Random Rambles: Why is it OK to Damsel Men but not Women?

(c) Jo Naylor (Creative Commons License - Flickr)

(c) Jo Naylor (Creative Commons License – Flickr)

In fantasy, whether high fantasy, urban fantasy, or any sub-genre of this niche, there is a phenomena that really bothers me. I'm going to talk about my thoughts on this, in a rather haphazard and emotional sort of way.

Note: I'm a bit woozy from allergy medicine. Spelling and grammar and good tastes are optional. If I'm gonna go off the deep end, fall off my rocker, and otherwise implode, I'll do so with a complete lack of style. Booooo-yah!

Here I go.

It is okay to damsel strong men, but it is not okay to damsel a strong woman.

Seriously? What the heck? Hell, insert the f word here. Loudly. In all caps. I absolutely freaking hate this mentality. Hate it. Loathe it. Strong characters, regardless of gender, always need something or someone more powerful than them. It's a balance. It's what keeps them strong, fighting, and interesting.

The good guys can't always win, and for some reason, people think winning is strength. Especially when it is a woman doing the winning.

Screw that. Just screw it. Hard. With something long and sharp.

To take this a step further: Strong men who are damselled are viewed as forward motion in many fantasy novels. Why? They are treated as though they're real people.

When strong women are damselled?

How dare the author compromise the strength of a woman! How dare they! The fabric of the entire universe is about to tear! Not even Dr. Who can save us now!

That's essentially what it boils down to. A strong man needing rescued is a man who bit off more than he can chew. He needs help and he gets it.

That's okay.

A strong woman, however, is a different story altogether. If she can't do it by herself, she's viewed as weak. She needs help or rescue?

She's weak.

She fails to do what she needs to do?

She's weak.

She doesn't win? Screw that, she's weak. Only winners can be strong, if you happen to have been born with breasts and a nice ass.

Men? They can lose. It's viewed as adding character. Backbone. Earning strength.

A woman? Weak! Useless! Sooo stereotypical. Against the demand and criteria that women be strong under any and all circumstances! I've talked about this before.

I told you why I don't set out to write ‘strong' women. Inquisitor has a lady in it who I view as very strong. She's got backbone. She's quirky. She's a hard worker. She's a lot of things. She's funny. She's a human.

She wins.

She loses.

And when she loses, she's considered weak! How dare I write a weak woman character who loses, thus ruining all of her hard-earned strength!

Losing is not a loss of strength. Losing means someone did better.

The villains of a novel have equal motivation to try to win. And they should have their fair chance. If the main character, man or woman, screws up…

… you better the hell believe it that they, strong or not, need rescued sometimes.

If a character deserves to be in a compromising situation requiring rescue, they need rescued.

And for their sake, I hope they earned the love and respect of other characters–or proved their worth–to get the rescue they need. If not, well, I hope they enjoy facing all of the consequences for their actions.

Strength isn't about winning or losing. It isn't about whether or not a character is ‘damselled' and needs to be rescued.

We all need rescued sometimes.

There is always, always someone stronger than we are, whether it is in terms of pure physical strength, emotional stability, or something else intangible, including intellect and wit.

So, why is it a problem if a woman fails and needs to be rescued, but it is considered character development if a man fails and needs to be rescued?

Seriously, grow up. There is nothing wrong with a woman needing to be rescued in a novel, if she earned the position she is put in, and she earned the love, respect, and admiration of those who rescue her–man or woman.

If a character has earned love, it makes sense that those who love her will come running to save her, no matter what the cost.

Sometimes those who love this woman, this strong, beautiful, vibrant woman, will rush and hurry to the rescue before she needs it–all because they love her.

There is nothing wrong with that.

It's beautiful. And it applies to men too. If there is someone who loves, admires, and cherishes a man enough, it makes sense for their loved ones to go rushing to their rescue at the first sign of trouble.

Because people who are perceived as strong are the very ones we worry the most about when they get in trouble!

As humans, we question how someone can be so strong, and if the next amazing feat they do will be their last. We worry, and because we cherish these strong individuals, when we see them in trouble, it is natural for us to go running to their rescue.

Because they are strong, we find the will and the courage to become strong ourselves.

Any woman or man who creates this glorious phenomena deserves to be rescued. That's it, that's all. Gender has absolutely nothing to do with it. If a strong woman has truly earned love, respect, and admiration, the people she has touched should come running to her rescue should she need it.

She's not perfect.

If she were, she wouldn't be strong. She'd be brittle, and she'd break apart at the first sign of trouble. That is the true damsel in distress, the true woman who breaks because someone dare challenge her–and win.

The same applies to a man. Strength isn't in victory.

It's in the losses. It's in finding someone who is so treasured and valued because he or she does the right things for the right reasons–or even the wrong things for the right reasons

Strength doesn't mean you don't need to be rescued sometimes. It's a whole lot more than that. Needing to be rescued does not mean you're a damsel in a distress. It doesn't mean you're weak.

It means you lost. Someone outsmarted you. Someone did better. Someone was stronger, more powerful, and wiser than you.

That doesn't mean weak.

So, to all of you who view a damsel in distress as someone weak… screw that noise.

Everyone needs to be rescued sometimes.

The question isn't about whether or not that'll happen. It will. Jim Butcher had it right, I think. I'll paraphrase something Michael said to Harry Dresden:

What comes around goes around. Sometimes you get what is coming around. Sometimes you are what's coming around.

Being the loser doesn't make you weak. Needing to be rescued doesn't make you weak. It does not cheapen a strong character.

What it shows is whether or not that character, to others, was worth rescuing.

There is something to the dislike of a damsel in distress. I understand that. But don't attach this phenomena to the cheapening of a strong woman or man. It's not.

It's a consequence, and if the character lost, they lost.

I think people hate the damsel in distress because of the too-often occurrence of the cliche being written for no other reason than to put them in a compromising position.

But when a character faces the consequences of their actions, male or female, rescue may be needed.

They can't always be what comes around.

There is a big difference between a woman or man facing the consequences of their choices and action, requiring rescue as a result, and a woman or man being turned into a damsel in distress for the sake of a plot point.

And it doesn't make them weak. Outmaneuvered, outwitted, outgunned, and compromised, yes.

But never weak.

Damsels in distress happen.

But I think it's time to start recognizing why it happens, and stop thinking that it means a woman is weak and that it builds character for a man.


Leave a Comment:

Lawerence Hawkins says May 4, 2014

Except when it does. And it has. A lot.

The ultimate question is why they failed – to establish their limits or to glorify someone else’s. I agree with you in principle, but we do not exist in a clean slate. A writer has to address the atmosphere of the audience and their own biases.

Anyone can lose. A damsel loses so someone else gets that hollow strength by victory.

    RJBlain says May 4, 2014

    I tend to make my characters lose because someone else is smarter, better, or just luckier than them. Usually by using cunning plans and exploiting the character’s weaknesses.

Conceptualizing a Novel: Journaling, Plots, and Characterization says May 26, 2014

[…] by their choices–and the choices of other characters. I’ve talked about this before, in a discussion over damseling. If a character loves another character so much to risk injury or death for them, if they get in […]

Conceptualizing a Novel: Journaling, Plots, and Characterization | On Writing says February 26, 2015

[…] by their choices–and the choices of other characters. I’ve talked about this before, in a discussion over damseling. If a character loves another character so much to risk injury or death for them, if they get in […]

Add Your Reply