It is no secret that women take backseat roles in most cinema. A good number of movies– even those produced in the progressive 21st century– do not meet the Bechdel tests 3 low-bar requirements: at least 2 women, the 2 women have a conversation, and the conversation does not involve men. In light of this, the obvious question is “what do they even do?” They have no agency, no nuance, and no unique impact on the plot. In many cases, these women are completely interchangeable– it would make no difference if Lois Lane and Mary Jane swapped places– demonstrating that female characters are not treated as characters, but rather as plot devices who motivate the actions of the male characters, i.e. the narrative focus. These women are only there to get into trouble and then be pulled out of it by the men in the movie, and the traits given to these women– in terms of both their aesthetics and their personalities– make a societally damaging association between femininity and weakness. It is not just that women are helpless, but it is the most feminine women who are the most helpless.
Modern cinema simply isn’t doing enough to deviate from the harmful narrative schemes set up by its source material– which portrays female characters who are dependent on the male characters in almost every manner possible. For example, this image clearly illustrates the dynamic between male heroes and their damsels. The damsel is not just dependent on the hero for physical safety, but for emotional security as well, and the hero feeds off of this. The only dependency that the hero has on the damsel is the emotional satisfaction he gets from her complete dependency on him. This is damaging not just for society’s perception of women, but also for its perception of what a healthy relationship is. In this context, if Mary Jane were capable of defending herself, Spiderman admits that his life would lose meaning, and while this may be romantic on the pages and while the story may have a happy ending, this type of codependency is the foundation for a toxic relationship that has the potential to leave all parties involved with permanent emotional scars.
This trope represents an accepted standard for women and relationships. Again and again, movies amplify the message that women are expected to be dependent upon their male counterpart. Throughout the film King Kong, Ann Darrow is featured as a vulnerable and feminine young woman that needs saving from a powerful and raging gorilla. Her main purpose is to be an object of men’s desire and quest. Besides being seen as dependent upon her savior and love interest, Jack Driscoll, she is painted with a heightened sense of femininity. Ann’s thin and delicate appearance emphasizes an ideal beauty that women should strive for. Because of her situation, this femininity is subconsciously connected to the idea that women are weak and vulnerable. The film chooses to focus mainly on her beauty and plight for needing saving. It fails to go into much more depth on who she is as a strong independent woman. Women are “almost always the ‘object’ rather than the ‘subject’ of” film, lacking real humanity and development (McDougall Jones). This standard of women being the object of the male gaze has pervaded the industry since its conception and continues to be accepted as a norm. Men’s gaze and the ultimate objectification of women often leads to a lack of character development behind women roles. The main focus of Ann Darrow’s character is that she is a beautiful, vulnerable woman in danger and needs saving. Her femininity is ultimately associated with weakness, as she is unable to escape Kong and her problems. Because of this, she requires the help of her human love interest, Jack Driscoll. The harm of this Damsel in Distress trope is that it subjects women to be an object of men’s desire and connects the ideas of femininity with weakness. Additionally, it promotes the idea that women should wait for men to solve their issues.
Elizabeth Swan, played by Keira Knightly in the film Pirates of the carribean: Curse of the Black Pearl, is represented as a beautiful, feminine woman that always seems to get in danger, demanding saving by men. Depending on the perspective of the characters, this saving comes from both Pirates and the British. Over and over, the female character is put into danger and rather than finding ways to solve the problem herself, the movie uses a dramatic scene with a male savior to whisk her away, out of danger. The long sword fights and destruction of property is accepted and justified throughout the film as a means to save the damsel in distress. Films like this one, “excuse the use of force” by implying that “feminine virtue” needs to be saved by men (Kelly). Throughout the film, Elizabeth appears as a delicate and pure woman. Her femininity is overly emphasized to create a sense of need for a strong male counterpart. This trope of the damsel in distress, leads the viewer to assume that women should wait for their male counterparts to save them from danger, further establishing the hierarchy of men and promoting the idea of a woman as the object of a man’s quest.
Batman’s love interest, Rachel Dawes, in Batman Begins is another classic portrayal of a damsel in distress, always managing to need saving rather than being useful to herself or the film’s hero. She represents his vulnerability as villains use his love for her to weaken him. Because of this manipulation, women are painted with a sense of weakness and vulnerability. The damsel in distress is constantly in need of protection because of her lack of strength and independence. Rachel Dawes, like other Damsels, is portrayed with a heightened sense of femininity. This pushes viewers to connect femininity to weakness, strengthening man’s superiority over women. Society continuously “conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other,” establishing subordinate and dominant relationships between groups (Lorde). This is done using race, gender, sexuality, and more. These inferior groups are defined by others who view themselves as superior and are then expected to “bridge the gap” for themselves (Lorde). Films that use the Damsel in Distress trope further define women to a subordinate group by connecting the ideas of femininity and womanhood to weakness, dependence, and vulnerability.
Films continually push women into inferiority, despite efforts to give female roles a sense of independence and agency. The film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice attempts to portray Lois Lane as a strong and go-getter writer but falls short to give her any sense of real role or impact in the storyline. She is ultimately seen as helpless and in need of her love interest’s protection. Despite the film’s efforts, she falls victim to the Damsel in Distress trope. Throughout the film, she is saved four times by Superman as an act of love. This influences visions of romance to become gendered in that a man should be the protector of women while a woman should be dependent on their male counterpart. Lois Lane is continuously portrayed as a dependent woman who always requires a man to survive. She has little development to her character beyond being the subject of Superman’s saving in the film. Despite efforts made by the film to change the way media portrays women, Lois Lane’s character cements the idea that a woman needs a man to survive, succeed, and be happy.
Giving strong female characters more masculine traits emphasizes the converse of the femininity/weakness paradigm. Shows like Game of Thrones may have several strong women, but the writers make it a point to give them a more masculine build and attitude. Let me be clear, this is not me interpreting these traits as masculine. This is the writers themselves– through other characters’ behavior and dialogue– characterizing traits such as aggression, musculature, and square body proportions as masculine. Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth, bodyguard to several key characters in the show, is often mistaken for a man before taking off her helm, is the butt of many jokes about her brutish fighting style and attempts at valor not fitting her gender, and even recounts her backstory of being made fun of as a youth for her “manly” build. The only way for a woman to be strong, it would seem, is for her to be more masculine, and the audience’s acceptance of this solidifies its perceived connection between femininity and weakness.
Again and again, women are portrayed as weak, vulnerable figures, depending on men for survival. This Damsel in Distress trope further solidifies the hierarchy Western culture has built over centuries. Women in these roles are often portrayed with an exaggerated sense of femininity, which further harms the representation of women in media as it connects femininity to weakness. Despite efforts by some films to rewrite the representation of women, femininity and weakness continue to be linked through the media. The ideas of femininity and womanhood represented through this trope support traditional ideals about relationships that women should be dependent upon men and that women need men to be physically and emotionally safe.
Kelly, C. R. (2012). Feminine Purity and Masculine Revenge-Seeking In Taken (2008). Feminist Media Studies, 14(3), 403-418. Retrieved June 30, 2020.
Lorde, A. (1984). Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. CA: Sister Outsider. Retrieved June 30, 2020.
McDougall Jones, N. (n.d.). Returning Our heads: Inside the Fight to Dismantle the (White) Gods of Hollywood. Retrieved June 30, 2020