Once upon a time a man said “women in stories shouldn’t need a man to rescue them!” To prove his point, he wrote a story to rescue women from stories in which women needed men to rescue them.
The above is a true story about Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle, but it could just as well be a fairy tale, as fairy tales are often simply fantastical reflections of the foibles of real-world society. The foible in this fable is the incessant spreading of the archaic gender trope of female frailty by people who are convinced they are confronting archaic gender tropes.
Gaiman’s wildly ironic (yet clearly well-intentioned) effort is a perfect example of how gender tropes are so deeply embedded that human attempts to address them all too often only scrape them ever deeper into our cultural consciousness. If you think women shouldn’t need rescued by men in stories, then don’t be a man who rescues them with stories.
Understanding these gender narratives takes more than a politically motivated list of talking points. You have to approach it as a story problem with psychological implications. As the ironic fairy tale above reveals, there’s an insidious subtlety to this particular narrative archetype, the rescued damsel we encounter in stories like Sleeping Beauty. Confronting it is more complex than simply making Sleeping Beauty brush off the prince, lift weights, and be aggressive, B-E aggressive, B-E A-G-G … you know the rest.
As I’ve discussed before, archetypes exist in relation to one another. This is especially and necessarily true for those defined in the passive voice, like the rescued damsel. As Neil Gaiman is demonstrating, these relational dynamics can leap out of the stories and ensnare us: Neil is “removing” the rescuer of the rescued by becoming the rescuer of the rescued.
What’s wrong with the damsel is not in the damsel herself, or even in the prince who saves her, or the crone (or evil fairy or witch) who curses her. It’s in the relationships. What Neil is doing is simply shifting the curse from a fictional old woman to real-world men and trying to steal the prince’s girlfriend for himself. But, the relationship of rescue-from-peril remains, even if it’s obscured by crossing the fourth wall of fiction.
More to the point, writing a story where a character throws off the damsel trope by striking out on her own initiative really won’t do much to undo the Sleeping Beauty problem, because the Sleeping Beauty character does not exist in a gender vacuum. She’s not the only seed trope in the Sleeping Beauty archetypal dynamic. The rescuing prince and the crone are also gender stereotypes, and unless you do something about them—and something clever enough not to inadvertently confirm and feed the bias you’re trying to confront—the specter of Sleeping Beauty remains.
The jealous old crone evokes the target of her jealousy. Thus the beauty of the damsel which, being neotenous relative to the crone, is infantilizing. The problem is in the relationship.
The questing prince evokes the goal of his forceful action. Thus the helpless need of the damsel, the sole cause for them coming together. Again, the problem is in the relationship.
Glossing over or casually brushing off these deep-rooted interpersonal dynamics is clumsy and does nothing to make us forget what the underlying story is. It stays there, like a monster under the bed, waving and winking at us while we cover our heads with political blankets and pretend it’s not there.
And, if you nix the crone’s jealousy and prince’s action, if you eliminate the character relations and fixate on the MacGuffin details of the fable (like the incapacitating slumber), well … you’re not really retelling Sleeping Beauty are you? You’re telling a completely different story, stealing a few superficial quirks, and arbitrarily slapping the famous name on it.
So, you can’t really fix the Sleeping Beauty story by only fixing the Sleeping Beauty character, because the character is defined in relationship to others. Moreover, you can’t fix Sleeping Beauty by rescuing her from the Bad Story and sheltering her in another. And both of these approaches, by focusing on rescuing the rescued damsel, bring us back to my point: If the character you feel is most in need of rescuing from stereotypes is the one whose stereotype is “I need to be rescued,” are you really saving her by trying to save her?
No. You’re not. The bias is tricking you into serving its purposes. Your psyche has been hacked.
Real-world examples of ironic damsel rescues
Okay, I know at some point people are going to say this is all a lot of literary flopping around, and there are more important real-world issues at stake for which the Sleeping Beauty tale is merely emblematic.
