After the explosion of misogyny that came along with the new GHOSTBUSTERS movie, there’s been a lot of discussion about female representation in male dominated film genres. Women are often regulated to secondary characters and a large amount of films fail the Bechdel test, a test that asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Fans were outraged when, after STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS delivered us a female hero, her merchandise was next to impossible to find, while male secondary characters were easily purchasable. There’s been an overwhelming pushback from fans demanding more of their female characters, tired of seeing women portrayed as nothing more than damsels in distress.
The “Damsel In Distress” archetype is arguably the first character type for women in popular culture. It has without a doubt been cited as the biggest example of differential treatment of genders in literature, film, and works of art. “Damsels in Distress” are often scoffed at as perpetuating the stereotype that women are the weaker of the sexes and are rendered useless without the assistance of a man. The Damsel in Distress is the grandmother of other incredibly offensive female archetypes like the “princess in the castle,” “missing white woman syndrome,” “Daphne Blakes,” and most recently, “Bella Swans.” Despite their seemingly offensive and stereotypical portrayal of women in cinema, they may be quite possibly the most important stock character to happen to horror films.
Before I continue any further, let it be known that I firmly believe that women can be strong and independent members of society capable of taking care of themselves and making their own decisions. I do not believe women are prizes to be won. My ability to analyze a potentially counterproductive aspect of film criticism does not change my feminist viewpoints.
From the earliest examples of horror films, “Damsels in Distress” (or women in peril) were the only roles that actresses would play. From the beautiful Dea in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS to the kidnapped Madeline Short in WHITE ZOMBIE, these women were often the sole conflict of horror films. Although these women were written as nothing more than beautiful prized possessions, it was their existence that propelled the story further than just introductory statements. Film theorist, Budd Boetticher, stated “what counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.” To put it simply, without the simplistic nature of the “Damsel in Distress,” there would be no story. These female characters are absolutely vital to the storytelling.
Here’s the thing. Here is the thing that no one ever cares to admit: we care more about the well being of women than we do men. Don’t believe me? As Major West said in 28 DAYS LATER… “Because women mean a future.” When there is a disaster or a terrible event occurring, people scream “women and children first” or violent criminals are more willing to spare them. This concept has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of women and children being weaker than adult males, this has everything to do with the fact that without women, there is no existence. Men cannot bear children, therefore, they cannot continue on the species. Women are the most important attribute to survival, and therefore are the most valuable creatures to mankind. When we look at it historically, the reason that “Damsels in Distress” were popular are due to the fact that up until the last forty or so years, there wasn’t any insight to the female psyche. Women were seen as inferior beings and the “Damsel in Distress” is merely a product of its time. Yes, the “damsel in distress” still makes its appearance in films today, but the impact this character type made on horror far surpasses its offensive nature.
Without the “damsel in distress,” we wouldn’t have a character to be offended and angry towards. That may sound silly, but it’s true. If we weren’t so intensely offended by this archetype, we wouldn’t have rebelled and tried so hard to disprove it. Strangely enough, horror movies showcase some of the greatest female protagonists in film history, regardless of genre. The rebellion against the damsel in distress introduced entirely new archetypes into the horror genre. Badass women like Alice in RESIDENT EVIL or the ladies in THE DESCENT, intellectual anti-heroes like MAY, women who learned to use their gender against men like Ginger in GINGER SNAPS, victims turned champions like Jennifer in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, and brutal killers like Asami in AUDITION. All of these women (whether for the ‘good’ or ‘evil’) are the complete and utter opposite of a damsel in distress. While many of them do follow stereotypically sexist ideals (they’re all conventionally attractive and they’re ‘crazy bitches’) these women would not exist if it weren’t for the damsel in distress. In an attempt to create characters so opposite of the damsels audiences had become accustomed to, it forced storytellers and filmmakers to think outside the box and come up with different ways to explore the female character.
Witness: The Final Girl. The slasher film has arguably the biggest fanbase and has brought more iconic characters to the horror world than any other subgenre. Although a bit formulaic at times, they all contain the all mighty Final Girl. Final girls are the virginal (usually brunette) women who remain as the sole survivors of the slasher films for exemplifying intellect, morals, and strength. The Final Girl is the polar opposite of the damsel in distress and showcases one of the most radical ways to view female characters in the horror genre. Although it is nearly impossible for a filmmaker to write a totally non-offensive female character, the final girl is the closest thing we’re going to get. Hell, even Sidney survived in SCREAM after losing her virginity to her mother’s killer. Female characters are evolving with every film, and it all goes back to the damsel in distress. Whether you choose to agree with me or not, damsels in distress were inadvertently the most important thing to happen to female characters in horror movies and potentially, all forms of cinema.