Friday, July 9, 2010

Damsels in Distress

The topic came up the other day about damsels in distress. It was related to Bella from the Twilight series. The woman saying it was basically saying that Bella is much too weak and stupid. I haven’t read the books or watched the movies, but I’ve gotten the impression that they’re about getting women’s hearts pumping. As such, the idea is to make Bella an average woman that women can connect with and then put her in situations where good looking muscle bound young men can save her. Of course that doesn’t really happen in real life because men like that are too busy looking at their reflections in the mirror and primping for their close-up. But in fiction we’re free to create a world that operates the way we want. But just how strong should a damsel in distress be?

I know of some women in real life that really are very weak. They can find their way out of bed by noon, after which they find their way to the mall to buy shoes, but there isn’t a single intelligent thought that runs through their heads. They need someone to explain even the simplest of tasks. But on the other end of the scale there are women who when you shake hands with them you can just tell they are hard workers. They give you a firm handshake. There are calluses on their hands. If their husbands are away from home and something needs to be done, these women will figure out how to accomplish it. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to look nice once in a while, but they aren’t weak.

In terms of connecting with the reader, there are women of all types and readers of all types, so I don’t think we have to be overly concerned about that. Apparently, Stephanie Meyers was able to connect to readers with a very weak woman. But in terms of the damsel in distress story itself, I think there are other things we need to consider. The whole reason we have damsel in distress stories is because we want the handsome knight rushing in to save the day. For women, this is about her imagining what it would be like to marry a great hero of a man. But it has appeal to men as well because men like to imagine what it would be like to be that great hero. Look at the movie Die Hard. That’s a man’s movie, but at its heart it is a damsel in distress story.

In a damsel in distress story, we want the hero to be as strong as he can be. Applying the show, don’t just tell rule, the strength of the hero is revealed by the strength of the villains he defeats. It doesn’t take much strength to take down some evil accountants, for example, but if he takes down a drug lord who is well protected by an army of men, that’s a different story. But we don’t know just how strong the drug lord is unless he takes down some people. He kidnaps our damsel. If she is weak, that doesn’t tell us much about the drug lord. But suppose she also has an army to protect her. Only after the drug lord’s men break through her army are they able to take her. So now, when our hero rushes in to rescue the damsel we see that he is still more powerful. So, I would argue that the best damsels are not weak but strong.

While we’re on the subject, let’s look at a different kind of damsel in distress story. The Shakiest Gun in the West is the story of a eastern born dentist who decides to take dental hygiene to the people out west. He can’t shoot worth anything and ends up spending too much money for a wagon without horses to pull it. He appears to be the weakest hero you ever saw. Then along comes our damsel. She is an outlaw who has been promised a pardon if she’ll help find out who is running guns to the Indians. The federal marshal she’s working with is killed, but rather than go to jail she hopes to carry out the plan anyway. There’s nothing weak about this damsel. Her one problem is that she can’t get on the wagon train as an unmarried woman. Having no other options, she persuades the dentist to marry her under false pretenses. After several situations in which she saves our hero’s skin, she is captured by the villains and carted off to the Indians. Our hero runs after her, intending to rescue his wife. He dresses as an Indian woman and frees her, only to be discovered himself. Facing a duel with another man, he has confidence because he sees her rifle sticking out of the teepee. But other men who came to rescue her pull her away before she can fire a shot. The men and she return to town, fearful that the newly armed Indian warriors will take control of the town. They wait behind barricades for the Indians to come. But when they come, the dentist is leading the way. By a stroke of luck, he won the duel, but he fitted the Indian Chief with a set of false teeth and negotiated peace by offering him a big juicy steak.

This isn’t the typical damsel in distress story, but it illustrates what I was saying. The strength of the Indian threat is revealed by the strength we see in the damsel. There isn’t much that scares her, but these Indians scare her and the strong men around her. At first, we have trouble seeing the strength in the dentist, but in the end we see that his strength is of a different kind than that of most men out west and it is a strength that is even stronger than what they have. So it makes sense in the end when our damsel carries her man off into the sunset.