Our class was challenged to think of a construction for women that has stood the test of time; one that appeared out of the imagination of someone else whether in literature, music, art, or any other media that has served as entertainment for humanity.
In an effort to choose a construction that I could trace throughout history, I decided upon the “Damsel In Distress”. Now, of course, the wonderful Anita Sarkeesian has already examined this trope in her video series covering specifically video games and their portrayal of women within that specific medium. I am going to shift my attention to visual culture as a whole looking at artwork and movies in particular.
So, let’s start from the beginning (or in this case the ancient world). I am focusing primarily upon Greco-Roman culture because it is the foundation for most (if not all) Western ideology that gets regurgitated with every passing generation it would seem. We begin with the Greek myth of Andromeda and Perseus:
Perseus Rescuing Andromeda, 1st Century, Pompeian Fresco, Italy
What is probably the most stunning to viewers is an instance upon which a male is nude. It is almost laughable by today’s standards. In the ancient world, the male nude body was in a state of “heroic nudity”. Yes, folks. His nudity symbolized heroism and bravery like that of the divine gods. He was revered and honored for his actions. And I mean, after all, in this image he is saving Andromeda from the sea monster.
So what got Andromeda into this mess to begin with? Well her mother boasted that she [Andromeda] was even more beautiful than the Mereids–daughters of a sea god. These Mereids would often accompany Poseidon (thee sea god) on his adventures. In an effort to get back at the queen for her offense, Poseidon sent a sea creature to destroy the kingdom. In a panic, the queen visited her friendly, neighborhood Oracle only to find that she would have to sacrifice her own daughter to thwart off the creature and so Andromeda was stripped naked and chained to a rock as a sacrifice. Upon her rescue (and slaying the creature), Perseus is given her hand in marriage as his reward.
Of course this story has been adapted many a times; we know the story of the dragon being slain by the heroic knight in honor of the princess from childhood fairytales. Another version is the trapped young maiden who is under oppressive rule of an evil stepmother . . . point is, this story manifest itself in a variety of ways tweaking the characters here and there but it’s origin has most certainly been set for Western society.
The subject of the Andromeda-Perseus story remained a staple in Western art for quite some time. There are plenty more contemporary versions but the one I will share is from Italian artist Giorgio De Chirico:
Perseus and Andromeda, Giorgio De Chirico, 1940, oil on canvas, Italy
What you’ll notice is that Perseus seems to be an afterthought at this point in visual culture. Andromeda appears to be totally unaware of any kind of danger near her. She even appears to look out longingly or out of boredom–I haven’t really figured out which one it is. The theme/subject seems to only serve as a reason to have a naked female in the foreground.
I think both images disregard the immediate danger Andromeda must have felt; the peril of not knowing how she would escape (if that idea had even entered her mind at all). The entire subject seems to have been handled in both instances entirely from a male perspective which Sarkeesian highlights in her videoblog,
. . . the damsel in distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.
So the emphasis is not upon the danger and fear felt/experienced by the female but rather by the triumph and prize (in Pompeian fresco) of Andromeda as a possession waiting to be obtained (De Chirico).
Speaking of prizes, let’s move on to the Middle Ages and the social structures therein. The entire concept of “courtly love” relied on a very fundamental basis: that women were fundamentally weak and in need of protection and heroic actions of the men around them. Of course, courtly love was only enjoyed by the upper echelons of society under the feudal system but it focused primarily upon the heavy policing and control of both sexes’ actions. In her book A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman highlights,
As its justification, courtly love was considered to ennoble a man, to improve him in every way. It would make him concerned to show an example of goodness, to do his utmost to preserve honor, never letting dishonor touch himself or the lady he loved.
On a lower scale, it would lead him to keep his teeth and nails clean, his clothes rich and well groomed, his conversation witty and amusing, his manners courteous to all, curbing arrogance and coarseness, never brawling in a lady’s presence. Above all, it would make him more valiant, more preux; that was the basic premise.
