Originality is one of the great banes of modern life; we are all programmed to want to create something new and exciting, something innovative, or, as the chaps in Silicon Valley prefer to call it, disruptive.
We often judge a movie or book by the suspense it’s able to create and how it manages to surprise us with its plot twists. I do believe that’s how M. Night Shyamalan came to be adored by the general public regardless of the fact nobody seems quite able to agree on how his name should be pronounced.
However, if you have ever had the pleasure of reading or studying “the classics,” after a while, you realize that absolutely everything created in the past two thousand years (this is an entirely arbitrary number, I’m just using the birth of JC as a historical watershed) is just a new iteration of the archetypes of old.
Clearly, sensibilities change, technologies evolve, new philosophies take root – and so our archetypes morph to soothe the storytelling of the current age. So let’s take into consideration one of my absolute favorite female archetypes and how it’s evolved over time: the damsel in distress.
For many, many, many (too many) centuries, women were not in charge of building narratives that would fairly represent them. So, men being men, us of the feminine persuasion were generally categorized as either unrepentant whores or absolute bloody saints. Granted, somewhere in the spectrum of side characters, we were also painted as “too fragile for this world,”; which normally resulted in us being either suicidal dopes or lunatic sorceresses.
However, one of the most common traits across female characters is that at some point we would be in trouble or otherwise facing a challenge we couldn’t overcome by ourselves – and that’s when the male hero would puff up his chest and rescue us from a tower or such some impractical structure.
From Helen of Troy to Juliet and Ophelia: Women Can Never Prevail on Their Own.
The archetype of the helpless maiden is as old as time, but for our purposes, let’s pretend that Helen of Troy was cast in the original role.
First, let’s clear something up: Helen had not been stolen away; she was totally fine, perfectly happy to have left her husband, and absolutely living it up with her young lover. She was Zeus’ daughter, and we could say that beauty was in fact, her divine power; or her curse, depending which way you want to look at it. Even before she was married off to Menelaus, she had been abducted (though subsequently rescued) precisely because of her heritage. Also, to be fair, she didn’t decide to flee her marriage on a whim. You see, Paris had been asked to judge who among the goddesses Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena was the most gorgeous, and because this was ancient Greece and women were basically just bargaining chips, Aphrodite promised Paris that if he declared her as the most beautiful of the goddesses, she would give him the most beautiful of the women (Helen). Paris being the smug idiot that he was, he immediately agreed to the trade – which, by the way, is the reason why Hera and Athena worked so hard to ensure Troy was absolutely burnt to the ground. But I digress.
So then, Helen went to Troy with Paris. Then her husband went to “rescue” her and incidentally started the most famous war in history. She does… absolutely nothing the whole entire time. Paris died at one point, and so she was “given” to one of his brothers (again, just bargaining chips I swear). Then, when the Greeks ended up conquering the city and Menelaus raised his sword to finally kill her, she let her robe slide off her shoulders, blinded him with her resplendent beauty, and ended up going back to Sparta with him – I assume to continue her miserable existence. She builds nothing, contributes to nothing, succeeds at nothing. She is never the protagonist of her fate: everything that happens to her is by divine intervention – or men’s desire.
Forward roughly seven centuries to the time of Cleopatra, another legendary beauty by all accounts. She was made to marry her brother – which apparently was the traditional thing to do, so, moving right along – she was then cast out by him and had all her powers and titles taken away. As the legend goes, she fled to Syria, and it was precisely while she was in this helpless state of self-exile that she met Julius Cesar. According to Roman historians, the Roman general fell completely head over heels for the young queen, waged war against her traitorous husband/brother, and won her the Egyptian throne yet again. So even though Cleopatra’s character has been modernized and romanticized to depict her as a powerful queen and seductress – certainly an evolution over the completely helpless Greek model – her success is still fundamentally dependent upon a strong man rescuing her.
