“I’m a damsel, but not the distressed kind. One who is very together and in complete control of her own destiny.” – Topanga Lawrence, Boy Meets World
One of the most maligned and misunderstood roles in literature is that of the damsel in distress.
A classic of our literary heritage, it is no longer possible, without harsh criticism from feminists, to write about young women who need to be rescued with anything other than sneering contempt (for example: this article in the Huffington Post). The woman who needs to be saved is not, according to feminists, taking charge of her life, and is thus abandoning a century of progress. Publishing companies won’t accept stories with such a plot anymore, at least not without a paragraph in which the protagonist lectures the reader on feminist theory.
But the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with being rescued – and everything wrong with how feminists see one of literature’s most iconic parts. To illustrate that, a few examples are in order.
Let’s start with the Virgin Mary, shall we?
The Bible is not merely the holy book upon which Christianity is based, or simply a guide to God’s grace. It is a magnificent literary achievement. Its stories have been printed, read, and loved more than any others, and if it were a novel, it would be the world’s all-time bestseller.
Aside from Christ (who was both fully human and fully divine) Mary is the most important person in the history of biblical salvation. Without her there is no Christ Child, and without Him to accept the punishment for our sins there is no forgiveness for anyone. Yet Mary – obviously a biblical hero – just as obviously fits the category of a damsel in distress.
According to the Christian faith, Eve, the first woman and the mother of the human race, said no to God’s plan for her life. She chose not to trust God, instead eating a piece of fruit that she believed would give her knowledge that God was withholding. Not only was Eve wrong to believe that God was holding back his wisdom, but her mistrust and disobedience ruined the paradise that God intended us all to have.
Mary, on the other hand, did the bravest thing any of us can do, especially where the risk is great.
She gave up control of her destiny. When an angel told her that she was to bear the “Son of the Most High” – the Son of God – her response was “May it be done to me according to your word.” She didn’t argue that she would be a bad choice, as Moses did when God commissioned him. She didn’t run in the opposite direction, like Jonah. She said yes.
And yet that was – so far as the Bible tells us – the most active role Mary played in the Christ story. To meekly accept the destiny that God had to offer her. Given the enormity of what God was asking, does anyone think of Mary as weak?
Yet following her simple acceptance, Mary has to be rescued. Not just once, but over and over.
Had her husband Joseph decided to expose her for perceived adultery (Mary and Joseph were already married but not yet living together, thus why Joseph initially intended to “divorce her quietly”) she could have been stoned to death. Instead, Joseph, having already determined to protect her through a hushed-up divorce, further rescued her by taking her into his house as his wife, following an angel’s instructions to do so. Later, when their little family was threatened by King Herod, Joseph rescued her and the young Jesus by taking them to Egypt. Later still, after she courageously followed Jesus all the way to the cross (but without striking at His assaulters or attempting to interfere, as the Apostle Peter had) Jesus saved her by ordering His disciple John to take her into John’s household, presumably so that she would be guaranteed shelter and care. Finally, Mary had to be humble enough to accept her own son as her God, and not place herself above Him.
Mary was, quite simply, a damsel in distress. Anyone who is upset by that description fails to understand that that role only rarely emanates from actual weakness. In fact, the literary (or real) person needing to be saved is often, like Mary, in that position because of a courageous decision. To be sure, not all protagonists should be the type who need rescuing, but the point is that there is nothing wrong with those who do.
Let’s explore another example, this time from British literature.
Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (consistently rated as the most romantic novel of all time) is rarely described as a damsel in distress by modern critics. After all, she is sarcastic, decisive, and refuses to be pushed into a marriage with her sycophantic suiter, Mr. Collins, despite family pressure.
Oh, and she definitely required rescuing.
“Lizzy” as her mother sometimes refers to her, has three basic problems in Pride and Prejudice, and all are solved by her relationship with her future husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
First, she has a character flaw, her “prejudice” against those who do not conform to her exact view of “what a young man ought to be.” This prejudice is done away with because Darcy goes out of his way to show her that not only is she unfairly biased in favor of a man (George Wickham) because of his outward appearance and manners, she is unfairly biased against Darcy because he is not given to flattering others and is quiet and reserved (he also has real flaws, which she helps him to mend).
Second, Elizabeth’s family is confronted by a potentially ruinous scandal as a result of her sister’s behavior with Wickham. After this happens, Darcy uses approximately a year’s worth of his own income to fix the situation, humiliating himself by personally bribing Whickham, a man Darcy hates.
Third, Elizabeth is, in terms of her future inheritance, poor. Darcy marries her in the end, solving that problem by sharing his vast wealth (and high social status) with her. In fairness, this “rescue” is partly necessitated by the prejudice of inheritance laws at the time against women, but that fact hasn’t stopped thousands of female readers since from buying Austen’s works and hundreds of female authors from producing their own Austen-based fiction swooning over the story’s male lead – and his fortune. So, unless we’re going to “cancel” Jane Austen, this rescue still counts.