He would be inspired to greater prowess, would win more victories in tournaments, rise above himself in courage and daring, become, as Froissart said, ‘worth two men.’
Guided by this theory, woman’s status improved, less for her own sake than as the inspirer of male glory, a higher function than being merely a sexual object, a breeder of children, or a conveyor of property.
The Middle Ages embodied a sort of constant state of danger for young maidens. Susan Griffin examines this notion at great lengths in her essay, “Rape, An All American Crime,”
If a male society rewards aggressive, domineering
sexual behavior, it contains within itself a sexual
schizophrenia. For the masculine man is also ex-
pected to prove his mettle as a protector of women.
To the naive eye, this dichotomy implies that men fall into one of two categories: those who rape and those who pro-
tect. In fact, life does not prove so simple.
In a study euphemistically entitled “Sex Aggression by College Men,” it was discovered that men who believe in a double standard of morality for men and women, who in fact believe most fervently in the ultimate value of virginity, are more liable to commit “this aggresive variety of sexual exploitation.”
(At this point in our narrative it should come as no sur-
prise that Sir Thomas Malory, creator of that classic tale of
chivalry. The Knights of the Round Table, was himself ar-
rested and found guilty for repeated incidents of rape.)
In the system of chivalry, men protect women against
men. This is not unlike the protection relationship which the
mafia established with small businesses in the early part of
this century. Indeed, chivalry is an age-old protection
racket which depends for its existence on rape.
So, while chivalry (on a very surface level) appears to be embodying an aura of respectability and self-control, it really relied heavily upon man against himself and woman was caught somewhere in between–either as the valiant inspiration for the young hero or the victim of circumstance in his inability to control his “nature.” This is not only problematic for women but also for men. It presumes that their “natural” state is rapist which is not the case. Griffin goes on to explain in her article that this particular crime is most certainly a product of socialization and is not a “natural” given.
Unfortunately, these kinds of antiquated notions upon gender roles in regard to sexual relations permeate almost all of American culture at this moment. Woman is either a helpless victim or she is the reason for her own defilement. The entire sense of accountability upon men for their role in this regard is all but vanished; so if there is anything (and this is being generous) positive about chivalry, it is the insistence upon “honoring woman” by abstaining from physical contact. BUT, that is a very gross overgeneralization for sure.
This system and game in which women bounce back and forth in a male-on-male competition for female affection/protection/safety, etc is probably one of the biggest plot elements in mainstream entertainment and is also a device used to instill fear into men concerning woman and her purpose (WARNING: the last image is highly racist and highly disturbing).
Olive Oyl and Popeye
1933 Movie Poster for King Kong
World War II American Propaganda
Okay, so let me address the last image. It is highly problematic not only for its incredibly racist portrayal of Japanese men BUT also for its highly vulgar use of a (assumed Western and white) woman as a trigger to “inspire” young men to take up arms and kill their “enemy” in a combined effort to protect not only the entire nation but women in particular from being sullied by the same “enemy”. Also within this notion is a fear of genetic miscegenation. The immediate threat is the brutalization of White women but the added layer is that there may be an entire generation born of this act of war. If you remember anything from history, it was often the custom of victorious invaders to pillage, plunder and rape the women of their defeated enemies. It served as a way to repopulate the area and ensure that those born were born from the victor’s blood lines. In a Marxist analysis, woman’s ability to sustain and give birth to another generation is exploited and used for the benefit of men. The image also represents a long standing tradition to pit the so-called “civilized” Western man against his “uncivilized” foe. In John Vanderlyn’s The Death of Jane McCrea is shining example from the nineteenth century:
The Death of Jane McCrea, John Vanderlyn, 1804, oil on canvas, United States
The piece was “inspired” by the death of the young Jane by Native men who were allied with British forces during the Revolutionary War. An obvious piece of propaganda used to rally Patriotic support, it was produced to reinforce already predominant stereotypes of Native American men as ruthless “savages” clearly hell bent on terrorizing the white population (and what better way to get the American man all bent out of shape then to show his counterpart being brutally victimized at the hands of Native men). Again, we see the emphasis of woman as catalyst for male action–typically against other men (in an effort to defend her honor).
