Helpless, piteous, totally incapacitated. Her fate is in dire straits, she is left at the mercy of the most villainous of all villains. Her hands are tied literally and physically, there seems no hope, no way out but still she waits for a hero to come, someone who will save her…
A woman kidnapped or in serious trouble, doing nothing on her own to remedy the situation but instead waits anxiously for a “hero” to save her is quite simply a damsel in distress. This stereotypical figurine is young, good looking, hysterical at her fate and once rescued, very enthusiastic in showing her gratitude. It is her innocence, her untouched purity and her goodness that compels the hero to rescue her at any cost. Those very factors make her the ideal target for a villain to show off his/hers dastardliness and evil nature. The damsel is also the main candidate for the villain to explain his/hers nefarious intentions to at length and cackle evilly at (“Muhahahaha”). Typical and ideal locations for holding such captives is a lair, cave, hideout or history’s favorite, the edge of a cliff. The damsel is busy either screaming her lungs out, bawling her eyes out, or looking all sacrificial.
Examples of The Damsel in Distress Cliche
The word damsel comes from the French word demoiselle meaning “young lady”. How or what conjured up such a concept? Perhaps a look at some classic examples of damsels in distress will illustrate this cliche’s inception and development.
The Ancient Greek gods and goddesses had this thing for sacrifices to appease their restless spirits. As if the task of finding someone to sacrifice wasn’t hard enough, they were also picky about the objects being sacrificed and laid down specs like young, nubile, virginal women. The best and most famous example is the tale of Andromeda, princess of Ethiopia. Legend has it that her mother bragged about her beauty and this angered the god of the sea, Poseidon who sent Cetus, a beast from the depth of the sea, to ravage the land. Andromeda’s parents offered her as a sacrifice to the beast by chaining her naked to a rock on the coast. Noble Perseus decided to intervene, slew Cletus and rescued Andromeda, whom he then married and lived happily ever after with.
The dragon, a fearsome mythical beast, is also to blame for the rise of this cliche. Similar to the Greeks, dragons were said to be appeased by human sacrifices, again young, nubile and female. The tale of Saint George and the Dragon is the quintessential damsel tale, where the dragon demanded a daily human sacrifice. The victims were chosen through a lottery and by chance, the royal princess was offered. Alas, all seemed lost but Saint George was traveling nearby and faced the dragon, killed it in a magnificent battle and saved the princess. Another cliche that arose from this tale, is that of the knight-errant, a traveling knight who seeks to establish his worth with feats of valor.
Most fairy tales feature formulaic characters, like a handsome prince, an evil witch and a damsel in peril. Here the ring leader is Rapunzel, who lets down her hair for her prince to rescue her. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty also qualify as distressed damsels. The distressed damsel is also a central element of Gothic literature. In such novels with a dark and brooding tone, a helpless female captive imprisoned by a wicked nobleman or the village elders, adds zing and the element of romance to the plot.
Time to move on to the world of cinema. Walt Disney was very fond of this cliché. Films such as Aladdin and Anastasia, feature the heroine getting stuck in a situation and the hero racing back to save her. In the film version of Sleeping Beauty, the prince has to face a huge dragon to awaken the sleeping princess. With live action films, King Kong uses the distressed damsel cliche to the max. The giant ape wreaks havoc on a city but in his last stand, manages to capture a beautiful actress and takes her to the highest point in a city, in an effort to claim her as his own.
The Fifth Element features Milla Jovovich as the futuristic visitor without a clue to her identity and in need of dire rescuing. Another classic example is Princess Leia in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Even the medium of video games has its cliche moments with Princess Peach Toadstool of the Nintendo Mario series, being the damsel to be rescued by Mario in each game.
The distressed damsel remains a hated cliche amongst feminists, as it portrays women as feeble and ineffective beings, who always need men to rescue them. Also the damsel does very little to help herself and seems highly foolish and naive. In recent times however, this cliche is rarely used and women are portrayed in a more aggressive, less helpless light. A new concept has emerged of the distressed dude or dude in danger, where the man or hero needs rescuing and waits for a woman to save him!