A very feminist part of me was uncomfortable with this, and sat down to break down why it was so. I was eighteen when I wrote this, and this piece is definitely a very, very simple take. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in reading this, please do! <3 Discussions and thoughts in the comments are much welcome.
Damsel in Distressing.
A class designed for princesses and maidens, those virginal and pure of heart, the epitome of decorum and innate goodness.
And, the class that is most viciously vilified.
It's misogynist, people say. It makes damsels into trophies, forcing them into helplessness and passivity. Heroes get swords and accolades and honour, and damsels are reduced to being tower-bound, waving handkerchiefs and singing about being rescued.
Such a viewpoint can be superficial at its best and discriminating at its worst.
Here is why.
The Past is a Different Country: They Do Feminism Differently There
Fairytales are recorded in the past, where values and ideals were different from the present. But when we, modern people, read past fiction, we push our own interpretation of the world onto it, and thus, can unwittingly ignore or glance over or undermine the true meanings.
I personally find a clear example of this – not an interpretation of fairytales, but people’s interpretations of another piece of classic literature.
There’s a particular scene of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that loses its impact once you take it out of the context of the Regency Era.
In this scene, the brilliant protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett, gets proposed to. The man in question is Mr Collins. He's not completely disagreeable – he’s awkward, but earns a decent wage and is not an entirely terrible person. However, she doesn’t like him, much less love him.
To a modern reader, of course she's right to reject him! A loveless marriage is unthinkable by today’s Western standards. However, we must remember that during the Regency, financial stability was a necessity that could only be achieved by most women for marriage.
The scene, while still fantastic, loses its impact under this modern lens. Lizzie did not reject a mere proposal, she rejected a livelihood. For us modern people to truly get a grasp on the gravity of this, imagine your friend rejecting a well-paid job (when there are no other, or better, jobs available) on the basis that she finds it boring. How reckless!, you might think. See how a modern lens can warp the true radicalism of the past?
Fairytales are traditionally a woman’s media
The person who penned the word “fairytales” itself was a woman - Madame D'Aulnoy. She wrote stories of women rescuing themselves, of girls in the center of their own narrative. When the Grimm Brothers were off wandering through Germany, the stories they collected were told by women. Wives and grandmothers shared and passed on stories. Here, the tales of Grimm featured bold heroines risking death and travelling the world for their loves. HC Andersen wrote his own tales, and despite his misogynist tendencies, one of his most celebrated stories features a central female protagonist whose journey is aided by several other autonomous, supportive women.
It seems clear that women stand in the centre of the fairytale tradition.
When one recites lists of fairytale characters, the female characters can sometimes outnumber males tenfold.
And additionally, I think, as a collective, we forget that women in the past yield more power than we think. Consider the medieval hostess - who commanded power over an estate, especially when the family’s men were at war. Consider how, without needle and thread, whole communities would be naked and dead.
And consider the Germanic tradition of fairytales, and the witty women who have told and spun and worked on these stories for generation, while we, the readers, unwittingly misinterpret these stories. (We, too, should stop pitting blame on female characters for being “helpless”, when it was the Brothers Grimm and their critics who had to ‘sanitise’ the stories.)
To treat damsels as trophies and prizes ignores the efforts of the damsels in fairytales.
Snow White is not a trophy for her prince: her prince is vaguely defined, nothing more than a handsome convenient plot point. He does not brave much, if anything, for her; she is the hero of her tale. She braves the dark woods, the wrath of her stepmother, the huntsman's knife. Her survival does not rest on a soft hearted huntsman or kind dwarves or a dashing prince. Without her own resourcefulness, she would have long perished before touching that fateful apple.
A Snow White without a prince is still Snow White: a princess who has displayed more endurance than acclaimed. She has been identified; her story has been told. The prince, without Snow White, is nothing. I think that I can safely say that her prince does not claim her as trophy, rather he is her reward for enduring so much.*
(*A prince as prize is just as common - if not more so - as a princess as prize. Your “I'll rather rescue my lover than be rescued by them” damsel is not the minority; they're part of the main crowd.)
And Rapunzel, the quintessential princess in the tower, plans her breakout of the tower herself. The spool of silk, the woven ladder - it was her idea. When Gothel casts her out into the wilderness, there is no external help for her, Rapunzel fends for herself and her twins by herself.
“But what of the prince!?” you ask. He is merely a catalyst for the story, yet another plot device. Does this, however, mean Rapunzel’s motive is simply for a man? No, what he represents is freedom and the outer world. (And let's be honest, in modern media there are plenty of girls like the prince, serving as nothing more than exposition material). And when he meets Rapunzel in the desert once again, her tears heal him. She saves him, and not the other way round.
In fact, Rapunzel is not the only Princess in the Tower who rescues herself – far from it. The princess in the Canary Prince climbs out of her tower herself, with a rope of her bedsheets. Princess Mayblossom pushes apart bricks for her escape. Maid Maleen and her handmaiden, when void of news from the outside world, do the same in their desperation. This is the one trope criticised for holding maidens helpless in hostage, and yet, the critics who preach of “female empowerment” ignore and undermine the efforts of these women.
This brings us to a question. Why do we read stories featuring women with agency and autonomy, and strip them of that, and hand their successes over to the men in their stories? Why are the true heroes - these damsels - removed from their own narrative?
