What is a Damsel in Distress?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

One of the oldest themes in literature and drama is the damsel in distress, in which a young and presumably innocent woman is held captive against her will by an evildoer, or cannot free herself from a curse or some other psychological captivity. The only person capable of rescuing the damsel is an altruistic hero figure, typically a knight in shining armor in Medieval literature. The roots of the archetype, however, can be traced back as far as Greek tragedies involving young female mortals and their harrowing encounters with gods and demigods.

A knight typically rescued a damsel in distress.
A knight typically rescued a damsel in distress.

Although the "damsel" in damsel in distress may sound Germanic in origin, it is actually a corruption of the French word demoiselle suggesting a delicate young woman. In a literary context, a damsel would often be interpreted as a naive woman-child with few natural survival instincts or real world experience, perhaps a sheltered member of a royal family or an untraveled country maiden. A girl such as Rapunzel, however, might use her wiles to assist her eventual rescuer or lull her captor into a false sense of security.

Damsels in distress are sometimes still used in the romance genre.
Damsels in distress are sometimes still used in the romance genre.

One of the essential parts of the scenario is the heroic effort to rescue her. In many tales of damsels in distress, several would-be rescuers fail because they have ulterior motives of sexual conquest or otherwise lack the moral fortitude of a true knight in shining armor. The moral of many of these stories is not strictly about the rescuing process, but the altruistic reasons for the rescue. Evil must be defeated before the damsel can be released from its grip, and only the most heroic and purest of heart would have the power to succeed.

The concept of a dependent and helpless female relying on the largess of a dominant or heroic male figure has become more controversial in recent times. Many women now consider the "damsel in distress" dynamic between men and women to be a polarizing remnant of a male-dominated society. As long as men continue to view women as submissive creatures in constant need of rescue and protection, true equality between the sexes may be a difficult thing to achieve. Perpetuating the classic theme may work well in romance novels and movies, but it may not work as well in the real world.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


A woman can be very capable, yet end up as a damsel in distress when confronted by a villain and his henchmen. It is not a reflection of her being weak, it's a case of the bad guys having a size and strength advantage.


It doesn't really matter to me what people think about it. I just want to see a good damsel in distress movie.


As humans, we are social creatures and need to interact with one another. In the tribal days the strong would protect the weak. When in a relationship the scales are not always balanced, and regardless of gender, you will depend on your partner.


A women who is comfortable with herself does not get offended by a man's masculinity, but rather is attracted to it. A strong woman is not in competition with a man and his masculinity, but embraces her own self respect. --Lola


I have decided to stay single, and work on my attitude towards women, seeing them as strong, independent women rather than patronize them with my masculinity.


Interesting rant.


Yeah, this theme is not only controversial, but has become frankly annoying. As a man, I do admit that I like my girl to be feminine and that she feels confident I can protect her if I need to. But I also like my girl to be independent, resourceful and self-sufficient enough when she needs to be. She's after all a person and needs to be able to depend on herself too.

However, damsels in distress in fiction are often the caricature of a feminine, "girly-girl" woman who is so helpless she can do absolutely nothing for her own sake. If I had a girlfriend such like that it would be incredibly annoying, to the point of labeling her a severe case of immaturity and dependent personality. I do not like people who are helpless and cling onto others, regardless of gender.

And I am a little of a pro-feminist too, in the sense that I recognize a woman as similar and capable of taking care of herself. A damsel-in-distress does nothing to encourage women to be self-confident.

Rant over.


It's usually a wicked villain who puts a damsels in distress, like a jealous step sister like in Cinderella.

A damsel is usually left out for the others' own ulterior motives and personal gain. So when a damsel tries to take charge of a situation like little red riding hood, umm what is she called then?


There are always damsels in distress in horror movies! Halloween, Friday the 13th, and most other scary movies always have a damsel in distress.


@christym: How about Princess Leia from Star Wars? She is held captive by Jabba the Hutt and then Han Solo rescues her. Princess Fiona and her friends (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) are damsels in distress when captured by Prince Charming in Shrek the Third.


There are several examples of “damsels in distress”, depending on what your instructor wants. Lois Lane is a classic example. Superman found himself rescuing her on a fairly regular basis. There have been several video games with our damsels in distress. How many times have we seen Pauline be rescued by Donkey Kong or Princess Peach rescued by Mario?


I have to give examples of "damsels in distress" in my literature class. Any ideas?


it's been since November since my good friend has not talked to me. And I had nothing to do with her damsel in distress and I've always been a good friend to her. And now that I can't be her friend, now I understand that she does not want to deal with guys right now.

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