AskDefine | Define damsel

Dictionary Definition

damsel n : a young unmarried woman [syn: demoiselle, damoiselle, damosel, damozel]

User Contributed Dictionary



, dameisele from .


  1. A young woman (of noble birth).
  2. A girl; a maiden (as in without sexual experience).

Extensive Definition

One exploration of the theme of the persecuted maiden is the fate of Gretchen in Goethe's Faust. According to the philosopher Schopenhauer:
''The great Goethe has given us a distinct and visible description of this denial of the will, brought about by great misfortune and by the despair of all deliverance, in his immortal masterpiece Faust, in the story of the sufferings of Gretchen. I know of no other description in poetry. It is a perfect specimen of the second path, which leads to the denial of the will not, like the first, through the mere knowledge of the suffering of the whole world which one acquires voluntarily, but through the excessive pain felt in one’s own person. It is true that many tragedies bring their violently willing heroes ultimately to this point of complete resignation, and then the will-to-live and its phenomenon usually end at the same time. But no description known to me brings to us the essential point of that conversion so distinctly and so free from everything extraneous as the one mentioned in Faust.'' (The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, §68)

From Victorian melodrama to early Hollywood

The misadventures of the damsel in distress of the Gothic continued in a somewhat caricatured form in Victorian melodrama. According to Michael Booth in his classic study English Melodrama the Victorian stage melodrama featured a limited number of stock characters: the hero, the villain, the heroine, an old man, an old woman, a comic man and a comic woman engaged in a sensational plot featuring themes of love and murder. Often the good but not very clever hero is duped by a scheming villain, who has eyes on the damsel in distress until fate intervenes at the end to ensure the triumph of good over evil.
Such melodrama influenced the fledgling cinema industry and led to damsels in distress being the subject of many early silent movies, especially those that were made as multi-episode serials. Early examples include The Adventures of Kathlyn in 1913 and The Hazards of Helen, which ran from 1914 to 1917. The silent movie heroines frequently faced new perils provided by the industrial revolution and catering to the new medium's need for visual spectacle. Here we find clichés such as the heroine tied to a railway track, often by a sleazy villain with trademark waxed curly moustache. Sawmills were another stereotypical danger of the industrial age:
The damsel-in-distress continued as a mainstay of the film, television, and comics industries throughout the 20th century. Ann Darrow, as played by Fay Wray in the 1933 movie King Kong is among the most iconic instances. Wray's portrayal of an archetypal helpless heroine offered as sacrifice to a monstrous ape was not the first example of this plot device. The notorious hoax documentary Ingagi in 1930 also featured this idea and Wray's role was profitably repeated by Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts in remakes. As journalist Andrew Erish has noted: "Gorillas plus sexy women in peril equals enormous profits". Imperiled heroines in need of rescue were a frequent occurrence in black and white movie serials made by studios such as Mascot Pictures, Universal, Columbia and Republic Pictures in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. These serials sometimes drew inspiration for their characters and plots from adventure novels and comic books. Notable examples include the character Nyoka the Jungle Girl, who was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs for comic books and was later adapted into a serial heroine in Republic productions such as Perils of Nyoka. Another classic damsel in that mould was Jane Porter in both the novel and movie versions of Tarzan.
One of the most frequently-cited examples of a damsel in distress in comic books is Lois Lane, who is eternally getting into trouble and needs to be rescued by Superman. Comics also gave the world Mary Jane Watson who is in need of rescue countless times in the Spider-Man franchise, and Olive Oyl who is in a near-constant state of kidnap, requiring her to be saved by Popeye.

