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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


On the horror-blog THE DAY OF THE WOMAN Brittany-Jade Colangelo has posted an essay-- previously published on another blog last year-- entitled IN DEFENSE OF THE DAMSEL IN DISTRESS.  However, though this is the first "gender issues" post I've made in a while, Ms. Colangelo deserves absolutely no blame for my return to this topic.  Prior to reading her essay, I was making plans for an essay entitled "Perfect Storms of Sex and Violence," which will probably appear next.

Colangelo's defense does not support the sociopolitical ramifications inherent in the archetype of the "damsel in distress," which include but are not limited to the male gender's belief in its inherent superiority.  This can lead to the conviction that the male can expect to be rewarded sexually for his protection of the distressed damsel, which might well be termed "the Conan Syndrome," though the syndrome certainly predates that character.

Colangelo's approach, rather, is to examine the possible sources of the archetype without prejudice.  Her focus, as noted above, is the genre of horror, but her observations can be easily applied to art and literature as a whole.

The author first establishes the oppositional nature of the archetype:

The “Damsel In Distress” archetype is arguably the first character type for women in popular culture. It has without a doubt been cited as the biggest example of differential treatment of genders in literature, film, and works of art. “Damsels in Distress” are often scoffed at as perpetuating the stereotype that women are the weaker of the sexes and are rendered useless without the assistance of a man. The Damsel in Distress is the grandmother of other incredibly offensive female archetypes like the “princess in the castle,” “missing white woman syndrome,” “Daphne Blakes,” and most recently, “Bella Swans.” Despite their seemingly offensive and stereotypical portrayal of women in cinema, they may be quite possibly the most important stock character to happen to horror films.
(I note in passing that Daphne of the SCOOBY DOO franchise isn't universally a distressed damsel, but that's another essay.)

Colangelo then establishes the centrality of the archetype, at least to the horror genre:

From the earliest examples of horror films, “Damsels in Distress” (or women in peril) were the only roles that actresses would play. From the beautiful Dea in The Man Who Laughs, to the kidnapped Madeline Parker in White Zombie, these women were often the sole conflict of horror films. Although these women were written as nothing more than beautiful prized possessions, it was their existence that propelled the story further than just introductory statements.

And finally, she offers the crucial insight that women have been made central for a reason based more in biology than politics:

Men cannot bare [sic] children, therefore, they cannot continue on the species. Women are the most important attribute to survival and therefore, are the most valuable creatures to mankind.  When we look at it historically, the reason that “Damsels in Distress” were popular are due to the fact that up until the last forty or so years, there wasn’t any insight to the female psyche. Women were seen as inferior beings and the “Damsel in Distress” is merely a product of its time. Yes, the “damsel in distress” still makes its appearance into films today, but the impact this character type made on horror far surpasses its offensive nature.
I'm not asserting that this is a "game-ending" insight.  But I call it crucial because it seems so obvious and elementary, and because so few analysts of gender-difference in any genre-- horror, adventure, or what have you-- have made any statements whatever on said biological factors.  I'll hypothesize that many academic analyses of popular fiction pattern themselves slavishly on models of inquiry which insist that all perceptions of gender-difference are rooted in psychological or sociological factors.

Now, I do have disagreements, most of which I will cover in Part 2.  (That will delay my making a New Enemy for at least one day.) This statement, though, is the one I find most interesting:

The “Damsel In Distress” archetype is arguably the first character type for women in popular culture.

While such a statement may never be provable, it certain is, as Colangelo says, "arguable." My December post on the history of "fantasy-adventure" of course does not deal with horror or any comparable forms, but I would say that while I can think of many exceptions to Colangelo's proposition, exceptions do not necessarily prove or disprove a proposed rule.  The argument is made more difficult insofar as there is no single "flash point" that marks the separation of "popular culture" from what might be called "elite culture." Nevertheless, in Part 2 I will attempt to apply Colangelo's eminently sensible concept of "gender difference" to some other early examples of the form.

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