The irony of all this use of women as pawns in the game of man versus man is that the same men that want to “defend” women are typically the same men that portray women in the least respectable ways (especially in the arts). Take this Vanderlyn piece from 1814 as an example.
Ariadne, John Vanderlyn, 1814, oil on canvas, United States
The story of Ariadne depends on the origin of the myth. Here, Vanderlyn has envisioned her sleeping on the supposed island of Naxos and being abandoned by her “love”. Given that she is unclothed and sleeps upon a pile of fabric one is only left to fill in the blanks. And in this case, I suppose it would be safe to assume she has consummated the relationship and has been abandoned afterward.
As in the case of Andromeda, we see a pattern of using mythical (unreal) women’s stories as the basis to model female nudity. A woman’s body is not necessarily sexualized in of itself; I think most rational (and mature) people would understand this to be so. However, the carefully placed clothing and fabric beneath her body suggest a state of “undress” which has sexual overtones but is not explicit.
Still, for some paradoxical reason, we see the same artist attempt to tell the story of an injustice inflicted upon a woman in one work but totally use a woman’s body as a form of titillation and eroticism in the same lifetime.
It kind of reminds me of how paradoxical the United States is about survivors of rape. If the survivor is from a place like India, the whole country rallies in an effort to point he finger at the “foreign” country that treats its women poorly but refuses to acknowledge rape culture and problematic attitudes toward women here in our own country. This has a lot to do, I would imagine, with the white supremacist, imperialistic and colonialist attitude that the West is “right” (and therefore absolved) and the Other is always wrong.
The only way to really illicit true sympathy from an onlooker is to be the “perfect victim”; that is having no idea that an attack was coming in any way, shape or form. I think of the 2008 film Taken.
Only moments away from being taken by a vicious band of kidnappers, Kim (Maggie Grace) makes an urgent phone call to her father.
In the film young Kim is abducted while vacationing in Europe with a friend. The ongoing suspense builds as we find out that Kim will eventually be sold into prostitution. Her only hope is her father (Liam Neeson) who, conveniently is an ex-soldier and skilled in the art of tracking and taking down “bad guys”. This is perhaps to most overt use of this “damel in peril” idea. The entire film depends upon her rescue and while I’m willing to grant the analysis that it’s about a father’s love for his daughter, the film falls short. There are plenty of ways to showcase a parent’s love for their child without the child being subjected to the threat of danger, death or exploitation.
Switching to a more recent film I want to premise my analysis with theory. In his essay, “Multicultural White Supremacy and the Substructure of the Body,” author Dylan Rodríguez argues that the construction of white supremacy no longer exhibits itself as a white body on black/brown body but rather is an internalized system of values that targets and perpetuates the systematic oppression of black/brown bodies. For example, he cites the LAPD’s campaign to recruit more “diverse” members to its patrol teams. Outwardly the institution put on the façade of being “multicultural” by recruiting into its ranks black/brown bodies however the practices of the police department continued to profile and target poor and predominantly black/brown neighborhoods.
When “people of color” become selectively, unevenly incorporated and engaged in the creation, leadership, and everyday operation of institutional racism–as administrators, state officials, pedagogues, cultural producers, bureaucrats, ideologues, and armed executors–the condition of possibility for “racist” and “antiracist” social agency have been structurally reformed. Thus, what sense can be made of the lasting social productions and systematic processes of the white supremacist substructure when the bodies in enables, empowers, inspires, and mobilizes include those that have been–and continue to be–targeted for enslavement, colonization, civil disenfranchisement, militarized subjection, policing, and massive imprisonment?
I used this exact theory for my last post but now what to use it to examine the patriarchal substructures that underline most of our popular entertainment. It is often easy to point to female protagonists and want to suddenly scream “equality!” But just as Rodríguez discusses, the participation of a marginalized group doesn’t necessarily prove that we’re beyond the oppressive structures that remain intact to ensure further oppression of that same marginalized group.