But, no. These story archetypes don’t snare our psychology for nothing. They exist to guide our behavior, and this has real-world consequences.
For examples of how the damsel bias tricks us in the real world, consider the pay gap in publishing, a peril from which damsels-in-distress are perceived to require rescuing. On average, women in publishing take home less money and work in fewer high-status positions than men in publishing. But, if you divide those pay and position numbers by years of experience, you find that the women get raises and promotions at faster rates than their male counterparts, who have to invest far more time for the same money and status. The women simply walk away from publishing sooner than the men, so it appears from the unexamined numbers that the men are being favored.
The damsel archetype is so deeply embedded, however, that most people don’t check beyond evidence that confirms their rescue-the-damsel bias before they start acting out the archetype by insisting the damsels need rescued!
So, slow your roll, Activist Charming. The women of publishing don’t need rescued from some evil dragon of the workplace who is hoarding their labors like gold. They’re riding off with more gold per year than the men. It’s just hard to see this because the women aren’t sticking around as long as the men are. And, why would they, with the dragon of workplace stress threatening to (figuratively) burn them out?
And, while we’re talking about the sexist presumption of female frailty that leads us to cry misogyny before we even bother to look for female success in the numbers, let’s also talk about that “math is hard” trope perpetuated by this insulting practice of superficial statistical analysis. Women are perfectly capable of grasping how earnings-over-time works, and shouldn’t be talked down to for the sake of manipulative, rescue-the-damsel politics.
Superficial narrative analysis perpetuates the same “silly me, fiddle-dee-dee” damsel stereotype that superficial statistical analysis does. Women are more capable consumers of story than their eager, activist rescuers give them credit for. That is, if you give them a chance to think before you ride in like a self-declared champion, trampling facts and good sense with the over-sized white horse of foregone conclusions.
Want another real-world example? Consider the recent Goodreads study inspired by the #readwomen hashtag. The study found that both men and women preferred authors of their own gender 9-to-1. Readers on both sides were exhibiting a gender bias, and authors on both sides could be said to both benefit and suffer from it.
Yet, the headlines we saw were deceptive finger-pointers like “Why men prefer books written by male authors” at the Daily Mail and “Would men rather read men? Yes – about 90 percent of the time” at the Christian Science Monitor. Remember, these gender tropes are defined by their relationship to one another. By focusing on the bias of those Bad Boy readers, this sort of cherry-picking implicitly stands up in defense of presumed authorial damsels who, in reality, were enjoying the same reader bias from their own sex.
And, we’ve heard this “men don’t read women” complaint before. It’s a perennial favorite, despite that it basically boils down to the almost creepy assertion that one class of people is not paying the proper tribute categorically owed to the other. Darn you men and your sexist reading habits! (Never mind that women do the same thing.) We must rescue women authors from the madness of not being rescued!
This is damsel-in-distress thinking at its worst, and it’s too often cloaked in the glory of smashing archaic gender tropes even while it wallows in them.
Don’t Überfrau your way out
So, if you don’t want to stumble into the archetypal trap of rescuing the damsel-needing-rescued, why not unravel Sleeping Beauty from another angle? Why not unravel the relationships? Why not a story about a prince who expects women not to be limp rags of ineffectual pallor, who eventually finds the Sleeping Beauty of his quest yet passes her by for a more worthy and active partner? Damsel ideal measured and found wanting. Rather than being rescued, she is sidelined for a better woman.
Or, if ending Sleeping Beauty’s story with the bored prince’s “Meh” doesn’t put a kick in your amygdala, unravel the innocent damsel by overturning the moral dynamic of the narrative. Write the story so the princess’s drowsy predicament is her own fault. Perhaps she became vain as a blossoming teen and relentlessly taunted the year-worn older woman, who poisoned her not out of mindless jealousy, but out of revenge and to put an end to the bullying. The prince is tempted to swoop in and save the slumbering girl with a kiss, but then decides that anyone whose abuse elicited such a powerful response probably wouldn’t treat him any better.
