Trope Dissection: The Kickass Damsel

Posted: November 9, 2012 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Picture the scene: our competent, clever, kickass heroine has just undergone a significant emotional change. Maybe she knows who the killer is, or has suddenly learned that a friend is in danger. Perhaps she’s uncovered a crucial piece of evidence or identified a traitor. Or maybe it’s something more personal: the death of a loved one, a startling revelation, the prospect of an unpleasant choice, an unexpected setback, a heated argument with a sexy-yet-frustrating antagonist. Whatever the catalyst, our heroine is energised, angry, likely upset and probably needing to blow off steam. So what does she do?

She goes alone into a dangerous situation, bites off more than she can chew, and promptly finds herself so overwhelmed that the next thing you know, she’s captured, bleeding, unconscious, imperiled and generally up shit creek. While a male character in similarly dire straits will likely James Bond his way out of things via a sequence of improbable badassery – bullet-dodging, some deus ex machina assistance, a judicious application of poorly-constructed handcuffs and the inevitable revelation that being cornered was part of his plan all along – our heroine will, instead, be rescued by her handsome, protective male love interest, with whom she will then have some soulful eye contact and cuddling at the very least. And instead of feeling irked by this, the audience is meant to feel vindicated.

Why?

Because Prince Saves Damsel is one of the oldest tropes in the book, and not even the advent of Strong Female Characters (TM) has caused it to lose its power. Instead, we’ve simply warped it a little: the Damsel is now a Kickass Damsel, endowed with just enough agency, power and awesomeness to fool the casual observer into thinking that she, too, could potentially have her own James Bond moment. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she won’t: the odds are stacked against her, not so she can show her strength by overcoming them solo, but as justification for her forthcoming rescue. Crucially, her decision to go alone into danger is always praised as bravery or self-sacrifice – a species of gendered martyrdom – or else couched in a language designed to give the impression that, however foolish her actions might seem in retrospect, they were wholly justified at the time: by anger, by urgency, by the unavailability or physical distance of allies. Ultimately, though, these excuses are all just component parts of a narrative sleight-of-hand trick constructed for a single purpose: to make us forget, or to disbelieve, that the heroine was ever really a Damsel.

Let me break down the narrative logic:

In order to have a charged, emotional moment with her love interest, the heroine – who, for a whole different set of sexist reasons, invariably struggles with intimacy – needs to be rendered vulnerable in his presence. Simply catching her at a moment of personal weakness won’t do the trick: her issues are so deep-seated that unless she was actively dealing with some new trauma, she’d clam right up again – but generally speaking, that’s the sort of major collision you save for later in the relationship, ideally as the catalyst for spending the night together (as per the classic hurt + comfort = sex/spooning equation). Right now, you’re just trying to show that the sexy antagonist cares for her – but because you want to draw out their relationship, you can’t have them kiss or screw right away; instead, they need to connect emotionally, but in a situation that realistically limits their ability to get it on. Solution: send the heroine into danger, watch her get wounded, and have the love interest show up to rescue her, not because she called him in as backup, but because he secretly cares so much for her wellbeing that he was heading to help out anyway. And voila! Not only is her vulnerability and physical weakness excused, but so is his protectiveness and greater competence – the classic Prince Rescues Damsel scenario reconstructed, but in such a way as to couch the Damsel’s endangerment as strength and the Prince’s heroism as sensitivity.

In other words, the Kickass Damsel requires rescue, not because she’s inherently weak, but because her strength and independence are only sufficient for getting her nobly into trouble, not awesomely out of it. At the same time, her love interest’s traditionally masculine protectiveness is justified both by her imperilment and his secret affections: he becomes the Badass Prince, whose aloof, macho and frequently antagonistic/sarcastic persona is ultimately constructed around a chivalrous, knightly core. Over and over again, we limit the competence of our female characters by placing them in perilous scenarios, not to test their skills, but to show how thoroughly they still need to be rescued; to make them vulnerable enough to fall in love, because if we wrote them as being emotionally well-adjusted and romantically inclined from the outset, they’d be deemed too feminine (whereas if we wrote them aromantically, they wouldn’t be seen as feminine enough). And the thing is, none of these tropes are inherently toxic; it’s just that, overwhelmingly, we don’t seem to realise that the Kickass Damsel is a loophole character, designed to blind us to her patriarchal base by disguising her as a feminist icon, and so we end up lauding her as though she were something else.