I’m going to skip all of early Christianity and their depiction of women so as to not foment a retaliatory androcide. But, in short, we could either be saints, though obviously never as good as the Virgin Mary, or we could be witches. Either way, there was no self-actualization or empowerment of any kind for any women in Christianity. Only self-denial, sacrifice, silence, and oppression. We were all damsels, and we were certainly always in distress. We must, however, recognize a major contribution of Catholicism to the damsel in distress archetype: the absolute bloody curse of virginity. As the story goes, if the virgin maid is stolen away and her innocence is lost, she has to die – because, as all good catholic girls know, a woman’s virginity is her only reason for living and the only quality that gives her any value as a human at all.
It might help to consider how Shakespeare cemented this canon most tragically in the characters of Juliet and Ophelia. All in all, until the friar bit, Juliet was a decent female character: she refused to be married off by her parents, she proposed to Romeo, and in the end, even took charge of her ultimate fate. Granted, she married a boy she barely knew and generally acted very impetuously, but hey, we’ve all been teenagers.
When she is at her most desperate, Friar Laurence – the one person who knows the truth of the marriage and could actually clear things up with her father – swoops in to rescue her with his brilliant like-death-potion idea. And we all know how that turned out. Of course, this happens only after Juliet and Romeo have spent the night together. Although technically married, the message seems unequivocal: losing your virginity means God will work hard for you to lose your life as well.
Where Juliet is rebellious and assertive, Ophelia is meek and obedient; where one explicitly consumes her marriage, the other repeatedly implies the shame and desperation of losing her virginity. The poor lass is the quintessential damsel in distress, constantly abused by everybody she loves. Shakespeare did not write a sex scene for Hamlet and Ophelia in so many words, but after her father was killed and her madness deepened, the author’s moral judgment cannot be mistaken: if a maiden loses her virginity, she will not find a husband, and even if the chap had the intention to marry her originally, once she’s given up “the goods” he would certainly change his mind.
So we have the bard to thank, along with all of Catholicism, for centuries of sexual repression.
From Disney Fairy Tales to Princess Leia and Fleabag
One would hope that after the age of Enlightenment -and the Industrial Revolution, and the whole of the 20th bloody century – the archetype of the damsel in distress might have become an obsolete notion. Alas, we might be able to vote and own land, wear miniskirts and probably get our rapists convicted, but the general narrative still fits the archetypical mold of us needing to be rescued.
In fact, this stereotype was deeply ingrained in my generation (mostly X but verging on Millennial) through the magic of Disney – decades of little girls captivated by movies where all the main female characters are incredibly beautiful, amazingly gifted at singing, can easily communicate with flora and fauna, and yet can never get themselves out of trouble. They are easily tricked, or cursed, or fall for the promises of dubious sea witches; most crucially, they always need to be rescued.
One of the most significant sins of the Disney princess movies is that the damsel in distress archetype was made to look like an appealing model of selfhood. Whether your favorite might have been Cinderella, Snow White, the Little Mermaid, or Sleeping beauty, the message was always the same: you can be beautiful, smart, strong, stubborn, a fast runner, and an incredibly gifted singer but to have a happy ending in life you need a prince to show up at some point and save you.
After over 30 years of personal human existence across two continents, I can attest to the fact that women are always rescuing men and not the other way around. So I must call bullshit on that whole fairy tale narrative. It set us all up to fail because it canonizes the expectation of a rare breed of males (princes) who are indeed capable of solving all our problems. Just as women aren’t perfect, neither can men be. This is not meant to be disparaging to half of the world’s population. Men are wonderful – and I have been fortunate to have men in my life who are absolutely incredible. However, they cannot be expected to unilaterally save your life.
Thankfully, the age of social media has shined a blinding light on the absurdity of creepy princes who come and kiss you without consent; it has also forced the creation of more diverse and modern fairy tales where the female lead is not as helpless (thinking of Moana and Frozen, for example).