Admittedly, that approach is a bit of a downer for everyone. Who said the solution would be found in a Hollywood ending?
But, if you’re looking for more climactic uplift, you could incorporate the common mythological motif of the young man who marries the old crone as she is, only to be rewarded when she transforms into a beautiful maid upon his kiss. Here’s how you could pull of this literary mash-up. Have the questing prince discover not only the renowned Sleeping Beauty for whom he was questing, but also the old woman at her side, weeping in remorse over the severity of her rash and vengeful curse.
Once the penitent crone tells the prince the whole story about the vain princess’s relational bullying and the old woman’s defensive over-reaction, he realizes how foolish and shallow his quest for this Mean Girl was and decides to kiss her awake, but only to save the crone from her guilt and misery. Upon that kiss, however, the awakening princess and penitent crone pull a Freaky Friday age switcheroo, thus applying a more poignant punishment for the princess’s youthful and superficial vanity.
So there you go. We can mix down three classic stories and shred the damsel’s damseliness without rescuing anybody. (Except, of course, the reader.) The princess gets a more just reward, the prince rescues himself from foolishness, and the crone rescues herself through her penitence inspiring the prince’s decision. In a way, the prince and the crone rescue each other in this case, but that’s nice and balanced.
Or, if you insist on redeeming the princess too, perhaps start with the cruel girl and vengeful crone angle, and have the Beauty’s sleep haunted with tortured dreams of her own abusive behavior, a moral purgatory from which she awakens, Scrooge-like, into a more enlightened state. Or, if you want to mash up A Christmas Carol with the previous mash-up, for an epic four-way, you could have her final visitation—the death vision—be her awakening in the body of the crone.
(By the way, that plot mash-up? Copyrighted. And, for sale, of course.)
What I’m saying is, there are ways to de-damselize Sleeping Beauty that don’t succumb to the damsel bias, ways to force Sleeping Beauty to grow the hell up and take responsibility for her own life instead of blaming her plight on an Evil Other or relying on Strong Other. And, as we’ll discuss later, you don’t have to transform her into a moral and narrative Überfrau, a take-charge heroine whose dehumanizing infantilism is replaced with dehumanizing apotheosis.
If you want characters to be humanized and freed from a treadworn gender stereotype, don’t erase their weaknesses. Shift them. The damsel archetype is like a rip tide: you have to swim sideways first or it will simply carry you out to sea.
It’s all about relationships
While a character who is a little too flawless can cast a supremacist shadow over other characters who don’t share Little Ms./Mr. Perfect’s demographic profile, weak characters (that is, human characters) tend to complement each other’s weaknesses, particularly across sex boundaries. Again, the character archetypes are defined in relationship to each other.
Let’s imagine a gender-reversed Sleeping Beauty where it’s a prince who falls into a stupor for some stereotypically masculine reason—let’s say he goes into a full-Achilles rage and pops a brain-vein, which puts him into into a coma. Then, a beautiful princess drops by, works her magic on his slumbering lips, and makes everything okay! Sure, the prince comes off looking like an emotional weakling and a gender-troped wacko, but the princess who rescues him is reduced to a mere lever in the machinery of his story.
The same goes for Prince Charming in the traditionally gendered telling of Sleeping Beauty. It’s important to remember that the story is named for her. It’s essentially her story, and the prince is just part of the machinery. He gets dehumanized, too, reduced to a romantic alarm clock. Rrring-a-ling, time to wake up! His is a servant function.
So, the rescued character isn’t the only one who gets reduced, as we could learn from any criticism of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype, which is essentially a Princess Charming riding in to rescue male Sleeping Beauties whose slumber is emotional and/or creative. Yet, even when it’s He being rescued by She, somehow we tend only to complain that it’s She who needs rescued from the stereotypical binary. We label Sleeping Beauty and the MPDG as sexist stereotypes, but we don’t see their complementary Prince Charming or Emotionally Stifled Dude as sexist stereotypes, despite the fact that the relational dynamic of rescuer-and-rescued is precisely the same!