I know that I’m going to get a lot of gruff for this but Disney Pixar’s 2012 film Brave is an example of this exact phenomenon.
Merida and her mother struggle to be heard by one another but it is only after Merida’s mother is cursed by accident (and must be rescued), that closure is achieved.
I will be completely honest. When I first saw this film last summer, I was excited and overall pleased with Merida and all that her character embodied. She was smart, witty, determined and rebellious. What better message to send to young, impressionable girls than the idea that you can challenge social expectations!? This longing for adventure and a chance to decide her own fate is at odds with her prim and proper mother. After visiting a magical witch Merida is able to successfully obtain a spell that will help to change her mom so that Merida doesn’t have to marry any of the three visiting princes. Innocently enough, Merida gives her mom the cake (spiked with spell power) and soon finds out that by “change”, the witch meant changing her entire form–not her mind. So the plot thickens the moment Merida’s mother is cursed to the form of a bear. It’s a race against time as Merida must figure out how to “mend” the bind that was torn between her and her mother. If she is unable, her mother will remain a bear and any humanity within will vanish completely.
Merida’s mother is a damsel in distress. She may not have been put into that state through abduction or the threat of immediate physical harm but she is most certainly in danger of losing her humanity–even if it was an accident. So while the plot gives us a heroine, her entire reason to move to action is because her mother has been disempowered.
So while I appreciate the attempt to put a young maiden in charge of her fate, it still comes at the cost of her mother. In a true fairytale ending, all is resolved and everyone seems to be content with the situation.
It is possible to write conflict without disempowering the agency of a character. Yes, I understand that most of life is a series of events that unfold and confront us with conflict but most of us are able to figure out what to do with a given situation. Some of us ask for help which can be a blow to our ego but the key there is that we can ask; that we have a voice to reach out to others. However, in the damsel trope, there is no agency whatsoever. A series of events unfold unto her rather than by her own bidding and that small difference is key.
For anyone that knows me, Wreck-It Ralph is, by far, one of my favorites that I couldn’t stop shutting up about. The cast of characters are fully fledged, carefully crafted and all work together within a world that has its own narrowly defined boxes for people but each one (in their own way) are able to defy these boxes and resolve conflict.
Vanollope Von Schweetz from Disney Pixar’s Wreck It Ralph
I find it amazing that Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), who is a child, has more flair and presence than the title character (Ralph voiced by John C. Riley). One could argue (and I certainly do recognize the critique) that Vanellope is a damsel in that King Candy has deleted her code rendering her unable to exit her own game and that it is Ralph who figures out that she’s an intricate part of the game after seeing her image on the outside of the machine HOWEVER she is not just waiting around to be rescued by anyone. When she meets Ralph she is trying to figure out how to get into the race; she has forged a home for herself (even if it’s in an abandoned part of the Sugar Rush) and enlists Ralph’s help when she noticed he has the strength to break into the kart making factory. The difference here is that even within her dilemma, she isn’t just waiting around helplessly; she is doing her best to find her place within the game despite all others having forgotten her reason for being there whereas in Brave, Merida’s mother is completely dependent upon Merida finding a way to undo the spell.
Once scene stands out in particular for me in Wreck-It Ralph; it’s the scene in which she is learning to drive her kart. I teared up the first time I saw this scene. Her determination coupled with her having said over and over again, “I know I’m a racer; I can feel it in my code,” comes to fruition when she yells out, “Hey Ralph, watch this!” and proceeds to hug the curves and jump the track. She is truly empowered by her ability to drive and race. That is a great moment of clarity for anyone; finding that your greatest passion is grounded in the ability to achieve it! And this is just her story arch. Each character has their own journey of self-discovery.
That is the fundamental difference that I want to highlight; we are all paths of self-discovery that is active and not passive despite what constructions for women attempt to push forth. It can be difficult, at times, to identify these constructions in hiding especially when they appear, externally, to be empowering but it is certainly worth the effort. It makes shining examples of strong women that much more meaningful and hopefully, with time, will make them much more common.