don’t really attempt to rescue themselves from their situation but rather await a man to do the job. It’s sexist and borderline offensive, but….

Historical Damsel in Distress gif

3. How to subvert this trope!

  • Create strong, non overly sexualised female leads who are kick ass and show their skills more than just talk about the same (if your action heroine is just a faux action heroine who doesn’t ‘walk the talk’ and does nothing extraordinary while the city burns, she might as well be a damsel in distress. 
  • Create a decoy damsel in distress. She isn’t really the damsel in need of rescuing but rather a damsel who was the mastermind behind the evil plan and only lured the hero in to his demise.
  • Create a layered and complex damsel who has her own motivations, beliefs, thoughts, actions, etc
  • Let your damsel decide if she actually wants to reward the hero or rebuff his advances
  • Don’t make your damsel a useless one. Let her at least try and fight her own battles. Maybe she is clever and fend for herself, but the reason she is weak and helpless is because her powers have been weakened, diminished or she has been brainwashed. Or let your damsel leave breadcrumbs behind for the hero or her rescue team to ultimately discover her, thus completing half their job for them (this type of subversion is known as the ‘damsel out of distress’ since she doesn’t need much help rescuing herself).
  • Damsel in distress Daphne gif
    Damsel in distress Daphne gif

    4. In short…

    Create female characters who will not only enrich the other character’s life but also are nothing short of awesome and layered themselves. It might sound difficult, but maybe begin with treating your female characters as humans who are active participants and treat them as their own person first and et voila, no more need for a damsel in distress! 

    No more damsel in distress Belle image

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