Modern-era damsels in distress

A slightly more modern counterpart to the serial heroine is Daphne Blake from the Scooby-Doo series (who earned the nickname "Danger-Prone Daphne"). However, the Scooby-Doo film portrays her as a strong feminist heroine who takes on the demons on Spooky Island single-handedly, echoing Sarah Michelle Gellar's previous character. Other similar examples are Gosalyn Mallard from the Disney animated series, Darkwing Duck, Kagome Higurashi from the anime and manga Inuyasha, and April O'Neil from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the recent Ninja Turtles film portrays her as Karai's equal in combat).
Today damsels in distress are used less often than in the past, and current depictions of the stock character sometimes play the role as camp. Video games still feature the occasional old-style damsel. Early video games often used a kidnapped damsel in distress as the main reason for the heroes to confront the villains. Princess Peach (and earlier, Pauline in Donkey Kong) has required rescuing by Mario from the evil clutches of villains in games of the Mario Bros. franchise. Likewise, Princess Zelda has found herself kidnapped by Ganon in the majority of entries in the Legend of Zelda series, although she often takes a more active role than merely waiting to be rescued by Link. In the Sonic the Hedgehog series, Amy Rose or, more recently, Cream the Rabbit, have sometimes been kidnapped by Doctor Eggman to lure Sonic into traps.
Some modern-era damsels in distress are actually very strong and capable women who happen to end up in such a predicament while undertaking important and dangerous tasks. One of the best-known examples is Princess Leia Organa. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, she is captured by Darth Vader while trying to smuggle Imperial plans to the Alliance and she then faces torture on the Death Star until rescued by Luke Skywalker and his friends. In Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, she is held captive as a slavegirl by Jabba the Hutt during an operation to rescue Han Solo. Significantly, it is Leia who finally kills Jabba, which is an example of how modern era damsels are often robust and resourceful women who can hold their own when free.
In Shrek the Third, the idea of the damsel in distress is spoofed when Princess Fiona, along with her mother Queen Lilian, and three friends, Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, are captured and imprisoned by Prince Charming. Fiona suggests they try to escape, but the others think it would be better for the prince to come and save them (sticking to the traditional damsel in distress plot). Fiona tells them it would be more rewarding to rescue themselves. The others are reluctant, but agree to follow Fiona.
The damsel in distress did undergo a revival of sorts in Halloween, Friday the 13th, and other slasher films of the 1980s. Here, though, she was played with a twist: there were several young women characters, most of whom (often those who had been sexually active or promiscuous) were killed by the serial killer villain, but one survived to defeat him. The young woman survivor herself became a stock character, the final girl, embodied in characters such as Ellen Ripley in the Alien series. Sarah Connor, a damsel in distress in The Terminator, became the effective survivor type in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Today's damsels in distress can even become villains as a result of a betrayal which landed them in that particular circumstance, or are in fact villains who are complex enough to act damsel in distress, only to show their true colors at a later point. In The World Is Not Enough, Elektra King, who was kidnapped by Renard, was denied deliverance by M and her father. As a result, she became spiteful of the two, and became Renard's co-conspirator in plans to control world oil supply. Elektra is even wily enough to pretend to remain a damsel in distress in front of James Bond, but she underestimated 007, who managed to see through her act and eventually killed her. Another example of damsel in distress turning villain can be found in Sarah Kerrigan from the computer game StarCraft, who was abandoned by Arcturus Mengsk to the Zerg. Kerrigan was transformed not only by the Zerg infestation, but her outright hatred of Mengsk as well, becoming the dreaded and manipulating Queen of Blades who managed to take control of the entire Zerg race at the end of Brood Wars.
Another variation of today's damsels in distress are former villains or minions of a villain who find themselves in need of rescue as they faced the wrath of the main villain for their betrayal. Pussy Galore in Goldfinger is a classic example. Another example is Meg in Hercules.

