Friday, May 16, 2014

How Damsel Theory is Harming Female Protagonists

Once upon a time, the word damsel simply meant girl. It comes from the French demoiselle, which you may recognize as similar to mademoiselle, meaning a girl or young woman. Damsel-in-distress, then, means a girl facing a plight. Damsel alone does not imply she'll be rescued. Damsel alone does not imply that a handsome knight on a noble steed will gallop to save her. Damsel alone does not imply she's incapable of solving her own problems.
However, damsel-in-distress is five syllables while damsel is simply one. So we shortened it. The word itself is antiquated. When did you last hear a girl referred to as a damsel-when she wasn't being criticized for weakness?
The most frequent targets of the word damsel-though by no means the only one-are fairy tales. This puzzles me. Few fairy tales are actually about a tower-stuck princess being saved by a knight in shining armor. Where did this stereotype come from?
I'm a bit of a fairy tale fanatic. My research has led me to discover the Aarne Thompson Uther system, a numerical way of classifying fairy tales. For example, Rumpelstiltskin is a type 500 tale. If you want to find other "Name of the Helper" stories you simply read down the list and look for the 500. The number for "The Maiden in the Tower" stories is 310. But there's only a tiny handful of them, especially compared to popular ones, like Rumpelstiltskin.
We like to think of the Grimms' version as the "official" source material. But the Brothers Grimm pulled their inspiration from all over. One of the most prominent influences for Rapunzel is the French story "Persinette". It was written by Charlotte Rose de la Force. A woman.
And she wasn't just any woman. Charlotte-Rose was the party girl of 17th century France. She had more than her fair share of lovers and defied social conventions by trying to elope with the much younger Charles de Briou. And by tried, I mean she snuck into his bedroom disguised as a dancing bear when the circus came to visit. It worked. Until their families forced them to annul it.
After that affair, Charlotte-Rose got into a little bit of trouble with the French king because she wrote some satirical poetry about him. That, and she might have had an affair with the Dauphin. Might have. They couldn't prove anything.
Charlotte-Rose was exiled to a convent for her crimes. Rather than shape up and live a life of purity, she wrote a few fairy tales. One of them was about a certain imprisoned maiden who rebelled against her mother's wishes and had an affair. Persinette was banished from the tower-not rescued-but eventually met up with her prince and raised a family with him.
Nowadays, we scorn Rapunzel for daring to sit around and await rescue. But in Charlotte-Rose's time it was obscenely radical. Provocative, even. It encouraged the notion that a woman's sexuality could be used as a weapon to defy social conventions. She had to publish it anonymously.
Persinette: Dreary Damsel or Radical Rule Breaker?
Sometimes, it's our perception of fairy tales that changes everything. Other times they simply get forgotten. That's the case with Molly Whuppie. You've heard of Jack, that greedy little farm boy who shimmied up a beanstalk, killed exactly one giant, and came home. In this Scottish fairy tale, a girl named Molly slaughters an entire family of giants. With her wits, not a lame ax and some help from gravity. She kills them a few at a time. While she's at it, she gets the king to promise her rewards, like his son's hand in marriage. She also gets her two sisters hitched to princes as well.
Molly is far from the only fairy tale heroine to slay her own monsters. Remember, it was Gretel, not Hansel, who shoved the witch into the oven. He was no prince. He was her brother and she simply wanted to save him.

I can't think of a single princess character in recent media who fits into the distressed damsel stereotype. We're actively aware of the stereotype now, and when princess characters do show up, it's to make fun of it. We mock so called damsels in film, books, and even music. Take Sara Bareilles' "Fairytale", which twists happily ever afters into falls from grace. The Cheetah Girls' "Cinderella", on the other hand, defies the fairy tale and sings about empowerment.

I can't help but wonder what everyone's complaining about. I loved the Disney Princess franchise as a child. But at the age of eight, I ditched my pretty pink princess backpack, a relic of my kindergarten days. I refused to go into third grade with a princess backpack. It wasn't until my teen years that I allowed myself to fall in love with the franchise again.
The same year my backpack went bye-bye, I discovered this book:
To Be A Princess tells the stories of twelve real princesses and their fates. It really opened my eyes. Until then, I always thought princesses were a fictional concept, like fairies and unicorns. Now I know better.
To me, princesses are poor unfortunate souls who got their heads chopped off like Marie Antoinette. Or shot in cellars like Anastasia Romanov. Or watch their countries get annexed like Ka'iulani. Or had their castles bombed by Nazis like the current queen Elizabeth. Their stories fascinated me as a child, but I certainly didn't want to be one.
The memory of those Disney heroines didn't hold me back. I didn't grow up believing I could count on a boy to rescue me. When I worried about my looks, I compared myself to women I knew in real life, not cartoon characters. I certainly never thought those fictional girls were the definition of femininity.
Maybe if I hadn't discovered this book, I would've grown up with a media-driven idea of what it meant to be a princess. I would've associated the word with tower-stuck females awaiting rescue. But I didn't. I can't see why so many modern women-and men-blame old cartoons and even older fairy tales for "damaging" young girls.
What worries me most is that we shove female characters into two categories: Team Damsel and Team Action Girl. When ABC released Once Upon A Time in Wonderland, a spin-off from Once Upon A Time, creator Edward Kitsis said this:
"We never wanted Alice to be a damsel in distress. We liked the idea that she is going to go back down that rabbit hole, sword in hand, to find her man."
And so she does. Alice, who gets about five minutes of on-screen combat training, easily takes out guards, soldiers, and monsters. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Cyrus sits in a cage for the better part of the series, not getting much character development.
In the original story, Alice is no damsel in distress. She's a seven year old tourist who wanders around a plotless, dreamlike landscape and has tea parties. She doesn't get rescued. She has no love interest. But she also doesn't wage war on anybody, so by modern definition, she's a damsel.
A male character can just be a compelling, well developed character. But a girl has to be a warrior. A male character can cry and it's emotional development. Girls crying is a sign of weakness. A male character can have a love interest and save the world. A girl tries that and we tell her to get her priorities straight.
Whenever I want my dad and brothers to watch a female lead movie with me, I have to assure them "It's not a chick flick". I have more luck if she's in an action role. "There's explosions and stuff-you'll like it, I promise!" You need bombs and bloodshed to convince anyone that a girl is more than a demoiselle.
I have to wonder. If damsels are few and far between in traditional fairy tales, if no one dares put a princess in a tower today, if media actively defies it, what are we complaining about? Where are these demoiselles who offend us with their femaleness and princessness?
I love "strong" heroines just as much as anyone else, but I worry when we begin to lump female characters into one of two archetypes: Strong Female Character and Damsel in Distress. Isn't there room in the middle? Can't we have whiny girls and funny girls and scary girls and constantly-betraying-the-rest-of-the-characters-yet-they-still-trust-her girls? When the only acceptable character type is an Action Girl, it's harder and harder to create a female protagonist anyone will enjoy.

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