Women seem to be all over the spectrum when it comes to the damsel in distress. Some love to put themselves in her shoes, and they feel tingly all over when that knight in shining armor scoops her up and nestles her safely against his strong, muscular chest. Other women want to tell her to grow up, learn to fend for herself, and stop relying on men to get her out of the tough situations she so often finds herself in.
Being a woman myself, I'm not sure how men feel about this helpless heroine. Do they imagine themselves playing the man's role in the story, swooping in to save the day and being showered with grateful kisses? Or do they want to shake our dear damsel and tell her to get off her butt and rescue her own darn self? Maybe a little of both? I really don't know.
I Like Her...Sometimes
If I'm going to enjoy a damsel in distress story, it has to be there for a purpose beyond making the woman look needy and the man look strong. It has to be there as part of a bigger character arc.
Here are a few examples I've enjoyed over the years:
Christian Troy and Gina Russo on Nip/Tuck. This was back in the first season, when the show was actually doing some pretty awesome things with Christian's character. He's portrayed, in the first episode, as a womanizing jerk with no heart. It is implied, however, that he had a traumatic childhood, hinting that his early experiences may be the reason for his cavalier attitude toward the women in his life. Later episodes confirm this, and set him on a path of self-discovery, which all culminates, of course, with the birth of his son, Wilber. Along the way, we see him slowly developing into a more caring, sensitive person as he tries to form a relationship with Wilber's mother, Gina. We are not supposed to like Gina. But we are supposed to like Christian's reaction to Gina. For the first time, we see him being tender and sweet, and we see him doing it for purely altruistic reasons and not because he has something to gain from the relationship. So the fact that he constantly has to come to Gina's rescue is not troublesome because it's important for his character development.
Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Here we have two characters who are both growing and developing into more mature people. Scarlett is stubborn and independent and, most importantly, despises Rhett. Or, at least, she thinks she despises him. Rhett is callous and crude and looks at Scarlett with a heavy amount of disdain. Or, at least, he wants Scarlett to think he views her this way. Scarlett has had to be the strong one in so many situations--delivering Melanie's baby, working the family farm after it's been decimated by the Yankees, taking care of her feeble-minded father--that when she finally shows a little weakness it's actually touching. She has to admit that she can't do it all herself, and sometimes it takes a lot of strength to admit that. And the fact that it's Rhett who so often comes to her aid...well, we knew all along that he had a tender side lurking somewhere under that rough exterior, didn't we?
Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy. Katniss is supposed to be the stronger character here. Peeta is painted as a bit of a wimp from the beginning, and spends more time, especially in the second and third books, needing to be rescued than he does rescuing anyone. But he is, nonetheless, the person Katniss turns to for support when she feels afraid. The juxtaposition of those moments in which Katniss allows herself to be weak, and Peeta answers that weakness with his strength, against the rest of the story, in which those roles are reversed, was the main reason I was rooting for those two to get together in the end. I think those short glimpses of Peeta's strength are necessary to make us like his character. Without them, I don't believe we'd care so much about all the terrible things that happen to him. And we certainly wouldn't understand Katniss's overwhelming need to try to save him.
What I Prefer
I've always much preferred stories that take this trope and turn it on its head. In other words, I like seeing the woman come to the man's rescue. The X Files is probably the best example of this because, in every episode, Mulder and Scully get themselves into some kind of dangerous situation. And they seem to take turns rescuing each other. This week it's Scully's turn to be vulnerable. Next week it'll be Mulder's turn. I've always really loved it when it's Mulder's turn.
It should have been touching to see Mulder's relentless quest to find Scully after she is abducted by Duane Barry in season 2, but it didn't make my heart go pitter patter anywhere close to the way it did watching Scully try to come to terms with Mulder's abduction in season 8.
Mulder keeping vigil at Scully's bedside in One Breath does not hold a candle (in my admittedly weird mind) to Scully watching over Mulder in End Game.
I very nearly snored all the way through Scully's cancer storyline in season 4 but was glued to the set when Mulder experienced his own life-threatening illness in seasons 6 and 7.
What can I say? I have a thing for the vulnerable male lead. That's my favorite trope.
All right, you've heard my thoughts. Now tell me yours. Do you love the damsel in distress? Or hate her? Or do your feelings fall somewhere in between?