And I just… I would like to see more recognition of this fact, and more effort taken to write action heroes and heroines who don’t fit this mold so completely. Like triple-choc mudcake, some tropes are fine as a treat, but sickening if over-indulged – and in either case, you should never mistake them for broccoli.

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Comments
  1. Kristin says:

    I have long hated this trope, I remember watching my favourite cartoon about a woman who had a band, ran a group home for girls and ran a record company only to end every episode in a “my hero” swoon in the arms of her love interest. On the flip side, I remember being very pleased with a teen movie (“She’s all that” I think) where the male protagonist discovers that the female lead has been taken off to a hotel room by his dishonourable friend, he runs off to try to rescue her only to find her safe at home having fended the culprit off on her own. One quick note: the word “gypped” originated out of bigotry against the Romani, every time I see it I cringe.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Thanks for the language pickup! Will edit and refrain from further use accordingly.

      One film that does do well with trope subversion, I always felt, was Ever After – similar to your story, when the prince goes to rescue Danielle from captivity, she’s already cut up the evil dude with a sword and walked out on her own.

  2. Marie says:

    “if we wrote them as being emotionally well-adjusted and romantically inclined from the outset, they’d be deemed too feminine (whereas if we wrote them aromantically, they wouldn’t be seen as feminine enough)”

    So what IS acceptable, if there is no middle ground here?

  3. green_knight says:

    The sassy female of the past and the kickass heroine of today are not much different from where I’m sitting – and the older, successful male has been updated to a vampire or werewolf elder, thus keeping the male lead well ahead in skill and life experience and resources.

  4. Sgaile-beairt says:

    Balsa in Moribito anime is amazing denial of this trope….no rape backstory, the weak/rescue moment is got out of the way at the beginning & her traumas never overwhelm her the Nice Guy grows out of it & they reach a grownup point of transition to working thru their baggage by the end….i was shocked!!

  5. [...] over on a blog called Shattersnipe has written a really great, thought provoking post about the problematic “kickass damsel” trope. I was really excited to find it because it articulates pretty well a lot of the issues I’ve [...]

  6. Caravelle says:

    There is a genre of heroine that typically gets into that kind of scrape, and almost invariably James Bonds her way out of it (either by physical prowess or dumb luck). I’m thinking of detective stories such as by Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton (though to be fair I haven’t read Sue Grafton in years and stopped halfway through the alphabet, the later books might be different) or Nevada Barr. In that they’re very similar to the male-starring version of those books (like things by Tony Hillerman).

  7. Alex H. says:

    David Weber does a decent job of averting this trope; I can’t think of a single incident that really fits this pattern in any of the numerous Honorverse novels, which have quite a number of kick-ass female characters (first and foremost Honor Harrington herself, of course), nor even in the much more patriarchal settings of the Safehold and Bahzell series. The latter does include Bahzell saving a couple of deeply distressed damsels, but neither of them were exceptionally tough to begin with (though it’s clear Zarantha will be once she fully grows into her magical talent — that prospect was why the dark wizards wanted her dead in the first place), and neither one becomes Bahzell’s love interest. The main kick-ass female character, Kaeritha, does just fine at James Bonding her way out of trouble, and tells the hero off when he suggests that it was reckless of her to confront an extremely powerful enemy without waiting for backup.

  8. Thanks for the great analysis. I think your assessment that this trope isn’t necessarily inevitably bad, except that its overdone, as per the chocolate cake analogy is right on.

    Also ,thanks for explaining the relationship between this and the Hurt/Comfort trope. I actually like the overall hurt/comfort trope, but the sexualization of it bugs me and I’ve never been able to express why using hurt/comfort to drive create romance that woudn’t otherwise exist bugs me so much, and you explained it perfectly. I feel so much better now.

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