TL;DR: I came not here to praise the trope, but to bury it. Just not for the reasons you might think.
A lot of people have deconstructed, lampooned, or otherwise whined about the Damsel in Distress trope and its misogynistic underpinnings. All of that is valid and true. I’m not going to dispute any of that. I personally prefer my damsels to be of the self-rescuing type.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing career of late, what motivates me to write, and the types of tropes that I am drawn to and enjoy. It’s no secret that I love vengeance stories and antiheroines. It will surprise no one that I’m a Scorpio or an Enneagram 8. I picked up a journaling habit a few years ago at the suggestion of one of my writing coaches. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron was a massive sea change for me creatively. I’m almost superstitious about it now—I feel weird on those days (like today) when the day conspired against me to keep me from the practice. [It’s totally because he’s more ADD than a meth-squirrel, not because “the day” conspired against him in any way whatsoever. —ed.]
Anyway, as I journaled through some of the exercises recommended by Claire Taylor in her book Reclaim Your Author Career, I discovered something about the Damsel in Distress trope (for me) that I hadn’t know before.
It’s not about the damsel.
I realized, finally, as a much older man, that all my life it could be (and has been) driven by a response to ANYTHING in Distress. Literally, _________ in Distress gets my attention. Fill almost anything into the blank and I’m down for it. But why?
As it turns out, for me, the Damsel in Distress trope is a promise. No, not of a fair damsel to have my way with. I’ve already got one of those—and she’s the only one I want. The trope is a promise of conflict—literally the promise to fight oppression, tyranny, and a Bad Guy™ or Bad Gal™ or Bad Person™, whatever—I’m easy. Implicit in the formulation of the trope is Perfectly Moral Reason to Fight Someone.
Turns out I don’t even care what or why. Just that there’s a Good Reason® to pick a fight with someone who deserves a pounding. The damsel is free to do whatever she wants when it’s all over. A damsel isn’t even strictly required. You could call it the He Needed Killing trope or the Somebody’s in Trouble Again trope. I’m here for it.
The most pure expression of this that I can think of in story is the obligatory White Hat in old spaghetti westerns. The heroic cowboy never gets the girl. She might want him to stay, but he always rides off into the sunset in search of another Something in Distress to rescue.
Turns out, all that it takes to get my attention is to shout, “Oh, look! A windmill yonder!”
If you like the Damsel Rescues Herself from Distress trope, give Raven Queen, Arise a read to witness Illyria start her quest to right all the wrongs.