The strength of damsels-in-distress is undervalued
Sometimes in modern literature, a girl who saves herself is usually depicted as a girl with physical strength. We see this in the trope of a “strong female character” and we see this in the way people criticise traditional femininity (ie, not the institution that traps women in performing certain roles, but the behaviours/actions one exhibits in the roles - a misattribution of blame).
Back in 2015, I received this comment on my OC’s page.
- omg i luv her. all princesses should be like her!
to which I replied:
- Thank you for liking Lenore! I'm glad. But I have to disagree with you on the second comment. Princesses shouldn't have to be like Lenore to be cool, princesses can be anything to be cool! Princesses who kick butt are cool. Princesses who sing songs to birds are cool. Princesses who sew or cook or dance or rap battle are cool. The only uncool thing about princesses is having a "proper" way of being a princess.
- In short, respect all princesses. They're all cool.
Criticising traditional damsels is an act of pitting women against each other. Conforming to “traditional” femininity or masculinity does not make one better than someone who does something else.
I mean, it’s the twenty-first century. Women working together is a fundamental principle of modern feminism. There is no wrong or right way to be a woman. One’s femininity is defined by one person – that person only.
Remember, our criticism about women doing domestic work and whatnot stems from the fact that once upon a time, it was literally illegal for women to work. To force a whole group of people into doing something against their will, with no other choice - yes, that’s oppression.
But now, in a great deal of the developed world, women do have choices. And femininity – what it means to be a woman – starts becoming one of those choices.
If a girl wants to pick up a sword and break nobles out of towers, it’s cool. If a girl wants to be swept up in the arms of a hero, it’s cool.
Let girls define femininity their own way. Let girls be themselves.
I end this section with an oft-quoted remark about “strong female characters” from this tumblr. (Read the whole thing. It’s worth a look if you’re interested in writing female characters.)
- Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people. So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong. Write characters who are people.
White Feminism and Damsels-in-Distress
If you think I was going to talk about feminism without bringing race into it, you are wrong.
There’s a certain pitfall in modern/mainstream feminism, and that is “White Feminism”. I don’t have enough time to divulge the specifics of White Feminism, so you should go and do your own research into that. I’m just here to tell you why criticism of Damsel-in-Distressing reinforces some White Feminist bias.
Firstly, to be White Feminist is not the same as being a white person and a feminist. It’s viewing feminism from a white perspective, treating the advancement of women in society as if it only applies to white women.
For instance, a classic statistic quoted is “a woman makes 70c to a man’s dollar in the US”. However, this phrase is inherently white - it's only comparable if you're comparing white women with white men. Black women only make Xc to a dollar, and Latina women X. In fact, white women make more than black men, at Xc to Xc.
The experience of living as a women in the Western World differs depending on what kind of woman you are. If you’re a person of colour, if you’re LGBTA+, all of this intersects with your existence as a woman. Your experience is different, the way you’re affected, how you get criticised – it differs!
And so, the way you benefit from feminism must also differ.
Black women are characterised as angry and brutal. In fairytale media and period films, they are maids and workers, and hardly get the chance to shine as a princess. They are stripped off any soft femininity – and sometimes, of humanity.
We commonly hear of (white) women wishing to be praised for their intelligence rather than their looks. Yet, Asian women are commonly defined only by their intelligence, and their appearance is either exotified - whether it’s treated as being peculiar or as a trophy. A similar problem applies to Latina women as well, and the most common “princess story” with a Native American woman is an inaccurate romanticisation of colonialism.
The chance to be a fairytale princess is something rare for girls of colour. For instance, in the lineup of Disney Princesses, there is often one princess in their own racial group – and the ethnicity might not even match up.
In a fairytale, if a girl is the protagonist, she often has her whole narrative. She has her own purpose, does things for herself, and strives with her own ambition. Her story is her own, her actions are for herself and those she loves.
She is a character.
Women of colour are not granted such a narrative as often. We lack this representation in mainstream media.
I'm not saying that dragging Damsel in Distressing through the dust is inherently racist. But, the criticisms of Damsel in Distressing do indeed carry a tone of white feminism.
Black girls don't have the chance to be princesses. They rarely get portrayed as soft and loveable and deserving of appreciation. Asian girls are often reduced to a trophy-like love interest in Western media, lacking their own motivations and narrative. And these are just two groups of girls of colour.
Sure, the “mainstream view” of Damsel in Distressing might be one that mainstream feminists could run a smear campaign against, but sometimes, the groups most ignored by feminism might be those who benefit the most from the things being criticised.
So, check your feminism. Does it benefit women in general, or only the groups of women that you’re part of?
Damsel in Distressing is about being strong in a male-dominated world. It’s about being resourceful, being creative, and defending yourself against whatever situations you get thrown into. It’s about damsels fighting for themselves in a world that underestimates them, using methods that are underestimated.
Fundamentally, the subject is about girls supporting themselves, girls supporting other girls, and the undermined value of using your own definition of femininity to survive in a messed up fairytale world. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s amazing in itself.
Perhaps, the greatest irony of this piece is its title: “In Defence of Damsel in Distressing”. Clearly, I need not to be some white knight, for Damsel in Distressing can rightfully defend itself.