Like the biblical Mary, however, Elizabeth isn’t weak. As noted, she is strong willed and determined, with a biting sense of humor. She actually rejects Darcy the first time he proposes to her, making her two-for-two in shooting down gentlemen who arrogantly assume she will accept (as both Collins and Darcy at first do). She is the first in her family to foresee the dangers of her family’s indulgent attitude towards her younger sisters (that indulgence leads directly to her sister Lydia’s aforementioned scandal). After her father rejects her initial warning on that score, he ends up having to apologize to her and praises her “greatness of mind.”
None of this strength is at all at odds were the fact that she needs to be rescued because, as with Mary, the role of damsel in distress isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart. It’s simply a literary part necessitated by the need for conflict (and heroism) within a story. A part that has been maligned because feminists are less interested in empowering women than with convincing them that men – especially strong heroic men – are their enemy. If cranky feminists can’t have men like that, no one will.
In reality, the literary role in question isn’t even always played by a woman.
Of course, a “damsel” is, by definition, a woman, but many men in both literature and the Bible have had to be “rescued” as well, and often by a woman.
The Bible’s Book of Judith (a book in the Catholic Bible that is included in the apocrypha of many Protestant Bibles) tells the story of an Israelite woman who saves her people through her faith and physical courage.
Trapped by the siege operations of an Assyrian army, and rapidly running out of water, the Israelites in the story begin begging their leaders to surrender. Although reluctant, their leaders agree.
Judith, a young widow, hears of the planned capitulation. After reproving her leaders for their weakness, she sets out, with their approval, on a simple mission. Turn herself over to the Assyrians, and find a way to bring down the entire Assyrian army from within.
One of the most beautiful women in Israel, and dressed to kill, Judith leaves the Israelite camp and walks to the Assyrian lines. Intercepted by an enemy outpost, she gives them exactly what every soldier at war dreams of – the promise of a path to easy victory, with no loss of life.
Wits dulled by her beauty and promises, they take her to their general, Holofernes. He too believes her, keeps her close, and, from their first meeting, plans to seduce her. The enemy leader is within Judith’s grasp.
But she doesn’t act precipitously. Waiting for God’s moment, she tells Holofernes, who has already been informed of the power of the Israelites’ God, that God will soon turn against the Israelites, but that she needs to pray to discern the right time for the Assyrians to strike. With the Israelites trapped, Holofernes is in no rush, and permits her to pray each night in a nearby ravine.
On the fourth night, the general holds a feast, inviting Judith. She accepts, and sits with Holofernes, who drinks heavily. Returning to his tent with him, where he lies down assuming they will consummate their relationship, Judith picks up his sword and, with two cuts, beheads him (I can attest, as someone who practices with accurate historical sword reproductions, that this is possible against a stationary target, even without training).
Leaving and pretending to go to the ravine, Judith returns to the Israeli camp. In the morning, the Israelites fake an attack. When the Assyrians attempt to inform their general and find him dead, believing the opposing army will soon by on top of them, they become disorganized, and flee. The Israelites give chase, cutting them down. Judith’s blows with the sword have saved everyone, including the men.
Christian author C.S. Lewis, beloved by many modern conservatives, provides us with several great (literary) examples of women saving men, all while skipping the lesson on feminist theory.
The Silver Chair from The Chronicles of Narnia is dedicated to the rescue of Prince Rilian by the novel’s three main characters (including, perhaps most prominently, a young woman named Jill Pole). After helping rescuing the prince from an evil sorceress, Jill goes on to physically defeat her corrupt boarding-school’s bullies (she takes on the girls while her male companions take on the boys).
The series’ Lucy Pevensie features as a war archer in The Horse and His Boy, helping to save an allied country from destruction.
Lucy’s sister, Susan, is also a brilliant archer whose skills take two enemy soldiers out of action in Prince Caspian.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more example of a male “damsel in distress.”
Sorry to the fans of more “classic” literature but…what about Harry Potter?
Towards the end of the Harry Potter series, the protagonist’s enemy accuses him of having survived so long only because of the protection and sacrifice of others. And…he’s absolutely right.
Harry wouldn’t be alive if his mother hadn’t died to save him. His friend Hagrid also rescues him (from a life with his highly abusive relatives). As the story goes on others die in their attempts to protect him – sometimes while he watches helplessly. Yes, he frequently plays the hero, but like any normal person, he needs a savior now and then.
The Damsel in distress role should make a roaring comeback in our literature – even if Christians and conservatives have to found more of their own publishing companies. It’s not demeaning to women. It’s a literary and often real-life part played by some of history’s greatest female heroes, who chose to work with strong men rather than against them.