Rescuing the Damsel in Distress

For this year's National Princess Week, I am reopening a new discussion on an old topic. If you haven't read my "Damsel in Distress" Stigma post from when I started this blog five years ago, I recommend starting there. (Has it really been five years?) Since then, it seems like the decline of femininity in mainstream media has gotten increasingly worse. Every new princess is either a Mary Sue warrior princess clone or a "corrected" version of a relatable flawed character from our childhood. Once upon a time, the damsels in distress were the characters we rooted for onscreen, but now they are us, the regular flawed human audience who need to be rescued from poor storytelling.

Let's start with the most anticipated upcoming movie, Disney's remake of The Little Mermaid. The original 1989 animated film is my favorite movie of all time, and Ariel will always be my favorite princess. She is a vivacious and energetic redhead who rescues her own prince and refuses to listen to anyone except her own heart. In both the Broadway show and the new stage show on the Disney Wish, the ending was altered so Ariel could defeat Ursula on a much smaller scale than Eric driving a ship into her, which would admittedly be difficult to do on a stage. However, it was also confirmed through recent book releases that (spoiler alert) Ariel will be the one to defeat Ursula yet again in next month's movie. While this didn't come as a surprise, it an eyeroll moment. This, in addition to changing the identities of all her sisters so they can be rulers of their own undersea kingdoms just proves that women in modern media are not allowed to show any signs of weakness ever.

I am going to admit to something controversial, which is that when I fantasize about being a princess, I do occasionally dream of scenarios where I am rescued from danger. Why? There are several reasons. If someone is willing to jump into danger to save you, it means that they care about you a lot and that you're important to them. Not only is this flattering, but it promises a happy future together--a "happily ever after" if you will. It's the magic of true love. Princesses are always targeted in fantasy stories because they are important people who everyone loves and no one wants to see harmed. The recent episode of Fantasy Island did an excellent job of addressing how princesses are targets and that needing help does not diminish their other strengths like their kind and healing nature. That's where the balance lies. Everyone has times in their life when they are distressed, but it doesn't mean that they are completely useless in every situation. Sometimes, we can handle what life throws at us, and other times, we need to call in help from an expert on something we're less familiar with. I think the original Little Mermaid did an excellent job of portraying Ariel as a balanced character who stood up to her powerful father while struggling to communicate Eric without her voice.

I can't help but wonder if this is really what Disney and Hollywood think that women can relate to--being able to do everything perfectly on their first try and never needing anyone in their life to help bail them out when things get rough. It seems like an incredibly lonely existence that is impossible to live up to. I think the last Disney property to show a love interest being supportive in any way was Tangled: The Series, and that was only because Rapunzel and Eugene's relationship had already been established in the movie, making it too late to retcon. Though Rapunzel was usually the muscle of their operations with her indestructible hair, Eugene was still there for her on an emotional level after Cassandra's betrayal. Although the third season of the show was incredibly drawn out, one thing it did right was portray how Eugene saw through Rapunzel's denial of her feelings about Cassandra's betrayal and waited patiently until she was willing to open up about it. There is more than one way for a damsel to be in distress, and this was a beautiful way of showing that despite being an obligatory relic from a decade-old movie.

Disney may think that they have destroyed the "Damsel in Distress" trope, but she is still out there in all of us and our future generations. Telling children that they should never make mistakes and never need help is creating a new kind of damsel in distress, one that exists no longer on the screen but in real life. They are training the next generation to have low self esteem and feel like failures any time they struggle with something. In my generations, the most common complaint about fairy tales was that they made us believe that our first love would be magical and last forever, a trend that was cleverly debunked in the 2015 series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In a few more years, we might need a new series to debunk the trend that in order to be a princess or hero, you must have no flaws and excel instantly at everything you try. What do you think? Do we need to be rescued from this incessant trend, or is it the way of the future? Let me know in the comments!


Anonymous said…
Your point is spot on! Also I agree on the fantasizing of being a princess and being rescued. I absolutely fantasize about that too sometimes, and when I make OCs they often do need rescuing. And there's nothing wrong with that. Just because you like damsels in distress doesn't mean you think you need to be saved all the time or think that you can't do things yourself. Also, ironic how people don't say this about women who get in danger in reality, and women accept help from men, yet they complain if it happens in a cartoon. All women are valid, damsel or not.
Sugar said…
I've always wanted to find a guy who would take care of me and rescue me when I needed him...I just think it's exhausting the idea that I always have to be able to handle everything by myself.
Lisa Dawn said…
I found one already. :) Good luck with your quest!

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