Can damsel in distress stories be feminist?
Yes, it’s been done many times before, but it requires you to think about what you’re doing.
In the shortest definition, feminist lit is writing which speaks to a women’s experiences. Often, this is in the way that women are treated socially, culturally and/or politically.
Damsels in distress, at their most basic, are plot coupons. They barely exist as characters, and are just another part of the prize hoard a hero receives on completing whatever story challenge they were sitting behind. There is an almost game-like reward logic to them: Your protagonist did something impressive, now he may have a cookie.
The practice of treating female characters as objects, rather than sapient individuals is, obviously, not feminist. As a result, it’s not a stretch to label the “default” damsel in distress as non-feminist; it’s not.
So, what do you need to do to change this? Your damsel needs to be an actual character. She needs to have an identity and presence in the story that expands beyond simply being reward sex for some random guy that murder-hobos his way to her doorstep.
An excellent example of a famous female character who fits the damsel in distress mold but transcends it without ever switching into Action Girl is Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Unlike other Maid Marians, she works within the confines of her role but remains an active character throughout the story, growing from a naïve, sheltered young maiden into a daring rebel spying on Prince John and Sir Guy from within the palace walls. I mean, just look at this penultimate speech she gives to Prince John before the finale.
The moment Marian becomes a damsel in distress is when she’s sentenced to death by Sir Guy for consorting with Robin Hood and betraying the Normans. Yet, her speech to John is filled with defiance as she exercises her convictions and her anger at the harm her people have done.
“Sorry? I’d do it again if you killed me for it.”– Maid Marian, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
While Marian’s impending execution is a danger Robin needs to rescue her from, the outcome is the result of her decisions, of danger she understood, and, it’s only fair, as she comes up with the plan to rescue him after he’s captured by Sir Guy during the archery competition.
Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian is a masterclass in creating a female character challenging stereotypes while working within the boundaries of her role. She grows and changes. She bravely risks her own life to stand up for what she believes in. She stays in the midst of danger when given the opportunity to flee because she believes her continued access to Prince John’s inner circle is more valuable than her safety. Most importantly, she never needs to demonstrate incredible martial prowess to be legitimized by the narrative or respected by the men around her.
Now, strictly speaking, your damsel doesn’t even need much agency for the work to be feminist. She doesn’t even need to be a hero. Feminist Lit is an exploration of what it means to be a woman with many shapes and angles born from an individual’s experience. It can be as simple as an intelligent discussion on how she’s marginalized by society because of her sex or gender, and how that experience affects her. Not, uplifting, but a legitimate discussion on the experience of women being discounted by society simply on the grounds of, “being a woman.”
Having said that, agency is an enormous help. There are many examples of feminist characters who appear to be damsels in distress, because they’ve been captured, but when freed are revealed to be fully formed characters, who were simply having a very bad day.
The important question is: does the work, as a whole, treat the character like a person or a quest reward? Ironically, that answer is more important than their agency. (Though, agency can be a good indicator that a character is being treated like a person.)
There are some common (and less common) twists on the trope, which can also qualify as feminist lit. One obvious example would be where the protagonist and prisoner are both women. There’s also a real feminist critique in how damsels in distress are contrasted against captured male characters. One aspect of this is in the sexualization. As the damsel in distress is often a sexualized reward for the protagonist, you’ll be more drawn to sexualize her than a male character who has been captured. (Or even a female character. After all, not every captured female is automatically a damsel. The damsel in distress is a trope, not a default.) The chains move from literal to a metaphorically stripping of a woman’s agency and power, and it’s easy to play into these tropes without intending to. This extends to both how they’re viewed by the reader, and how they tend to be treated in their narratives.
One thing to warn you about: A feminist character can be an action hero, but she doesn’t need to be. However, frequently, female action heroes are prefaced with an attitude of, “not like other girls.” That last piece is not feminist. Women can, and do, learn how to fight. They can become skilled combatants. There’s a legitimate discussion in feminism about how society discourages that behavior in women, however, they have the same potential to become combatants as men. When an author decides that they need to give their female character super powers in order to justify her being able to fight, they are subtly undermining women at large. An artificially empowered female action hero can be part of your power fantasy, but it comes with a glass ceiling saying, “but you can’t do this.”
It is worth remembering that the female power fantasy is a legitimate part of feminist fiction. It exists in parallel to the overrepresented male power fantasy, and female action protagonists are frequently actually the latter, with added eye candy, rather than actual expressions of a women’s experiences. There is nothing wrong with having powerful women in your story. The critical thing about feminist literature is that the work speaks to your experiences as a women. Not how some random guy feels about it.
A good start is writing a damsel who doesn’t automatically owe their rescuer (male or female) anything.