Damsel in Distress

I’ve mentioned before the my daughter, Brigid is a writer. I know you’ll get tired of that as a lead-in, but hey … it works for this post, so I figure you’ll just have to deal with it.

What I haven’t talked about here is that, as luck would have it, her husband (hence my son-in-law) Nick is also afflicted with this thing that compels one to tell stories. I’ve avoided talking about his work here because he’s just now finishing up his first book targeted for publication, and who the heck needs that kind of pressure, eh?

However, Nick recently posted quite an interesting discussion on the use of the Damsel in Distress trope—a topic that is getting some play in certain circles these days. As background, he provides a good bit of history regarding the use of hostages, and goes on from there. If you’re interested in the topic, it’s worth a read.

I admit to two feelings about the issue. First and foremost is that, yeah, the root of the argument—the root of the pushback—against the weak and defenseless damsel being held by the dastardly bad guy while our heroic golden boy charges forward to save the day is one-hundred percent bang on. The history of this trope is crammed to the brim by lazy writers at best, something Nick captures in this snippet:

Often times the sexualization of damsels in distress isn’t intended but rather the by-product of lazy, half-assed, mindless writing.

I would add, however, that the key words in this part of Nick’s commentary are “often times,” and that we should not read “often times” to always mean a majority of times. Often times may mean most times, but does not have to. In addition, I think it’s equally important to note that often times (and in my opinion most times) the sexualization (or genderization?) of the damsel in distress is indeed on purpose, or is at least the case of a writer dutifully and knowingly playing along with gender stereotypes (they casually, but purposefully, decide to use shorthand they think the audience will understand)—which can be argued to be equivalent to doing it on purpose.

In the case where it’s being done on purpose, it’s tantamount to the writer being a bit of an ass.

And in the case of the writer being lazy, well … there is no real excuse for being lazy at any craft that matters to you. If you are lazy, then you’re saying you don’t care enough to do better work, and, really now, isn’t that pretty close to “being an ass” of a different kind? Just throwing that out there.

I suppose there are exceptions to this rule, exceptions where the story carries value from the fact that the damsel is passive, but I’m sure they are quite rare. I can’t really think of any off the top of my head. In general, if you are writing a female (or male, for that matter, but those are considerably rarer) with nothing much to do in the story except to be rescued and then carted away as a trophy, then you will almost certainly be lumped in with the writers who are doing it on purpose, even if you’re just being lazy. Consider it a writer’s equivalency with the old adage that you should never argue with an idiot because the bystander may not be able to tell the difference.

I also, however, admit to a bit of angst whenever folks shout “thou shalt not have such a [insert favorite issue here] in thy work or else thee shalt face the wrath of the gods of taste.”

At this point, though, I have to fess up to the fact that I’m in the process of casting a bit of a magic trick here. I’m going to spend some time discussing the Damsel in Distress storyline as a plot device, and laying out what I think is a reasonable argument for allowing the use of the concept. Then I’m going to make that argument disappear before your very eyes. We’ll see if I can pull that off. Feel free to tell me I didn’t. I’m open to discussion. [grin]

So, let me start by equating the use of the Damsel in Distress storyline to my view on the use of profanity. I live squarely in the middle of the mid-West. I personally know many writers who refuse to use profanity in their work on moral grounds. This is completely fine. But what that says to me is that those writers are committing themselves to never being able to write certain characters the way they need to be written. And when you decide you will not write a certain character (or, as is more relevant to the discussion, a certain storyline), you are limiting yourself in ways I think are unnecessary.

In his post, Nick spends time discussing historical uses of hostages and the behavior of those hostages. These are all completely correct, and should be used by writers whenever the situation calls for. And he brushes on the motivations of both the hostage takers and the hostages during these events.

In that light, here is probably a key point in this “Damsel in Distress” conversation as Nick makes it—and it is, to my mind, the most important thing to walk away with if you’re attempting to write something worthwhile, regardless of the storyline you’re following.

The main issue with sticking to the “damsel in distress” trope is that too often people forget that the damsel is a character too, regardless if the damsel is in fact even a damsel…

Let’s not, after all, throw the damsel (or dude) out with the bathwater. It’s important to realize that in the case of the Damsel (or Dude) in Distress situation, as Nick’s post touches on, it’s not fundamentally the hostage (or assault, or whatever) storyline that is at fault. People do actually take hostages, and stronger people do actually assault weaker people. Hence it must be okay for writers to make such plot lines. No, as Nick suggests, the problem lies in the fact that the writer in question has not written the hostage/victim or the hero to be believable characters. I completely agree with this thinking.

Ideally, of course, your damsel or dude in distress is going to actually try to do something to get out of distress. Show me what they are doing. It’s okay if it doesn’t work. Not everyone can be Sarah Connor, after all. It’s okay if a hostage can’t get out of their situation on their own if you show me why. Or, if a damsel/dude in distress is going to sit passively around and wait to be rescued (as Nick’s post suggests they sometimes did), show me why they do that, and show me in a believable fashion. Make it real. Give them something to do, and something they care about. And, If the hero (or heroine) is risking everything to rescue the dude/damsel, please, please, please, make it for some reason more complex and valuable than the desire to boost his own identity by taking home the fairest maiden in the land. Living happily forever is fine, I suppose, if it’s all consensual and you can make it make sense to me. (grin)

If you can do those things, then the Damsel in Distress storyline can, will, and should work just fine.

Of course … (he says, cuing up the magic trick finale) … this argument is more than a bit disingenuous.

This is because the phrase “Damsel in Distress plot” is misnamed. The discussion around this topic is not really about the plot at all. Oh, of course there are discussions about the specific plot line, but plot is a symptom. I can say this because plot stems from character, character (or lack thereof) is the root cause of plot. So, while the heated nature of the modern day discourse around this subject feels like it’s centered on a plot line, it’s not really so. The conversation is, instead, actually about the lack of characterization or the utter reliance upon worn-out gender stereotypes to substitute for true characterization that writers use to create their characters. People who argue against the Social Justice Warrior-ness side of the discussion seem often to attempt muddying the water by inserting this storyline question into the mix, but the fact is this: If you have written real characters actively pursing goals through all means at their disposal, you have not written a “Damsel/Dude in Distress” story.

So, Nick’s point about character is well made. The entire point here is that writers need to stretch themselves to write robust characters. The “acceptable plot line” argument is therefore just an illusion, a diversion that can catch on because (for whatever reason) folks aren’t thinking about “story” from the right perspective.

But this is an important differentiation for writers to understand. When you understand that plot springs from character, you must then see that character is spoken to by plot. An example as an aside: If you replace Sleeping Beauty with a shiny red corvette, does it make a difference to Prince Charming? Possibly. Possibly not. If you’ve read this far, I hope you get the point I’m making here.

If a writer is obviously trying to write a good, strong characters in a hostage/assault/victim situation, but doesn’t do them well, then I’ll probably give that writer a point or two for the effort but will view them as still learning how to write. But if that same writer doesn’t even attempt to do those things, or if they just hand-wave, then I’ll likely assume that writer is either completely out of touch or is being an ass on purpose.

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