How to Defy the Damsel in Distress Archetype

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From Rapunzel trapped up in her tower to legions of scream queens hitting high decibels, the damsel in distress trope is long rooted in sweet, helpless characters incapable of staying out of trouble. If you’re an actor who has to own the archetype–or a writer looking to avoid the pitfalls in the first place—here’s how to call for help without being completely helpless.

What is a damsel in distress?

Held captive by evil forces, a damsel in distress is a fictional pawn whose peril holds more importance than—and essentially takes the place of—any kind of character development. Frequently female (but not always), she has limited agency and must take a backseat to the hero’s triumphant journey. Audiences are more likely to see her screaming for her life than voicing opinions, dreams, or desires. 

Key characteristics of the damsel in distress archetype include: 

  • Powerless: Damsels can’t help but rely on outside help because they lack the ability or resources to solve their problems. 
  • Naiveté: Despite imminent danger and discomfort, damsels don’t let their situation discolor their sunny worldview. They see the good in mankind and maintain a wide-eyed innocence regardless of what’s thrown their way.  
  • Endearing appearance: Damsels hook a hero’s heart with sweet, soft features and clothing that reflect their purity and childlike need for protection. Rosy cheeks, gentle smiles, and long flowing hair are all part of the damsel in distress archetype. 
  • Worthy of rescue: All of these qualities often make the damsel “worthy” of saving in the hero’s eyes, providing extra motivation to overcome the challenge ahead.

The damsel in distress trope has been a literary staple since the dawn of storytelling. Ancient Greek mythology tells of the hero Perseus happening upon the helpless Andromeda, chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the sea monster Cetus. The legend of St. George sees the Christian figure slay a dragon to save a princess. In the early 19th century, the Brothers Grimm popularized tales of women waiting for their valiant savior, including “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Rapunzel,” and “Sleeping Beauty” (all of which would be adapted into popular Disney films centuries later). 

Although their origins lie in legends and fairy tales, modern damsels in distress most often appear in the action genre, tied up as our hero defuses the bomb, or the horror genre, where the title “scream queen” is rooted in how well an actress can react to terror. Criticism of how these roles perpetuate antiquated gender roles have helped evolve and subvert the archetype over the years, but damsels still cower behind oiled-up men throughout cinema. 

Damsel in distress examples

Some examples of the damsel in distress trope include: 

Aurora, “Sleeping Beauty” (1959): Princess Aurora, voiced by Mary Costa, is one of the many Disney heroines unable to chart her own destiny. Along with Snow White—who set Disney’s damsel in distress template in 1937—she falls asleep in her own movie, lying in wait for true love’s kiss. 

Buttercup, “The Princess Bride” (1987): Based on the movie’s title, Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) should be the narrative focus, yet her fate is repeatedly in the hands of men. As the victim of a forced marriage and kidnapping, she has no choice but to sit around and wait to be rescued by her fated love interest, Westley (Cary Elwes). 

Mary Jane Watson, “Spider-Man” (2002): Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) dreams of stardom, but her acting plans are repeatedly put on hold due to her being the object of Peter Parker’s affection. Almost all of the character’s film adaptations have seen villains using MJ as Spidey bait, but for a textbook example, see Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin literally holding her as a helpless ultimatum. 

Peeta Mellark, “The Hunger Games” (2012): For proof that men can be damsels—occasionally known as the “distressed dude”—there’s sweet-natured Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in the film adaptation of “The Hunger Games,” who clearly wouldn’t be able to survive the titular gruesome gauntlet without the brawn and brains of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). 

Martha Kent, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016): In Zack Snyder’s superhero mashup, the villainous Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) ruthlessly kidnaps Martha Kent (Diane Lane) in an attempt to lure Superman (Henry Cavill) into the open. Martha’s rescue is the catalyst to conclude the feud between Superman and Batman (Ben Affleck), effectively rendering her as a storytelling prop. 

Characters who overturned the archetype 

Although the trope of a fragile female has permeated storytelling for centuries, some creatives have worked to subvert the idea of a damsel in distress. While these characters may occasionally need help, they aren’t completely incapable—more often than not, they are the solution. 

Leia Organa, “Star Wars” (1977): In his landmark sci-fi adventure series, George Lucas embraced the archetypes of classical storytelling—and that, of course, included a princess trapped in a villain’s lair. But thanks to Carrie Fisher’s fiery performance and Lucas’ savvy vision, Leia is royalty who rules over her own fate. The character turns the damsel in distress blueprint upside down from the moment she notes our “hero,” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), is “a little short to be a Stormtrooper.” 

Sarah Connor, “The Terminator” (1984): Taking the baton from surprise survivor Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” five years prior, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor has all the trappings of a damsel in distress. Ignorant of why an unstoppable antagonist (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is after her and reliant on a mysterious man (Michael Biehn) for help, Sarah literally takes her future in her own hands and becomes humanity’s hero. (Even more so in James Cameron’s sequel, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”)

Buffy Summers, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997–2003): Young, petite, and blond, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) looks like the average damsel in distress. Yet to the surprise of the enemies she defeats and people she saves, her slayer abilities overpower any man who crosses her path. 

Rose Dawson, “Titanic” (1997): A socialite whose destiny initially seems out of her grasp, Rose (Kate Winslet) takes control when the ship sinks, keeping herself afloat and leaving her abusive fiancé and premeditated existence behind. 

Anna, “Frozen” (2013): Disney was largely a damsel in distress factory until “Frozen” upended expectations with Anna (Kristen Bell). Not only does her perfect prince Hans (Santino Fontana) turn out to be—spoiler!—the villain, but Anna also ultimately saves the day through an act of courageous, selfless love, not the fairy tale–branded fate so familiar for decades.

How to own a damsel in distress role

Caught in a plot with no escape? Here’s how to avoid falling victim to the damsel in distress archetype.

Remember her history. The No. 1 way to make the most of an underwritten role is to dig in for yourself. Create a backstory, write a character biography, and ask yourself all the important questions about who this person is and what they’re about. The more you flesh out the role on an intimate, bone-deep level, the more you can add quirks and idiosyncrasies to make it stand out. 

Play to your strengths. Most damsels aren’t given the space to showcase personality, but use whatever screen time you have to communicate the person behind the peril. Your voice, facial expressions, and body language can go a long way in conveying you have struggles beyond your capture.

Stay in the fight. You may be stuck in an impossible situation, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up. Show you have some fight by sneering at the villain, pulling against restraints, or refusing to cower when danger is near. 

Be the reason to save the day. Heroes often fall for those they rescue, but you can make audiences fall in love with you too. Get viewers on your side by making the most of your early, pre-danger scenes; help them connect with you as a person, not just a prop.

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