Damsels in Distress (A.K.A. All Women)
Browse through the top paid or top free amazon selection for fantasy or sci-fi and what do you see? You see books with heroines on the cover. They strike some pose with a sword in the middle of an enchanted forest. We are supposed to believe that this woman is capable of destroying some encroaching demon or of overthrowing a galactic empire.
She can’t do that. Not with a sword or ray gun at least.
Many more look like this one, where the heroin has magic or telepathy and beats up warriors with her powers.
Some devil’s advocate would say, “But these are unreal stories with unreal characters. A woman could take down an evil empire with her ray gun in fiction so far removed from reality.”
True. But great fiction of any genre is grounded in reality. What makes Lord of the Rings so great? The characters could be real as they are written (save magical abilities); only the world is fantastic. Realistic characters are why people love books like A Game of Thrones.
But women with swords that take down giant evil forces are not realistic. They are pandering to their audience. Nowadays, women read the vast majority of fiction. Authors want to sell to these women. Naturally, they make their protagonists women to appeal to their audience. Perhaps only books with heroines make the best sellers lists because women just want these books.
One of the reasons I started this site was to address the need for men to reclaim fiction literature in their hearts and minds. Lessons don’t just come from dry non-fiction books. They come from fiction as well, but only when the fiction is well-written.
How are women well-written in fantasy and sci-fi? When they are the damsels in distress.
For Better or Worse, Women are the Prize
Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon in his memoirs Noble Savages describes in some detail his experience living amongst the Yanomamo tribe on and off for a total of five years. The Yanomamo were, when he lived with them, one of the last tribes to be contacted by “civilized peoples.” They live in the Amazon rainforest in Venezuela and Brazil. Lacking any modern technology (before missionaries gave them shotguns) they essentially lived as their ancestors did in the stone age.
Chagnon tells us through empirical data he has collected that most of the fighting between the men there occurs over women. They fight each other when infidelity is perceived. They beat their wives when infidelity is perceived. They raid other villages for their women. Women are the prize.
Chagnon gives other examples of this motive from archaeological records. He describes a site where a great battle took place when a village was raided in the plains of North America. Archaeologists found many human remains of the victims there, but surprisingly few of the remains belonged to nubile women. Why? Because they were taken as the spoils of war.
How did Genghis Khan become the most successful man in biology? By destroying his enemies and taking their women for himself and his kin.
It’s even in the bible. Deuteronomy 21:10-13
10 When the Lord your God gives you victory in battle and you take prisoners, 11 you may see among them a beautiful woman that you like and want to marry. 12 Take her to your home, where she will shave her head, cut her fingernails, and change her clothes. 13 She is to stay in your home and mourn for her parents for a month; after that, you may marry her.
Women aren’t the warriors, they’re the damsels. They are the ones violently taken from their homes and forced to lay with strange men. It’s a harsh reality we’ve thankfully transcended.
Chagnon is careful to tell however, that some women taken from their villages are happy to leave because their old husbands were abusive.
The damsel in distress has been looked at as a tired cliche in modern times. After 1970’s feminism gained so much traction the damsel character fell out of favor. Guided by feminist logic, storytellers seemed to say, “Women don’t need to be rescued. They’re strong too. In fact, they can do the rescuing. Of course, the villain will still be a man.”
This style of storytelling however is just a flavor of the month in the literary sense. It’s literary wish-thinking. There are no timeless stories of women being so dominant in battle or adventure. It’s just not believable. It’s not grounded in reality.
Even when the greats like Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien wrote female warriors they were ultimately forgettable.
Quick, who was the heroine who slew the Witch King of Angmar in Lord of the Rings?
It’s Eowyn, in case you’re still wondering.
Why Women Choose Comfort Over Love
In the reality our ancestral mothers faced marrying for love was not an option. When they were given away in marriage like a resource they could only hope their new husband would not be abusive. If he was not, she could only hope she would not be stolen away by the men of a larger village after they killed her husband.
She probably wouldn’t have loved her first husband. She also probably wouldn’t have loved her abductor. Her only hopes could be that either her male kin would come to recover her, or that she would live a relatively comfortable life with her abductor.
It was a hard life for an ancient woman, one that demonstrates that love is a luxury. Why should a woman toil with her beloved husband when a raiding party from a larger society can swoop in and steal her away leaving her husband to rot? She shouldn’t. She should only hope to live a life of comfort.
Take this concept beyond the stone age and we see why a king’s harem or many concubines don’t run away constantly. They were taken from their homes to be sex slaves for the king. They might not have volunteered for the job, but if they had to choose between living a hard life in an arranged marriage with some nobody to birth his kids or living the easy life in a palace as the king’s concubine to birth a prince they would choose the latter.
What Makes A Damsel?
A woman is a damsel when the king, abductor, or villain is abusive in some way. Princess Leia a damsel because of the the small cell in which she is confined and the destruction of her home planet. As a princess any life on the death star would be abusive when compared to life as a princess on her home planet.
That is why abducted princesses make the best damsels; it’s easy for them to feel abused.
But if a slave girl is abducted from her horrible life to be made a queen and somebody tries to rescue her she will quickly forget about her loved ones to live a life of comfort. That’s essentially the plot of the horrible Wachowski sister’s (brothers?) movie Jupiter Ascending.
To sum it up; damsels are more realistic characters than kickass heroines; damsels want to be rescued by chivalrous heroes; and so many of the best stories consist of heroes rescuing damsels.