Death of the Damsel

Original artwork by Earl Norem
Original artwork by Earl Norem

Everyone has seen her. We have wept for her. We have wished for her safety. We have fallen in love with her. We have, frankly, often been annoyed by the Damsel in Distress. When it began, no one can say. We called her Andromeda when Perseus killed the leviathan to save her. We knew her as Sita in Ramayana when her husband and the monkey god bent heaven and earth to find her and save her. Countless knights have fought countless dragons for her honor. She has been trapped in a tower, tied to a railroad track, and enchanted by a witch. A huge ape fell in love with her and set her down when the airplanes came to shoot him off the Empire State Building. We heard her voice when Bonnie Tyler sang “Holding Out for a Hero”.

If she has been around for thousands of years, if we have all seen her a hundred times, where has she gone? I look for her in this day and age and can’t find her, not as we have known her in the past. She was naive, beautiful, young, and often a virgin. This archetype has vanished from modern entertainment, and maybe for good reason.

I am fascinated, and a bit obsessed, with strong women. My books teem with them. I search for them in modern culture, find them in books and movies, and watch with rapt attention as they kick ass and take names. In my life, I surround myself with powerful, capable women. From my unstoppable wife and the 37-hour labor she weathered to bring my son into the world, to her mother who raised three powerful, successful women I often stand in awe of, my imagination is captured by women who refuse to give in, refuse to sit down, and refuse to shut up.

I believe the Damsel archetype is flawed. In the book Wild at Heart by John Eldredge, he talks about the secret desire that most women harbor in their hearts and minds to be fought for. I think this is where she was born. Eldredge says that women want to know they are worth a good fight. My wife knows that. I went through years of soul-wrenching therapy to deal with deep-seeded issues so I could be healthy and nurturing for her. She also knows that every minute of emotional agony I experienced was well worth it, and that I would do it again. But if Eldredge and my wife can be believed, that is where the powerful woman and the Damsel in Distress part ways.

The Damsel is the quest. Once the man has fought his battle to have her, he marries her or sexes her, and he’s off for another adventure. She was his entire fight and once he has her, he is pretty much done. They live happily ever after or he moves on, leaving her open to attacks again. But never does she stand beside him on the battlefield. She never has his back, never supports him, or fights for him or with him. The book closes, the credits roll, when the Damsel is safe in the hero’s arms or bed—not so with powerful women.

The powerful woman wants to be swept up into the action. The hero throws her a dagger or a bow and off they go to save the world. She becomes part of the story, and the story goes on. With many women, after they have been fought for, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their heroes to face the world in matrimony. They raise kids together and fight the wiles of the world. My heroine and I are fighting the publishing world. My writing career is the quest. We both pour over every day of writing. Every letter to the editor, every submission, is a joint venture. We attack this dream as one.

In one of my books, a hero faces a team of villains when standing beside his lady love. He calls out to her to run, save herself. She refuses, spinning to fight beside him and save his life as he fights to save hers. This is the essence of the powerful woman.

I have written of the hero in distress, men captured and helpless that rely on their women to come and save them. Is this as flawed as the Damsel archetype? I’m not sure. But it makes great fiction, watching a woman fight for the man she loves. My mind reels with the romanticism in that story.

I have a character in my new book that fits the Damsel archetype. She has been sheltered by the world, has no way of defending herself from her enemies, and desperately needs to be saved. She is pure. But there exists in her a kind of quiet defiance that I find appealing. Not all women can defend themselves physically, but they can stare an enemy down and refuse to give in. This is where I find her strength.

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Damsel in Distress. She was my first love and my first desire. My wooden swords and handmade bows were swung and shot in the backyard of my childhood in her defense. But I think she needs to be reinvented for today’s audience. For now, I fight beside a strong woman, with swords made of words and bows strung with dreams.

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