Stepping outside of the Disney kingdoms, let us consider a different kind of princess: Leia in Star Wars – determined, witty, stubborn, resilient, lover of Ewoks, a true leader. The Rebellion surely would have failed without her. And yes, she does need rescuing quite a few times because, well, George Lucas is indeed a male director. She is also one of the most renowned sexual fantasies of genXers, because golden bikinis were a significant and utterly scarce resource for sweaty teenage fanboys in the 80s.
She grew out of the damsel in distress archetype that so defined her in the original trilogy and evolved into General Leia: a woman who has embraced the fighting of her youth and, while hardened by years of war, has also become more enlightened in her strategic approach. You love to see it.
While we sit here considering her legacy and how her growth will influence generations of younglings, let’s take an enormous leap from sci-fi sagas into comedy series, and from there into Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote, directed, and starred in this fantastic masterpiece, highlighting yet another iteration of the damsel in distress archetype. Incidentally, her specific distress is wholeheartedly emotional, partially financial, profoundly feminine.
At first look, the main character seems like a complete human disaster. However, as the story progresses, we discover that Fleabag is vividly aware of being the cause of her own suffering and blames herself not only for the death of her best friend Boo but also for her lack of financial responsibility, for her inability to establish a meaningful relationship with a man, for the estrangement from her family. While the screenwriting is fast-paced and incredibly funny, the temporary tragedy of her existence prevents Fleabag from improving on any of the counts she has found herself guilty of.
In this modern evolution of the archetype then, the fair maiden has locked herself in a high tower of her own free will – then she lost the keys and now doesn’t know how to get out of it. She gets some help here and there: sometimes in the form of a loan, sometimes in the form of therapy, sometimes in the form of her sister re-thieving the golden sculpture.
However, it would be worth noting that nobody actually rescues her. Best of all, even when Fleabag explicitly asks the hot priest to please tell her what to do in a moment of utmost intimate desperation, she is not handed a “getting life right” handbook – and I do believe that’s the most deliberate part pf PWB’s message to us. We are grown-up enough not to be expecting a knight in shining armor to come and save us, and we should let go of the fantasy that any man is coming to give us any help at all. It’s all on us. We are responsible for our own life; we are the makers of our own fate, we need to rescue our own damn selves from our self-inflicted distress.
An Ode to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte
It is rather curious then, to be able to look back to the 18th century and find the seeds of damsels who self-actualize in authors canonically considered “vanilla”. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte were far more enlightened in their depiction of female leads than all Disney movies put together. Even limited as they were by the Victorian morality of their age, the female characters they created were whole persons, if not always capable of properly conducting themselves in society.
Obviously, male characters do play an important role in the stories, but ultimately it is Jane Eyre who overcomes all the difficulties and betrayals and pain. Alas, it was the 18th century, and so Bronte did write that whole bit of Jane getting rescued after getting stranded on the moors and collapsing at St John’s doorstep. Plus, even though she is incredibly strong and emotionally resilient, her life really doesn’t get very good until her uncle dies and leaves her an enormous inheritance – a pale specter of a male rescue, but a rescue nonetheless.
Similarly, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has no problem in refusing her unctuous cousin’s hand in marriage, and she certainly displays no issue in freely speaking her mind to her own family, Mr. Darcy, and even the menacing Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself. Alas, all her glorious pride is not enough to save her from being rescued: when her family is most at risk, and she fears everything will be lost to the idiocy of her younger sister Lydia, it is Mr. Darcy who saves the day by finding the girl and the wicked Mr. Wickham. He is also the one who pays for their marriage and for his future military career because let us not forget that money and social status were always one of the main factors defining Austen’s characters and their fate.
So yes, technically, the damsels were in distress, and some of their troubles were solved by the strong male characters around them. Nevertheless, Austen and Bronte built the first strong female protagonists in an era when women couldn’t work or own property and had to worry about getting married by the age of 25 or live on as spinsters forevermore.