This leads us to an uncomfortable truth about the rescued damsel trope: it is indelibly associated with the female sex in our cultural psyche. Even when the male character is the passively suffering Sleeping Beauty, our instincts tell us the female MPDG is the character needing rescue.
Seeing a problem only with the female stereotype’s reduction, regardless of who is rescuing whom, proves the gendered nature of the stifling damsel prejudice: it’s women (and only women) who need rescuing, because women are categorically passive and weak. Even when women themselves are aggressively active in playing to the damsel dynamic, it still reinforces to the “women are frail and passive” gender trope.
And, this attitude does not liberate women. It simply trades their old silver-and-gold shackles for new hot pink shackles with a kewl logo on the side.
I’m going to take a moment here to point out that the gendered nature of the damsel prejudice also causes us to pretend that the male shackles don’t even exist. So, a quick caveat. The stereotypes men face are real, and usually ignored or even actively suppressed by those who are financially, politically, or socially invested in suppressing them. For example, in the real-world damsel narratives discussed above, men often get stereotyped as exploitative chauvinists, despite the fact that even a grade-school mathematical analysis of the numbers in the publishing “pay gap” and “men read men” stories refutes this.
So, don’t take my focus on Sleeping Beauty as yet another example of ironically storming to the aid of the pleading damsel. I’m not standing up for women, because women prove every day that they don’t need me tilting at their windmills. I’m not standing up for men, either. I’m not picking a partisan bone.
To paraphrase HBO’s version of John Adams, I am for the truth. Is there another side?
The truth is that this issue is too nuanced to be solved by a simplistic demand for equal time confronting both male and female stereotypes. Why? Because the seductive allure of the damsel stereotype creates a psychological trap that simply is not present in male stereotypes. Masculine stereotypes inspire us to anger, fear, admiration. We might attack them, flee from them, aspire to them. We might hide behind them to feel safe in the face of danger. But, we are not instinctively inspired to make them safe from danger.
Traditional masculine stereotypes do not inspire us to protect them the way the damsel stereotype does, because the damsel is a motif of endearing weakness.
There are lots of weaknesses. Moral weaknesses, physical weaknesses, intellectual weaknesses. Some are stereotypically male, some stereotypically female, and in either case characters exhibiting them can be seen as negative and sexist. Some weaknesses inspire ridicule, others disgust. When villains show weakness, it can even inspire hope.
And, there are lots of ways to be endearing: charmingly roguish, lavishly generous, conscientiously thoughtful. Blake Snyder’s (in)famous “Save the Cat” moment is all about making a character endearing.
What I mean by endearing weakness is a weakness that inspires us to defend it from harm. Our instinct to protect the endearingly weak damsel is what creates the logical loop on which all gender stereotypes can remain firmly hung even when we’re explicitly trying to get rid of them. By trying to rescue the damsel from being the rescued damsel, we simply re-emphasize her categorical frailty. And this ironic self-sabotage, working through the damsel’s archetypal relationships, distributes emotional power to all the gender tropes connected to the damsel—in Sleeping Beauty specifically but also throughout our narrative psychology.
The wounded damsel feeds power to the archetype of the wounding crone/dragon. The damsel-to-rescue feeds power to the archetype of the rescuer. And so on, each archetype feeding energy to the next, plug-and-socket.
And the indelible femininity of the damsel is key to why, even in the recognized presence of anti-male tropes, we need to focus on the anti-female trope here. So, I’m gonna italicize it. And bold the recursive part of it.
What critics of the damsel are rebelling against are not weak female characters, as they often claim, but the stereotypically female endearing weakness in female characters.
Archetypes drive our reaction to archetypes
After all, a bitter old crone who poisons beautiful girls out of jealousy is not exactly the ideal image of a strong, self-possessed woman. The weakness of the evil crone, however, does not inspire political rescue the way the weakness of the damsel does.
Why? Because, the instinct to rescue the damsel character from bias is itself merely an expression of the archetypal bias inherent in the damsel character itself.
