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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...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


I observed at the end of Part 1 that a statement by Brittney-Jade Colangelo was intriguingly arguable, so in this section I will proceed to argue the point in said statement:

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

As I also observed, Colangelo does not examine popular culture as a whole, but concentrates on the indubitably influential genre of horror, particularly in its cinematic iterations.  But if she had chosen to cast her net more widely, to take in all of popular culture-- where might she have started, given that there is no universal agreement as to when it begins?

One starting point is to observe that although popular culture has many facets in common with so-called "folk culture," the most salient difference is that the latter is predominantly pre-literate, in that its practitioners usually could not read, while the former is predominantly post-literate, even though it will eventuate in media that require little or no reading-skill, primarily that of the cinema.  Thnaks to innovations in printing-technology, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, according to this excerpt from Wikipedia, can boast the first true "bestsellers:"

The vast printing capacities meant that individual authors could now become true bestsellers: Of Erasmus's work, at least 750,000 copies were sold during his lifetime alone (1469–1536).[

All very well for Erasmus, but he's still "elite culture."  Where does popular literature, the literature of the masses, begin?

In this essay I asserted that I didn't think that popular fiction truly got rolling until the 19th century, but there are some noteworthy exceptions in the 18th, which is generally considered the era in which the form of the prose novel catches fire. Wikipedia cites several "genres" of novel, including the epistolary novel, the libertine novel, and-- most significantly for Colangelo's argument-- the Gothic novel, beginning with Horace Walpole's 1764 work, THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO-- also the first "supernatural Gothic" in that the ghostly happenings are not disavowed at the novel's end.

So one might fairly cite OTRANTO as the progenitor of the horror genre.  But is it also the progenitor of all popular fiction? And if I were, what consequence would that have for the "damsel in distress" argument?

OTRANTO has but three female characters, all distressed by the castle's overlord Manfred.  When Manfred's only son Conrad is killed by a supernatural phenomenon, the lord plans to divorce his hapless wife Hippolita-- surely given the name of a famous Amazon in irony!-- and to marry his son's fiancĂ©e, Isabella. Isabella, with the help of Manfred's daughter Matilda, flees Manfred's influence, and both become the first distressed damsels in the Gothic subgenre, and in horror fiction generally.  Thus, if we regarded OTRANTO as the starting-point for popular culture, Colangelo would be entirely correct.

As it happens, though, I think 1719 brings a far more credible progenitor for pop culture: Daniel Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE.  In contrast to many of the novels aimed at more educated readers-- those of Swift, Fielding, and Voltaire, for three-- CRUSOE can be read for nothing more than visceral entertainment.  True, the novel has its deeper themes, but I don't think that its perennial popularity rests on them. According to the summaries I have read, CRUSOE, unlike OTRANTO, has no significant female characters at all, so it neither proves nor disproves Colangelo's assertion. None of Defoe's other works fit my criteria for popular culture, though it is worth noting that Defoe was not hostile to the idea of empowered female characters, given that his second best-known novel is 1722's MOLL FLANDERS. The titular character probably is not a femme formidable, though Wikipedia notes that she "begins a career of artful thievery, which, by employing her wits, beauty, charm, and femininity, as well as hard-heartedness and wickedness, brings her the financial security she has always sought."

Lacking another nominee for the beginnings of popular fiction, then, Colangelo's assertion would seem to be correct, but with a corollary.

Femmes formidables had appeared in earlier works of "elite literature," not least Shakespeare's HENRY VI, PART 1, with its sword-swinging villainess "Joan la Pucelle," and in Spenser's FAERIE QUEENE, with its equally martial heroine Britomart, but even in poetry and prose, realistic villainesses were more standard, as with such Bard-born characters as Lady Macbeth and Tamora of TITUS ANDRONICUS.  Given that the eighteenth century became dominated by the realistic novel, it's perhaps not surprising that the more martial "femmes" were not much in evidence. But though one might hypothesize that OTRANTO may indeed give us the first "damsels in distress," two years later the same author wrote a never-produced play in which a female character, the titular MYSTERIOUS MOTHER, performs an evil act worthy of Shakespeare's Tamora, best known for inciting her two sons to rape a younger woman.
Walpole's drama on that popular yet disturbing theme oddly common in the Romantic period: incest. Walpole gives us a multiple incest scenario: the Countess knowingly seduces her son on the night of her husband's death; her son, Edmund, thinks he's having sex with one of his mother's maids, so he's pretty much guiltless. This tryst makes the Countess pregnant, and she gives birth to Adeliza, with whom Edmund, not knowing she is the Countess' daughter (let alone not knowing that she is also his own daughter and his half-sister), falls in love. They marry, and only then does the Countess, who's been laboring under a load of guilt for 16 years, reveal all. Layer onto this a plot involving the wicked and duplicitious monk Benedict, and you're in deep Gothic waters. Unlike Otranto this work is utterly devoid of supernaturalism, but with a family romance like that as the subject, who needs ghosts? Perhaps not surprisingly, the play was never performed in Walpole's lifetime.-- THE LITERARY GOTHIC.

So if Walpole gave us the first damsels in distress, he also gave us an early example of "feminine evil," one who defines the parameters of the Gothic at least as well as Manfred does.

It's my contention, then, that archetypes of women both with and without agency-- whether representing good or evil-- appear throughout the realm of popular fiction, and that many are not specifically generated by one another, as Colangelo seems to argue.  Some famed works of popular fiction are known for featuring both noble heroines and conniving villainesses in the same stories, as is seen in Dumas' THREE MUSKETEERS and Hugo's MAN WHO LAUGHS.  In fact, Colangelo indirectly references the latter:

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.

Were such imperiled heroines central to the themes of many early horror stories, whether in books or films? Probably, but Wikipedia notes that Hugo's original novel contains a female character at least as perverse as the Mysterious Mother:

Gwynplaine accidentally meets Josiana, having been brought into her palace by her confidant, the intriguer Barkilphedro. At first she nearly seduces him, perversely excited by his deformity. However, she then receives a letter containing the Queen's order to marry him (as a replacement for David and the legitimate Lord Clancharie) and therefore violently rejects him as a lover, while accepting him as her (formal) husband.

The 1928 film, which I have not screened in many years, may not emphasize the perversity of the Duchess Josiana, but a cognate character is in the film.  It's also worth noting that WHITE ZOMBIE, closely patterned on the 1931 DRACULA film, contains a scene in which the zombified Madeline is not just a woman in peril; she is also briefly a threat, when the villain orders her to kill the hero.

Therefore, even though from one viewpoint the "damsel in distress" might indeed be the first feminine archetype in "popular fiction," it is hardly the only one, nor does its primacy necessarily generate its opposite number.

ADDENDA: I revised an earlier paragraph above, to make a more pertinent comparison between Shakespeare's Tamora and the titular character of Walpole's THE MYSTERIOUS MOTHER.

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