Critical and theoretical responses

Damsels in distress have been cited as an example of differential treatment of genders in literature, film, and works of art. Feminist criticism of art, film, and literature has often examined gender-oriented characterization and plot, including the common "damsel in distress" trope. Many modern writers, such as Angela Carter and Jane Yolen, have revisited classic fairy tales and "damsel in distress" stories or collected and anthologized stories and folk tales that break the "damsel in distress" pattern. Often, such stories reverse the gender disparity by empowering the "damsel," or by placing boys or men in distress to be rescued by the damsel.
Whilst late twentieth century feminist criticism may have highlighted alternatives to the damsel stereotype, the origins of some alternatives are to be found elsewhere. Joseph Campbell's work on comparative mythology has provided a theoretical model for heroes throughout the history of literature, drama and film, which has been further developed by dramaturgical writers such as Christopher Vogler. These theories suggest that within the underlying story arc of every hero is found an episode known as the ordeal, where the character is almost destroyed. By surviving fear, danger or torture the hero proves he or she has special qualities and ultimately emerges re-born to progress to ultimate victory. Within this theory the empowered "damsel" can be a female hero rendered powerless and imperiled during her heroic ordeal but who ultimately emerges as a strong figure who claims victory.
Examples can be found in films that date back to the early days of movie making. One of the films most often associated with the stereotype of the damsel in distress, The Perils of Pauline (1914), in fact provides at least a partial counter example. Pauline, as played by Pearl White, is a strong character who decides against early marriage in favour of seeking adventure and becoming an author. Despite common belief, the film does not feature scenes with Pauline tied to a railroad track and threatened by a buzzsaw, although such scenes were incorporated into later re-makes and were also featured in other films made in the period around 1914. Academic Ben Singer has contested the idea that these "serial-queen melodramas" were male fantasies and has observed that they were marketed heavily at women. The first motion picture serial made in the United States, What Happened to Mary? (1912), was released to coincide with a serial story of the same name published in McClure's Ladies' World magazine.
Empowered damsels were a feature of the serials made in the 1930s and 1940s by studios such as Republic Pictures. The "cliffhanger" scenes at the end of episodes provide many examples of female heroines bound and helpless and facing fiendish death traps. But those heroines, as played by actresses such as Linda Stirling and Kay Aldridge, were often strong, assertive women who ultimately played an active part in vanquishing the villains.
These themes have received successive updates thanks to modern-era characters, ranging from spy girls of the 1960s to current movie and television heroines. In her book The Devil With James Bond (1967) Ann Boyd compared James Bond with an updating of the legend of St George and the Princess and dragon genre particularly with Dr No's dragon tank. The female spy Emma Peel in the 1960s British television series The Avengers was often seen in "damsel in distress" situations. However the character and her reactions, as portrayed by actress Diana Rigg, differentiated theses scenes from others in movies and television where women were similarly imperiled as pure victims or pawns in the plot. A scene with Emma Peel bound and threatened with a death ray in the episode From Venus with Love is a direct parallel to James Bond's confrontation with a laser in the film Goldfinger. Both are examples of the classic hero's ordeal as described by Campbell and Vogler. The serial heroines and Emma Peel are cited as providing inspiration for the creators of strong heroines in more recent times, ranging from Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone and Princess Leia Organa in Star Wars to "post feminist" icons such as Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sydney Bristow in Alias.


The figure of the damsel in distress is a feature of certain established fetishes within the field of BDSM. In particular, actresses playing damsels in distress in movies and television shows often appear in states of bondage, resulting in images that appeal to some bondage fetishists. The scenes are usually not primarily meant to be erotic but they provide a source of fantasy to the fetishists, many of whom stress they respect women and are firmly against the sorts of non-consensual activity portrayed.
There is a damsel in distress fan community supported through various websites and forums, which feature discussions as well as alerts for potential occurrences of scenes in forthcoming shows and movies. Enthusiasts post and share still images and video clips, generally editing the material to show only the parts where actresses are in some form of restraint. The term "Didcap" has been coined to describe a screen shot of this type. It is a portmanteau between DID, for "damsel in distress" and vidcap, for "video capture".



  • Mario Praz (1970) The Romantic Agony Chapter 3: 'The Shadow of the Divine Marquis'
  • Robert K. Klepper, Silent Films, 1877-1996, A Critical Guide to 646 Movies, pub. McFarland & Company, ISBN: 0786421649
damsel in Breton: Dimezell en enkrez
damsel in Spanish: Damisela en apuros
damsel in French: Demoiselle en détresse
damsel in Italian: Damigella in pericolo
damsel in Japanese: Damsel in distress
damsel in Finnish: Neito pulassa

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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