The damsel in distress – part 2
Now I get to oversimplify some plots a little bit, and provide a broad stroke for you of what I am calling The Hero’s Progress. I am naming this after the famous Eighteenth Century works, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Harlot’s Progress, and the Rake’s Progress. I lack the artistic skills to make images for you to match them, however. Maybe one of you can do so.
- Something precious is taken (our Damsel, perhaps)
- Show up to save it, and find out you are outclassed by the Villain or situation
- Find a teacher or Master to train and lead you
- Journey around and train up against increasingly difficult situations
- The Master is lost or dies
- The Hero surpasses the master, kicks butt, and saves the day
So that’s my take on parts that we seem to see a lot in the Hero’s progression, in leveling up, in game story telling, in super hero stories, in a lot of things. It’s certainly the sort of overall story we see with a Damsel in Distress.
Holly argued yesterday about how the Damsel in Distress is problematic because it seems to always be a weak woman and strong man having to save her. From a feminist standpoint, this is absolutely the case. You have a female character who, in the story outline I have here in the Hero’s Progress, shows up basically towards the beginning and then right towards the end.
I am going to take a storytelling approach to the problems here, however. In terms of motivation, we have several problematic aspects to this Hero’s Progress, and ways that they do not match reality – meaning that this story progression ends up making us feel like this is how things should be, without them actually being this way. Like Holly said, if a woman sits around waiting to be rescued, or a man feels he is worthless if he is not the one making more money, we have a problem. And it doesn’t match the reality in front of you then.
So, I am going to mainly deal with the first two aspects of the Hero’s Progress, because that is where there is overlap the most with Holly’s argument – and, as you see from my points, it makes the later stuff kind of moot.
why let the damsel live?
I mean, really, what is the villain’s motivation for taking the Damsel in the first place? While we could list out various shaky things, let’s face it: it’s a plot hook to tell the Hero’s story. Meaning, it becomes, if anything, even more problematic in terms of feminism. It also means you might be dealing with lazy, or oversimplified, storytelling.
Yet we see it all over the place. But why take the Damsel? Oh, she’s the princess? And you’re taking over? Okay, get her out of the way. You’re Ganondorf. You’re already kind of tearing apart the reality of the world, causing mayhem, no one’s going to think you’re even more of the Villain if you kill Zelda. They kind of already know. Why keep her alive?
And what, exactly, is Bowser up to? Peach is taken as a plot hook.
How about Bioshock Infinite? I haven’t beaten it yet, so please, no spoilers. So far, though, there’s a girl in a tower Booker’s been sent to save. Of course, then there’s this…
Now, I can think of a few reasons for this plot hook. For one thing, capturing a Damsel and holding her is a fairly kid-friendly plot. The rape and/or murder that might be closer to reality need not apply here. Not everything has to be Christopher Nolan gritty. That’s fair.
Another reason, thinking of several of the Japanese games we have referenced here, is because they are rebooting the continuity, telling the story again. There’s a discussion of this in one of our guest posts recently, and it got me thinking about things a little differently. At this point, Zelda and Mario games are at least partly stuck with the rather simple plots that were built for them decades ago, now, as they retell the story on each new system, with better graphics.
However, these are both somewhat cop-outs. If this is a problematic plot, then teaching it to kids as they grow up doesn’t help, it hurts. And not all Japanese video games keep retelling the same problematic story – look at the progression of the plots in the Final Fantasy games. Lots of repeated elements, but lots of growth over time, as well.
Of course, could we call the plot of Final Fantasy XIII a Damsel in Distress plot? All to save Serah? I think maybe we could. Of course, her kick-ass sister does a lot of the saving, as do several other female characters, so still – growth.
why let the hero live?
Here is my even larger problem with plots. Because when the Villain encounters the Hero, why does he let him live? The Villain really ought to react like Voldemort – I’m gonna go kill a baby, because anyone who might have a tiny bit of chance of standing up to me is going away.
Yet, we see the Villain and the Hero getting to meet all the time. This is maybe why stealth games are great – you do tend to get to avoid being seen. In Dishonored, you can make it through without the Villains even knowing it was you after them, only assuming.
But, okay, let’s take one of the classic examples. Goldfinger.
Here the Villain has the right idea. The Hero has been getting in the way, time to kill him. But he goes about it in a ridiculous way. Strangely enough, I believe they had guns and such in Bond’s day. And the monologuing!
This is the quintessential example of the Villain getting to gloat over the Hero, and fail to kill him. But the thing is, it keeps happening in stories. The Villain keeps letting the Hero live.
This makes sense in terms of storytelling, because we like the Hero, and we want good to win over evil. But if evil is really evil, it should just demolish the good. Not gloat over it and then let it go.
But in games, we tend to see the characters run into the final boss or other late-game bosses earlier on… and live. For instance, recently playing Final Fantasy Dimensions, you run into late-game bosses really frequently. The middle part of the game is split into two chapters with four parts each… so that’s eight. Eight times that you run into late game bosses. And eight instances of basically the Master character having to bail you out – eight different ones! Leads to a pretty epic story. And your Damsels in Dimensions happen to be your other party, as each party is trying to find and rescue the other. So a complicated take on the plot… but it’s still the plot! How did we live through all of that???
One last exploration… superhero movies
I talked a while back about some problems I have with superhero movies, so let me add the Damsel in Distress to that. However, with superheroes, it makes maybe a little more sense why the Villain can’t seem to kill the hero, and why they keep the Damsel alive as bait. It seems to especially happen with really hardy Heroes, like Super Man and Spider-Man. The Damsel love-interest is taken, and used to weaken the Superhero.
So, as Shae says to Tyrion in Game of Thrones, “Oh, I’m a weakness? That’s a real compliment.” It was something like that. You get the point.
So I want to close by doing something Holly and I talk about wanting to do: Not just pointing out where we see problems, but point out where we see things being done well. The Incredibles. The man is the one who ends up captured and taken, and it is his wife – and kids – who are needed to rescue him. And the Villain is cognizant of the fact that he monologues, and also has shown he is very willing to kill Heroes who are in his way – which happens to be all of them. So the one who he leaves alive, he has a solid plot reason for doing so: This is the man he blames for ruining his life and leading him down this path, and he wants to show him his failure.
However, the fact that it is The Incredibles that is the good example is itself problematic. Equal parts parody and commentary, The Incredibles was a movie that was pointing at all of the holes in plots like The Hero’s Progress, in tropes like the Damsel in Distress, and lots of various parts of Superhero stories (like the large repair bill of super-powered people rampaging throughout the city). Then again, maybe it needs to be the movies that are actively trying to point out the problems that do it right. And it’s for kids, and yet adults can watch it, so it works on all levels. I believed the Villain, the Hero is not always heroic, and a fine film was made. More like this, please.