We have seen this scenario countless times; the male hero gets to defeat the villain, save the day, and rescue the beautiful damsel. It’s a tale as old as time, and one of the earliest damsels in distress is found in Greek mythology where the nude and sobbing Andromeda is chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a giant sea serpent. She is rescued by Perseus, who just happens to be flying by on a winged horse (because, you know, you generally do stuff like that). Since then, the story has pretty much followed this recipe; Take one beautiful girl, a villain, a hero to save the day, and a treacherous location to really up the tension. Confine the damsel, and mix in emotional stakes. Add the villain, sprinkled liberally with evil, on a platter of a treacherous location. Add the superhero and mix together for several breathtaking fights to the death. Crush villain and melt superhero and damsel together with a pinch of passion to taste.
Though seen as fluff by many and an example of a bygone era, the damsel in distress plays an integral part in many movies. In addition to providing a bit of female representation in traditionally male-dominated genres (and sometimes an ear-piercing soundtrack), she is there primarily to make the hero look more heroic and the villain look even eviler. Vintage sci-fi comics show fascinating representations of the archetypical damsel and provide mesmerising insight into the thinking of the day.
Damsels in distress have been around in sci-fi and fantasy movies since 1933’s King Kong featured the hysterical cries of Fay Wray, the beautiful heroine lusted after by the damn dirty ape. Some heroes, like the current Captain America, have never saved a damsel in distress, but our faith in man’s empathy for others gets restored when, from time to time, someone shows us that there are real heroes among us who can do just that.
Notable damsels are not only made of flesh and blood but also of artwork and pixels. There is Penelope Pitstop, who spends most of her time trying to get herself out of trouble, even as the male competitors in the Wacky Races rush to cater for her “helplessness”.
More modern examples include Spider-man`s Mary-Jane Watson, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, who often finds herself in peril and being captured by many of Spiderman’s villains, giving Spider-man an emotional stake in the action. And who else but a damsel in distress can make Superman want to give up his super powers? Although Lois Lane is not as weak as she might appear at first glance.
Even badass sci-fi icon Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) briefly finds herself in distress, first imprisoned in A New Hope, and later chained in Return of the Jedi. She subverts the trope however and handles her own business by ultimately fighting beside her “rescuers”, and choking Jabba with the same chain that binds them together.
The damsel in distress trope seems like an outdated concept these days. Nowadays, audiences clamour for heroines who empower themselves, the modern damsel is not as helpless as she would like the hero to believe. A study examines the perceptions that arise from the portrayal of superheroines and badass women in sci-fi. Jean Grey in X-Men, Zoe Washburne in Serenity, and Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, these are not your prototypical “damsels”, and they are certainly not in distress. These are strong, capable women, who are more likely to do the rescuing that need to be rescued. Wonder Woman is (thankfully) driving the final superheroine nail into the damsel in distress coffin.
Even Disney heroines have toughened up. A far cry from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty, who are each saved by the hero of their respective films, newer Disney princesses like Moana and Anna in Frozen are taking the adventures and fighting the fights traditionally left to the Princes and knights in shining armour. As Meg from Hercules says; “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this. Have a nice day.”