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Damsel in distress trope

Related: more tropes - Andromeda - final girl horror film theory - slasher films - women in prison films - white slavery mythology

Gorilla and Woman (1887) - Emmanuel Frémiet
Another typical damsel in distress trope is King Kong

Congo Bill?

Andromeda and the Nereids (1840) - Théodore Chassériau

Kay Aldridge in The Perils of Nyoka? (1942)
image sourced here.


A damsel in distress is a stock character, almost inevitably a young, nubile woman, who has been placed in a dire predicament by a villain or a monster and who requires a hero to dash to her rescue.

Damsels in distress are often tied up or chained, to prevent their escape; in the old melodramas and serials they would then be thrown onto railroad tracks or tied onto logs headed into a sawmill.

The damsel in distress is a popular stock character, perhaps in large measure because her predicaments almost always have more than a whiff of BDSM fantasy about them. The helplessness of these damsels, who are almost always foolish and ineffectual to the point of cluelessness, and their need for male heroes to rescue them, has made the stereotype the target of feminist criticism.

Damsels in distress are not used nearly as often as they were previously, and current depictions of the stock character usually play the role as camp. The stock character did undergo a revival of sorts in Halloween, Friday the 13th, and other slasher films of the 1980s. Here, though, the stock character was played with a twist: there were several young women characters, most of whom were killed by the serial killer villain, but one survived to defeat him. The young woman survivor herself became a stock character counterpart to the damsel in distress, as embodied in characters such as Ellen Ripley in the Alien series. Sarah Connor, a damsel in distress in The Terminator, became the effective survivor type in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damsel_in_distress [Apr 2005]

see also: stock character

The persecuted woman in romantic literature

Mario Praz says of the persecuted woman - what we now know as the damsel in distress - in The Romantic Agony:

At a distance of only a few years ... there came into being Gretchen in Germany (1806), Justine (1791) in France, in England Antonia and Agnes in the celebrated novel by M. G. Lewis, The Monk (1796) ... all these unhappy daughters of the ill-starred Clarissa suffered the same kind and terrors, languished in the dephts of horrible prisons, and died or risked a violent death.

And from the footnotes:

The theme of the persecuted woman crops up at intervals throughout the nineteenth century. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, S. Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, Hardy's Tess D'Urbervilles contain remote but still recognizable echoes of it.

Here is a summary of the role of Gretchen in Goethe's Faust

Margarete is a young, modest, and religious woman of a lower class than Faust. She lives with her mother and helps out around the house. She is referred to as Gretchen, which is a shortened version of Margarete, many times throughout the story. Faust finds Margarete attractive and tells Mephistopheles to get her for him. At first, she refuses his advances, but eventually agrees to a love affair and thus begins her downfall. When Faust gets her pregnant, she is persecuted by society and cursed by her brother as he lay dying. Out of insane desperation, Margarete murders her mother and child and is thrown into prison. Faust and Mephistopheles attempt to rescue her, but discover that she is completely mad and are forced to leave her behind. As Mephisto and Faust leave the prison, a Heavenly voice says that Margarete's soul has been saved. --http://litmuse.maconstate.edu/litwiki/index.php/Faust#Margarete_.28Gretchen.29 [Nov 2006]

The Perils of Pauline (1914 - 1930s)

image sourced here.

The Perils of Pauline (1934) - Ray Taylor

The Perils of Pauline was a silent movie serial which debuted in 1914. A second serial of this name ran in the 1930s. There is also a 1947 feature movie which makes reference to the earlier serial.

The Silent Serial
The very popular silent Perils of Pauline was a cliffhanger serial shown in weekly instalments featuring Pearl White as the title character, a perpetual damsel in distress. She was menaced by assorted villains, including pirates and Indians. At the end of each installment she was generally placed in a situation that looked sure to result in her imminent death. The start of the next episode showed how she was rescued or otherwise escaped the danger, only to face fresh peril again.

The serial had 20 episodes. After the original run it was reshown in theaters a number of times, sometimes in edited down shortened versions, through the 1920s.

The successful serial was quickly followed by The Exploits of Elaine, also starring White. Many imitations and parodies followed.

References to it appear in 1960s animated cartoon television shows Dudley Do-Right (where the villain often tied Nell to a railroad track), and The Perils Of Penelope Pitstop. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Perils_of_Pauline [Apr 2005]

Kay Aldridge

The serial heroine is one of the many attractions accounting for the popularity of the genre. Menaced by impending doom, or threatened with torture, she is an essential ornament of the serial, and yet, care was taken to make sure she was not too ornamental. Beginning in 1934, the Motion Picture Producers Association began fully enforcing their production code through the Hays Office.

The code's strictures naturally covered the sensitive issues of torture and bondage. Women could be shown after they had been tied up, but it was forbidden to actually show them being tied up. Usually, a cut was made just as the woman was about to be bound, and we would see the smile on a henchman's face as he or another villain cruelly tied knots around their lovely victim. The heroine's attire could not be shown in any disarray so as to expose any cleavage or undergarments.

However, young boys often got a glimpse at a shapely female leg, especially in jungle serials where the heroine wore a skimpy costume. Serial fans still recall with delight the charms of a Linda Stirling or a Cleo Moore, struggling in vain against the tight ropes confining their lovely figures. --http://www.classicimages.com/1999/march99/serialheroines.html [May 2005]

inspired by Cult Movies Stars (1991) - Danny Peary [Amazon.com]

A Damsel in Distress (1919) - P. G. Wodehouse

A Damsel in Distress (1919) - P. G. Wodehouse [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

From AudioFile
Good gad! Belpher Castle is a-dither with romance and intrigue. Wodehouse's usual twits are in full cry as they leap about the manicured landscape. And hovering close in the background are the ever-vigilant, poisonous aunts who spend their entire lives being aghast. There's plenty to be aghast about when the lord of the manor falls madly in love with an actress (huge intake of breath) named (another huge intake) Billie. Reader Frederick Davidson portrays each character perfectlyÐsorting them out for the listener. His portrayal of Reggie, the wealthy and earnest American composer, is wonderful, and the womenÐingenues and auntsÐare very sweet or dragonish, depending. Along the way, listeners learn never to throw rice at weddingsÐit's worse than shrapnel. Quite. B.V. (c)AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition. --via Amazon.com

Book Description
A full cast of Wodehouse creations--including tyrannical relatives, beastly acquaintances, demon children, and literary fatheads--return for further near catastrophes and sparkling comedy Overlook is proud to present four more antic selections from comic genius, P.G. Wodehouse. A Damsel in Distress is an early novel about Belpher Castle, the idyllic home of the aristocratic Marshmoreton family and a precursor to the Blandings series. Leave it to Psmith is a comedy adventure involving crime and gunplay, all set into motion by an umbrella in the Drones Club and Mulliner Nights is a series of stories about the inimitable Mr. Mulliner, his extraordinary relations, and the tipsy bishops, angry baronets, lady novelists, and haughty dowagers who frequent the bar-parlor of the Angler's Rest. Meanwhile, Lord ‘Chuffy' Chuffnell borrows the services of Jeeves in Thank You, Jeeves, while pursuing the love of his life, but when he finds out that Jeeves's employer, Bertie Wooster, was once engaged to Pauline himself, fearsome complications develop. --via Amazon.com

see also: damsel in distress - 1919

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