Damsels Causing Distress

By Lynette Kirschner

Paolo Uccello's depiction of Saint George and the dragon from 1470
Pao­lo Uccel­lo’s depic­tion of Saint George and the drag­on from 1470.

Yes, you read cor­rect­ly. I got the title right. You were prob­a­bly expect­ing ‘Damsels in Dis­tress’ so let’s look at that clas­sic theme in lit­er­a­ture first. You know the sto­ry, actu­al­ly every­one does. The dar­ing knight in shiny or rust­ed armor comes along and saves the damsel. She is in need of help, of res­cue, of a man. Although she might be well accom­plished in many aspects, she is unable to help her­self out of trou­ble and needs some­one else to do this for her. Usu­al­ly, the knight or prince must save her from a vil­lain or a fire-breath­ing drag­on. Of course, in my ver­sion the knight would tame or befriend the drag­on and not slay it. Well, I am get­ting ahead of myself. For now, let me say that rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the ‘damsel-in-the-dis­tress’ theme in pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture and film has changed with each wave of fem­i­nism.

Before the first wave, many sto­ries fea­tured a damsel in dis­tress, includ­ing most of the Dis­ney princess­es. Con­sid­er­ing that they are based on folk­lore, this isn’t sur­pris­ing. Let’s face it: the rights of women were reflect­ed in their low sta­tus in soci­ety. The goal of the first wave was to cre­ate more oppor­tu­ni­ties for white mid­dle and upper class women and secure the right to vote. The damsels were still in dis­tress but they were on the right path to final­ly have a bit more of a say in things.


The next group of damsels con­sists of ‘the ones with­out dis­tress,’ a term I came across while research­ing steam­punk. In his arti­cle, “Use­ful Trou­ble­mak­ers: Social Retro­fu­tur­ism in the Steam­punk Nov­els of Gail Car­riger and Cherie Priest,” Mike Per­schon apt­ly labels this type of women as “Damsels with­out Dis­tress.” He describes how Alex­ia, the pro­tag­o­nist in Gail Carriger’s book series, does not need her husband’s pro­tec­tion and mas­ters all the prob­lems asso­ci­at­ed with a preg­nan­cy alone, refus­ing to become a ‘fall­en woman.’ Steam­punk women have prob­lems but they con­fi­dent­ly deal with them inde­pen­dent­ly. More­over, in Balo­gun Ojetade’s, Moses: The Chron­i­cle of Har­ri­et Tub­man, Oje­tade takes the his­tor­i­cal per­son of Har­ri­et Tub­man, a for­mer slave who helped free slaves and spy for the Union army, and cre­ates a fic­tion­al sto­ry based on her expe­ri­ences. Here the pro­tag­o­nist is not only an exam­ple of a woman deal­ing with gen­der but also race discrimination.

I like to link the char­ac­ters Alex­ia and Har­ri­et Tub­man to sec­ond wave fem­i­nism. This group pri­mar­i­ly made up of white, mid­dle-class edu­cat­ed women strove for equal­i­ty, and some actu­al­ly did attain con­trol of their body. This move­ment was crit­i­cized for exclud­ing minor­i­ty and les­bian women. Since Steam­punk offers the pos­si­bil­i­ty to reimag­ine the past and to show how our future might have been, it offers new under­stand­ings of women and their roles in society.

night brokenUrban fan­ta­sy is one of my favorite gen­res because it has many ‘Damsels caus­ing Dis­tress.’ These ladies are right in the thick of things. They don’t need res­cu­ing and they cer­tain­ly don’t con­form to soci­ety. They are in the eye of the storm (or sto­ry). If the male pro­tag­o­nist – be he vam­pire, were­wolf or any oth­er being – is wel­come to come a long if he can keep up. And he just might also be allowed to help, if he’s lucky. This new role caus­es a lot of (dis)stress for the male pro­tag­o­nists. Let’s take one of my favorite urban fan­ta­sy hero­ines Mer­cy Thomp­son, for exam­ple. She is an under­pow­ered, mixed-race walk­er who as such has the abil­i­ty to change into a ‘nor­mal’ coy­ote at will. Despite her lack of pow­er, she leads were­wolves, vam­pires and the fae (i.e. all myth­i­cal beings) on a mer­ry chase and although she takes a beat­ing both phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly, she always comes out ahead.

With this last exam­ple, the pro­tag­o­nist is influ­enced by a mix­ture of third and fourth wave fem­i­nism. Basi­cal­ly, Patri­cia Brigg’s Mer­cy Thom­spon series takes the mul­ti-cul­tur­al view­point which ques­tions the rigid­i­ty of con­cepts, such as iden­ti­ty, gen­der, or sex­u­al­i­ty. But the fourth wave also has tend­ed to be very aca­d­e­m­ic at times, so it isn’t too sur­pris­ing that this wave is tak­ing the move­ment back to the pub­lic. All the goals that the third wave thought to have com­plet­ed but didn’t are hot­ly debat­ed top­ics once again. The fourth wave is also more inclu­sive and no longer rel­e­gat­ed to a just-for-women-only posi­tion that Mer­cy Thomp­son shows by try­ing to inte­grate equal­i­ty between men and women with­in her ‘pack’. Addi­tion­al­ly, race and gen­der issues are addressed, and she stands by her friends regard­less of race or sex­u­al orientation.

So the next time you read a book or watch a TV show or film, get out a check­list and see if the female pro­tag­o­nist is a damsel in dis­tress, with­out dis­tress, or is busy caus­ing distress.

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L. Lynette Kirschn­er is a lec­tur­er at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty with a degree in Ger­man Lan­guage and Lit­er­a­ture. She likes all things strange, dif­fer­ent, and off beat and often lets her stu­dents get geeky in class.