This is the 21st century. Land of girl power, Lady Gaga, and Katniss. We are assured at every turn that feminism and social justice movements aren’t necessary anymore, because their work is done, and we hear constantly that media and pop culture are balanced, articulate, and fairhanded in their depiction of people from all backgrounds and experiences. We live in a utopia where media has finally reached a state of perfection, where offensive content is nonexistent, representation mirrors actual statistical distribution, and all characters are fully realized, complex, multidimensional human beings.
So why do I feel like the damsel in distress is still a thing? On a larger level, why do I feel like none of the above paragraph is true, and that we’re still fighting the same battles over and over again when it comes to representation? At the same time that we have heroines like Katniss proudly and boldly being badasses in pop culture, we have a slew of Bellas simpering around the couch and waiting to be rescued by lovely male heroes who will take them away from their difficult, scary lives.
Why, despite the fact that women have been fighting sexist, outmoded, and disgusting attitudes for decades, does the damsel in distress stereotype persist so much, and resonate so deeply with so many people? There’s a reason that pop culture celebrating women in trouble and the men who rescue them performs inordinately well, while that which has empowered, independent and interdependent women tends, as a general rule, not to experience the same profile. There are, of course, exceptions: no one would try to argue that The Hunger Games is anything other than a pop culture powerhouse.
Notably, though, in The Hunger Games, Katniss often spends a lot of time discovering that people have kept things from her, schemed behind her back, and manipulated her to use her as a figurehead and a symbol, rather than allowing her to be herself. She’s still the same resourceful, talented, dynamic, interesting woman, but it comes with a note of sourness when you start to drill down and see that other characters sacrifice themselves for her even as they’re manipulating her to get her to play into their hands.
It’s curious that Katniss can’t be treated as a stronger and more interdependent woman in this framework, that instead she is sort of haplessly pulled along into a revolution. While some reads of the text assign more autonomy to Katniss, and those readings are valid, others are a bit murkier, and present some potentially troubling questions about the girl on fire. Is she, perhaps, the girl in need, too? Where does the line lie between the fallacy of thinking that a ‘strong female character’ does everything on her own and doesn’t interact with people at all, and turning a woman into a shadow figure who can’t survive without a man to rescue her?
Obviously, misogyny plays a role in the endurance of the damsel in distress trope, as does the socialisation of cis women and girls. Cis girls are trained from a very early age to have an affinity for the trope, to seek out media that reinforces it, and to enjoy said media, making it very hard for them to resist the tide of sexism found in media and pop culture. When you’re raised to idolise the trope and find it romantic, it’s no wonder that Edward is sexy while Peeta’s a whiner, even though Peeta, in working with Katniss (and being used by her) has much more parity with her character than Edward does with Bella.
The problem isn’t limited to the socialisation of cis women and girls, though, but to larger social constructs and attitudes surrounding romance and sexuality, where the idea of being needy, delicate, frail, and helpless seems immensely appealing to people across all genders and age groups. Culturally, we seem fond of cultivating strange and sometimes creepy attitudes about, for example, the romance inherent in watching people while they sleep, at a moment when they are most vulnerable and least able to defend themselves. It is, in a sense, troubling to think that this should be the time when someone is viewed as sexually appealing, rather than when that person is awake and active, able to fully engage and interact with people.
Why does the damsel in distress trope endure? Because, socially, we have decided that it should, and that we derive pleasure from it. In the process, of course, we also reinforce the idea that women are weak and helpless, and that those who fit these criteria are both ‘real women’ and sexually desirable. Strong, interdependent and independent women are undesirable because they don’t mesh with this trope; thus people mock the weight lifter whose body doesn’t match the idea of the weak, delicate flower, or the musician with the take no prisoners attitude to her style.
The damsel in distress trope lives on because it reinforces the social status quo, and allows people and society in general to feel more confident in their oppression of women. After all, it’s for their own good — women are clearly too weak, hapless, and confused to handle interacting with the world, let alone making decisions, defending themselves, or being treated as actual human beings instead of sexy lamps. The trope endures, in other words, because we want it to, and because the alternative terrifies us.