Damsel in Distress

The “Damsel in Distress” trope has been used consistently all over the globe. It’s been used so consistently that it has become a staple in nostalgia and even in advertising. Only recently have been shed a light on the problematic nature of using weak women and strong men as a trope. The imagery further solidifies the patriarchal structure of keeping women as weak creatures susceptible to manipulation and kidnapping. This could arguably have been further cemented into the minds of children by Disney, with their multiple depictions of women poisoned, drugged, kidnapped, or abused until they finally marry a man


Many would point the finger at Disney for abusing the “Damsel in distress” trope. It’s possible that the trope could have lost its hold on society had it not become such a pivotal plot in fairy tales. Obviously, Disney is not the only media outlet to blame. Many advertising tactics romanticize marriage and escaping something dark and gloomy by finding the right man. However, Disney is one of the most consistent abusers of the trope. In the “Sleeping Beauty” poster, we see Prince Charming at the very climax of the movie waking the princess up from her slumber. Disney movies alone are a cultural reference. Almost anyone can mention a movie and the plot is conjured by everyone in the room. Their posters are blunt enough in themselves to show the damsel in distress trope. Without the prince, sleeping beauty is at the mercy of the antagonist. And of course, when he awakens her, they live happily ever after together. 

We also find the damsel in distress trope in propaganda. The poster above is a poster aimed at swaying people to enlist in the U.S. Army. Here, an ape is supposedly walking onto the American shore, and carrying a club representing German Kutler (Culture) with a naked woman most likely depicting liberty. This was successful propaganda causing negative effects on the lives of German Americans. France and England were considered to be civilized while they used imagery to depict Germany as a wild brute. The immediate reaction to this image of a damsel in distress is that she needs saving. With our basic knowledge of a woman in need, in theory this poster calls men to join in the fight to stop the antagonist. 

A very common place we find the classic example of damsel in distress is video games. The basis for many video games is a princess or any girl being kidnapped or harmed by an antagonist only to require saving. One of the most popular and well known examples of this is Mario, and further the entire Nintendo franchise. When we look at a very early example of posters for a Donkey Kong arcade game, we see the ape at the very top of the image holding Princess Peach captive. She is a very basic example of helpless feminine, dressed in pink and calling for help. The poster is a representation of the arcade game, which you play as Mario, the “prince charming” climbing to the top of the screen to save the princess. 


Works Cited:

“Destroy This Mad Brute!” NCpedia, https://www.ncpedia.org/media/destroy-mad-brute.

rej5110, and ces5726. “Not-Sleeping Beauty.” Danielles BLOG, 7 Oct. 2015, https://sites.psu.edu/daniellesblog/2015/10/07/102/.

“80s Classic Donkey Kong.” Retro Game Cases, https://www.retrogamecases.com/shop/posters/80s-classic-donkey-kong-poster/.

Discussion — One Response

  • Kiara Bush 04/15/2022 on 10:48 PM

    Similar to the “Husband vs Wives” trope, the damsel in distress trope is one that is helpful in keeping women subservient and feeling like they need a man to have value and be happy. Not only are the women in this trope unable to make smart decisions about how to help or defend themselves, but they are also relegated to the role of waiting uselessly until The Man Hero swoops in to fix everything. This theme further contributes to the pattern of women being victimized: their trauma from being abused, kidnapped, poisoned, etc. are never framed as such and instead are a source of male validation and profit for the storytellers who repeat and take advantage of this tired trope. In addition, the men in these stories are always the solution to whatever trauma the woman has endured. We never see whether they have chemistry, never see any repercussions for these men’s creepy actions, or any follow-up to how the woman is coping with this dramatic lifestyle change and processing her trauma. One well-known example of this is in Snow White, where the Prince (said to be 31 years old) is the only one who can save Snow White (said to be 14-17 years old) by kissing what he thinks is a dead body while she is fully unconscious and cannot give consent. It’s one thing for the Prince to do this as an intentional measure that is the only option to save her, but he doesn’t know that the “kiss of true love” can save her. In short, it’s incredibly creepy and invasive, especially considering that he’s a full-grown man roughly twice the age of this child. It’s easy to say that it’s “not that deep” or it’s “just a movie,” but when the reality we face is women being in near-constant danger just for existing, you start to see why ingraining these messages at every turn can fester and become a much larger issue.
    What I find interesting to note too is how the damsel in distress trope interacts with the historical dehumanization of the enemy (specifically from an American perspective). As we see in the selected propaganda poster above, this damsel is distressed because the savage monkey-esque brute that represents Germany has kidnapped her. It’s much easier to enlist to fight and potentially kill people from another country when you don’t see them as people at all. As such, now we have this collaboration between the two, where our woman is uselessly in trouble yet again and now YOU can step in to save this beauty from the gross, far from human foe.

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