When we examine the Sleeping Beauty character, the Sleeping Beauty archetype begs our intervention. It triggers the neural circuits in our mind that cry out, “Go save her!” So, as Neil Gaiman did, we slap on our shining armor, strap a pen (mightier than the sword!) to our belt, and ride in to the rescue. Cue the trumpets!
On the other hand, when we examine the evil fairy/witch character, who is also a female trope, the bitter crone archetype inspires our disdain. So, at best, we might gripe about how it reflects negatively on older women. In other words, we react with disdain toward the bitter crone character because our biased minds have been instructed to react with disdain by the bitter crone archetype itself.
And, when we examine the rescuing prince character, the simplistic prince archetype asks nothing of us, because he’s there to do it all. He is merely instrumental. Our reaction to him depends on how we decide to rescue Sleeping Beauty.
Do we want to rescue her from sleep, as the original story goes? Then we might inspired to identify with the prince. Do we want to rescue her from the story, as the political approach goes? Then we might simply dispose of his presence as unnecessary, cancelling out the complementarity between rescuer and rescued. Thus, we’re no longer really writing a Sleeping Beauty story but, by acting out the role of rescuer-writer, we’re living the Sleeping Beauty story.
Which is far worse. By trying to keep the Bad Story from affecting the real world, we summon the Bad Story directly into the real world.
And, it drags the other archetypes along with it because, as we’ve seen, the problem isn’t just about the character in isolation. It’s about the underpinning stereotype’s relationship to other stereotypes. Bring the knight-in-shining-armor into the real world by yanking him from the fantasy into your writer’s pen, and there’s often a crone or dragon tagging along to serve as a condemning political label to slap on somebody.
Congratulations. Now, we’ve got real-world human beings reduced and dehumanized instead of mere fairy tale characters. Isn’t that what we were trying to avoid?
And, a lot of politicized writing consists of precisely this sort of dangerous, hero-damsel-and-monster thinking. Like Faustian alchemists calling on otherworldly powers, people who play fast-and-loose with mythic forces in an effort to establish a political ideal have a bad track record of summoning the most corrupt and vile mutations of those fables into the real world. Just ask anyone who lived through World War II.
And subsuming archetypes into each other poses its own dangers. Like those equally biased Goodreads readers, helpless Beauty and her savior prince are mutually reductionist, complementary gender stereotypes that exist in necessary reference to each other. You can’t solve the reader bias problem by simply demanding men read more women authors, because that’s only half of the observed bias. You’d end up creating the very sort of systemic imbalance you were pretending to confront. Likewise, you can’t solve the Sleeping Beauty problem by simply demanding she get the prince’s glory.
If we take the political angle, divorce the prince and kick him to the curb after transferring his archetypal assets to the damsel, she becomes no longer half of a complementary pair. That simply invokes a new, and even more inhuman stereotype: Princess Überfrau, who can—in fantastical defiance of all scheduling and resource constraints—have it all and do it all! We see this play out in the real world, don’t we? The ultimate professional-breadwinning-working-single-soccer-supermom. With a tiara.
And, an über-being ideal is never good for anyone in the end. Because it is insanity. Real humans have real limitations, both male and female.
There was too much, let me sum up
If we really want to get rid of the rescued damsel, rescuing her is obviously not the answer. That’s the stereotype tricking you into speaking the magic words that will bring nothing but trouble into the world.
The real solution to the stifling damsel trope is to humanize her with more interesting flaws, consequences that follow from those flaws, and reactions to those consequences that reveal the content of her character. The same applies to whomever tags along with her in archetypal relationship: crone, prince, dragon, parents, sisters, rivals, helpers. If you really want to confront the bad parts of a fairy tale, you have to take a strategic view and confront the story as an archetypal whole, a network of plugs and sockets all feeding power to each other.
The true key to those simplistic shackles that hold Sleeping Beauty hostage will open all of the other character’s shackles, or none at all.