Thursday, August 23, 2012

Damsels in Distress

This is a topic I've been wrestling with a lot lately.

Metaphorically wrestling, of course. Physically wrestling with a topic would be a tad one-sided.

Here's my problem: Is a Damsel in Distress a truly anti-feminist character?

Can there be no gray area on this issue?

I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that I am not a particularly staunch feminist. I support (and am grateful for) equal rights, but, let's face it... I'm also a homeschooling housewife. I don't feel the need to have a career to validate who I am, and I love that my identity is intertwined with (but not defined by) my husband's. (please note: you can be the exact opposite of me on this, and I still love you. I'm not right, you're not wrong, we're just different.)

With that disclaimer out there, I have to say I've noticed a disconcerting trend. There is a very loud voice in the book blogging/writing/reading community that says anytime a girl or woman is rescued, she's setting feminism back a couple generations. That by simply being in danger, she is stripping women of the right to vote or the right to divorce their abusive husbands.

And I don't quite understand it.

There are times when characters need to be saved. If it's your main character, we hope s/he survives. And they can only be saved by one of two ways: They save themselves or are saved by a hero/ine. (I am dismissing entirely the idea that the villain might suddenly implode, leaving our protagonist danger-free.)

Either way, the saving has to make sense. There are some things you can do for yourself, and some you cannot. Fictional superpowers can obviously alter this, but for simplicity's sake, I'm going to leave those out of the equation.

Let's create a fictional female. She's physically fit, confident and smart. As she is walking home one night, she is abducted at knife-point and thrust into a back alley, where she is bound and gagged. Her attacker starts to rape her.

Now let's create a fictional male. He knows the fictional female through a neutral setting (school or work) and is on positive terms with her (i.e.- he is not the villain in disguise). He's physically fit, confident and smart. He walks past this back alley, sees what is happening and has a decision to make.

What decision is he going to make?

I would hope that he would take the necessary steps to attempt to save her.

But so many people are crying about the idea that a woman doesn't need saving, that it almost feels like they would prefer a story in which this fictional male walks by, sees whats happening, and leaves, thinking to himself, "She's a strong, confident female. I am sure she can work that out for herself. I'll just text her tomorrow to make sure she's okay."

I know what the first argument is going to be: Don't write characters that need saving! Don't put them in that situation!

But here's the thing: Your character should be in danger at some point. The stakes need to be high, and your protagonist needs to be on the brink of death/failure/losing all hope. If you refuse to put your character in danger (emotional danger counts), then you are chickening out.

Trust me, I'm not advocating for a wilting flower to take over as our new leading lady. I don't want a girl who simply stands by, wringing her hands while the hero fights for her honor. I don't want to read one book after another of girls who fret and worry and avoid making any kind of a decision, forcing the men in their lives to make their decisions for them. None of that would be fun to read, and I know it. 

But here's where the rubber meets the road: would we do this to a man? If a male character needs saving... do we automatically think of him as weak? Do we think less of the author for giving a hero some assistance? When a male character gives in and finds help, do we throw the book at the wall, shouting, "You should be stronger than that! You are giving men everywhere a bad name!"

No. It seems as though it's okay to write a male character as being in over his head and requiring help/saving/rescuing/whatever.

Is this another one of those situations where we expect far more of women than we do of men? Men work outside the home, come home and relax. Women work outside the home, come home and cook dinner. (HUGE GENERALIZATION, I KNOW. KIND OF THE POINT OF THE POST. MOVE ON.) Individual situations may vary, but the societal expectation is still there (how many commercials for cleaning products and home cooked foods have you seen featuring men doing all the work, even though women make up fifty percent of the American workforce?)

The same idea applies here- are we expecting far more of our female characters than we are of our male characters? To the point where we don't want female characters to have genuine flaws or disadvantages?

What say you? Is a Damsel in Distress automatically a strike to feminism? Or is it possible to be strong, in every sense of the word, but still need a little help now and then?

9 comments:

  1. What I see SO often is people THINKING they're forwarding women's rights, but are actually disdainful of womanhood.
    I do not need to act like a man to be as strong or as capable as a man.
    I'm comfortable enough with who I am to be both thankful and proud that I can stay home with my kids.
    My husband works with a woman who spends 2/3 of her income on her aupair, and then complains that she doesn't see her children...
    BUT - she would never be one of "those women" who choose to stay home.
    Wha....?
    HOW does that idea help women??
    I don't get it.


    So. No. Totally fine to be a damsel in distress. Totally fine for a woman to be a woman and act like a woman.
    I have a post on a related topic in the near future...
    Great post BTW.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Melbourne on my MindAugust 24, 2012 at 2:22 AM

    OMG. Please write the spontaneously combusting villain thing! Because NO ONE WOULD SEE IT COMING.


