The Damsel in Distress

The Damsel in Distress is a classic media trope that has been consistently present in books, films, and advertisements since its origin, which can be traced back to the medieval era. The term evolved from the French phrase demoiselle en détresse, and alludes to the medieval power structure that considered the protection of women as a significant aspect of the chivalric code. This trope is characterized by two characters: The persecuted maiden and the male hero. This maiden is often distinguished by her beauty and innocence while signifiers of her male hero counterpart tend to be strength and valor. Each different version of this trope commonly follows a specific storyline- the damsel is depicted in a dire situation and is helpless, and eventually this male hero comes to her rescue and saves her. The story also typically ends in romance or marriage between the two protagonists. 

The Brothers Grimm version of the commonly known fairytale Snow White was first published in 19th century Germany. The story begins with Snow White, with her “skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony” and her father, the King. Her father marries a woman who, though she is beautiful, is a vain and evil woman who practices witchcraft. The Queen eventually turns against Snow White as her beauty soon surpasses that of the Queen’s. This leads the Queen to attempt to kill Snow White not once, but twice. The first instance occurs when Snow White is finally cornered by the Huntsman who has set out to kill her on behalf of the Queen, but he spares her when she begins to cry and beg for her life. She is once again saved 10 years later by a prince who was able to wake her from the eternal rest that was inflicted upon her by the Queen’s infamous poison apple. Once Snow White is awoken, the Prince declares his love for her and they are married. In this instance, the fact that the Snow White & the Prince were married after he came to her rescue is significant because it could insinuate that she will assume this passive role in their relationship as well. At the very least, it positions the Prince as a savior and sets his chivalrous behavior as a standard for men while Snow White is seen as desirable for her beauty and her willingness to be saved. 

This poster was designed by artist Harry R. Hopps in 1917 in order to recruit young men to the U.S. army to fight in World War I. The illustration depicts some sort of monstrous, gorilla like creature wearing a military cap on it’s head and carrying a bloodied club in its hand. In its other arm, the monster is carrying a woman baring her breasts and looking completely helpless. The narrative of this poster implies that young men must enlist in the U.S. army to fight in World War I and save all of the helpless women of our country from German enemies. The inherent objectification in this poster is something that is quite jarring. The way that the woman is being carried away by this monster is enough, but the fact that she is basically naked emphasizes the level of objectification taking place. Not only does this poster depict the woman as the object of this “rescue” mission, but also the object of a man’s desire. 

The 1960 film Psycho also plays into this Damsel in Distress trope. This movie is directed by Alfred Hitchcock and depicts a young couple, Marion and Sam, as they run away together after stealing $40,000 from their employer. They end up seeking refuge in the Bates Motel which is run by Norman Bates and his mother, but unbeknownst to them, Norman is a killer. He stabs Marion to death while she showers and a week later, her worried sister Lila comes searching for her. As their suspicion grows, Lila and Sam go searching through Norman’s house only for Lila to be caught in the basement next to the mummified corpse of his mother. Just as it seems Norman is about to murder Lila, Sam comes running in and subdues Norman and saves Lila’s life.  

The narrative surrounding each of these forms of media relies on the idea that a woman’s existence is passive while a man’s is active. When women encounter these perilous situations, they are not able to act of their own volition to remove themselves from danger. Instead, they require a man to swoop in and save them.



Hitchcock, A. (Director). (1960). Psycho [Video file]. Paramount Pictures. Retrieved February 17, 2021.

Hopps, H. (1970, January 01). Destroy this mad Brute Enlist – U.S. Army. Retrieved February 17, 2021, from

Ljungback, H. (2017, November 01). The feminine threat: Reconsidering the damsel in distress in early disney films. Retrieved February 17, 2021, from

Ray, J., Grimm, J., & Grimm, W. (2009). Snow White. Somerville, Masschusetts: Candlewick Press.

Discussion — One Response

  • Maddy Kelly 03/02/2021 on 12:55 PM

    Very cool trope choice and a great final analysis about gendered passivity versus activity. So crazy to think we’re exposed to this trop in our fairy tales as kids!

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