    I think the damsel in distress is fine, PROVIDED she doesn't just sit there and cry about her situation. If she makes an effort to get out of the situation herself, then I'm fine with it. For example, in an episode of the X-Files (what else would I watch?!) I saw last night, Scully got kidnapped by a crazy likes-to-chop-off-fingers psycho. He tied her up and shoved her in the cupboard while he prepared his finger chopping supplies. But instead of being resigned to her fingers-chopped-off-and-murdered fate, she managed to get out of the cupboard, commando crawl across the room (her hands were tied behind her back and she was gagged) to her gun, get her hands in front of her, and walk out to confront him. Of course, Mulder turned up to save her and kicked the door in just before she walked out of the bedroom, so technically he was still there to save the damsel in distress. But she didn't a) sit there and wait for a man to rescue her, OR b) say "I've got this - no need to help me, Mulder. You can wait outside."


    I have no idea if that made sense. Basically? I'm all in favour of the self-rescuing princess. But in certain circumstances (rapists, murderers, crazy people), the damsel in distress is fine. Hell, I can't be totally against it, because I did a damsel in distress act in Peru when Ness got sick!! (Also, Dana Scully is my hero)


    Okay. I'll stop now. Because seriously - longest. comment. ever.

    ReplyDelete
  3. One of the core characters in my current novel is technically a damsel in distress. She's strong, intelligent, and rebellious, yet she has flaws and gets into trouble. But I never really thought of her as weak. I don't think damsels in distress are anti-femininism because we all need help sometimes, male or female, and in fiction that sticky situation that characters find themselves in will usually be pretty big! If the character needs help then I think you can relate to them more. As others have said, as long as the female isn't just sitting there doing nothing but flicking her hair and crying, then I don't I don't think a damsel in distress is anti-feminist.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I was actually going to give Scully as an example! She was a very strong, independent character, but sometimes she got into situations she couldn't get herself out of alone and Mulder had to rescue her. She rescued him a lot, too, though. I agree that a female character needs to make an effort as much as she can to try to save herself, and characters who are so passive they won't try are, frankly, pretty dull. So I think as long as it's an interesting, strong character, a damsel in distress situation is fine.

    And so is being a homeschooling housewife. One of my favorite pieces on feminism is Sarah Bunting's "Yes, You Are" (http://tomatonation.com/culture-and-criticism/yes-you-are/), and I agree with her assessment that as long as you believe in equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. None of the things you are make you any less of one, Gina.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I work out with a bunch of EMTs/firefighters, and I'm telling you right now the strongest woman there cannot get away from a determined strong man. It's ludicrous to even think this is possible, or that it takes away from how "strong" a woman is. (I'm actively not trying to drop the words legitimate rape, or Akins here)

    I think the thing that annoys me is the wimpy clings to a man, can't make her own decision, is too worried about what the man thinks kind of girl. We all want to have someone care about us, but a strong person wants to be loved for who they are, and a weak person is willing to be what they think someone else wants.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I work out with a bunch of EMTs/firefighters, and I'm telling you right now the strongest woman there cannot get away from a determined strong man. It's ludicrous to even think this is possible, or that it takes away from how "strong" a woman is. (I'm actively not trying to drop the words legitimate rape, or Akins here)

    I think the thing that annoys me is the wimpy clings to a man, can't make her own decision, is too worried about what the man thinks kind of girl. We all want to have someone care about us, but a strong person wants to be loved for who they are, and a weak person is willing to be what they think someone else wants.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I work out with a bunch of EMTs/firefighters, and I'm telling you right now the strongest woman there cannot get away from a determined strong man. It's ludicrous to even think this is possible, or that it takes away from how "strong" a woman is. (I'm actively not trying to drop the words legitimate rape, or Akins here)

    I think the thing that annoys me is the wimpy clings to a man, can't make her own decision, is too worried about what the man thinks kind of girl. We all want to have someone care about us, but a strong person wants to be loved for who they are, and a weak person is willing to be what they think someone else wants.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I love love love this post. There's this music video by Brandon Flowers (hot sizzles of a cute man) called Crossfire where Charlize Theron is saving him from all these sticky situations. Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AhU12zC8fc Watch it. Bradon Flowers is the Damsel in Distress. It's freaking awesome and makes me laugh. Well, I decided I wanted to write a book with a strong female character. You've read my book BOUND. Gen is a strong character (at least that spitfire will crack the whip in the next book, just you wait). I thought that the world needs a strong female. Anyway, she still has some issues of weakness because of circumstances.
    Anyway, yes, if a guy needed to be saved, they would be thought of as weak. I hope I'm making sense here. Again I love your post.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I've just downloaded iStripper, so I can watch the sexiest virtual strippers on my taskbar.

    ReplyDelete