Mythology and Archetypes: "A Damsel in Distress"
A damsel in distress has been seen throughout history as a common archetype in myth. A damsel refers to a young woman, and a damsel in distress is almost always a woman who is physically attractive; this is of course what sparks the interest of her savior. A Damsel is always helpless and in need of rescuing. A damsel’s distress can take many forms; anything from a fire breathing dragon, to a giant ape, to an overprotective father with a hidden agenda. Personally, I believe that these women are written into myths and folktales by a male writer who sees the idea of rescuing a beautiful, helpless female, extremely appealing. In Cry for Myth, Rollo May says that:
“One of the curious things about the myth of the Wild West is that the west was reputed to have a healing power. Theodore Roosevelt, a sickly teenager, went west to develop his physique, to find himself physiologically, and to build himself into a courageous man” (May 95).
Just like the concept of the Wild West had a mythological healing power, I believe that the archetype of a damsel in distress had an actual healing power to the egos of male writers and readers everywhere. The idea of being the strong man, who swoops in to save the beautiful girl must have made men feel better about themselves and made them feel more powerful. What I wonder is why this particular archetype, resonates almost more strongly with females than it does with males. A damsel in distress is now considered a very sexist view of a woman. We have plenty of women today who we would never describe as helpless, and yet the archetype still survives. And although the archetype has remained in our myth and stories throughout the centuries, it has definitely undergone change over time.
One of the earliest portrayals of a damsel in distress is in the Greek myth Andromeda. The myth tells us that Princess Andromeda’s mother, a queen, claimed that she was more beautiful than all the water nymphs in the sea, which angered the nymphs greatly. The nymphs sent a giant sea serpent to terrorize the coast of the queen’s country. When the king and queen asked the gods for advice on how to appease the nymphs, the gods said that they must sacrifice their daughter in order to quell the nymphs’ wrath. Rembrandt’s Andromeda Chained to the Rocks, depicts a nude Andromeda chained to the rocks, waiting for the sea serpent to eat her. Some major elements of this painting immediately identify Andromeda as a damsel in distress. First, she is utterly helpless. She’s chained to a rock, immobilized, and nude. She doesn’t even have some proper clothes to protect her from the wind. The story goes on to say that a certain Perseus (a human man, given wings by the gods) catches sight of Andromeda on the rock and decides that he likes what he sees. He offers to save Andromeda for the king and queen as long as he gets to marry her afterwards. Persus then saves a sobbing Andromeda, kills the monster, and walks off with his prize. Here, as we do with most stories that include a damsel in distress, we see the male hero save the day and get the beautiful girl.
Thousands of years later, another tale of distress and rescue was made into a legend that drew many parallels to Andromeda’s story. A beautiful woman named Ann Darrow is threatened by a giant gorilla and then saved by a man. The story of King Kong sounds extremely familiar after reviewing the details of the ancient Greek myth Andromeda, even though the two stories were written centuries apart. After comparing two images that represent these stories, Rembrandt’s Andromeda and a movie poster of King Kong, we can see a lot of similarities. Both women are representations of beauty in their time. While the woman in the movie poster isn’t nude, she is dressed in all white, which does make her seem somewhat more helpless. Both women are threatened, and in a state of extreme danger. Andromeda is about to be eaten by a sea monster and Ann Darrow is cowering as a giant ape looms over her. This consistency (beautiful woman and scary monster) highlights a common theme that we have seen pop up over the centuries in myths and fairy tales: beauty and the beast. In Man and His Symbols Jung writes that
“Girls in our society share in the masculine hero myths because like boys, they must develop a reliable ego-identity and acquire an education…When the ancient content of the psyche begins to make its appearance, [at] the modern young level, [a woman is] trying to change herself into a more subversive kind of woman. As she grew older and [begins] to know herself better, she [begins] to see that for a man, life is something that has to be taken by storm, as an act of the heroic will; but for a woman to feel right about herself, life is best realized by a process of awakening. A universal myth expressing this kind of awakening is found in that fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast” (Jung 130).
As Jung says, this awakening is found in fairy tale Beauty and the Beast and in countless other myths and stories that feature the theme of beauty and beast or the archetype of a damsel in distress, or both. In King Kong, Ann Darrow’s relationship with the giant gorilla (her learning from it, it taking her out of her element) and her subsequent romance with her rescuer, can only be described as an awakening. Other examples of damsels in distress awakening from true love’s kiss can be found in classic fairy tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel.
Even though the age of helpless women has passed, we still see the archetype of a damsel in distress appear in popular culture, albeit with a few new characteristics. In the 1997 animated Disney film Hercules, a character named Megara bills herself as the classic damsel in distress. When the main character Hercules (a modern take on the Greek mythical hero) confronts Megara, while she’s trapped in the clutches of a giant centaur monster, and asks isn’t she a damsel in distress that needs rescuing; she replies by saying, “I’m a damsel. I’m in distress. I can handle this. Have a nice day!”
Meg’s portrayal in the movie is a combination of both a traditional damsel in distress archetype and a more modern independent woman. She’s traditional in the sense that she’s portrayed as beautiful, and at first glance helpless while ensnared in the grasp of a nasty monster. Also, Hercules sees her somewhat as a prize to be one through his heroic deeds, a reoccurring theme in most fairy tales that feature a damsel in distress. But from Meg’s first line, we can tell that she’s different from other damsels. She rebuffs Hercules’s request for permission to rescue her, a move that is distinctly unorthodox for a damsel in distress. It would be like Rapunzel telling the prince she was perfectly happy with where she was, or Snow White suddenly awakening from her poison-induced coma to tell the price that he shouldn’t bother- that she could just tell that he wasn’t the one. Later in the movie we find out that Meg is actually working for Hades, (she’s actually more like an indentured servant) king of the underworld, and is working against Hercules. This makes her character go from a helpless damsel in distress to more of a femme fatale, even though she may not be working against Hercules of her own volition. Even the fact that Meg is somewhat dangerous to Hercules, that she makes him nervous, and in the end that she makes him extremely vulnerable to Hades’s plan gives her an amount of power and independence that no damsel has ever enjoyed before.
Yet even as the archetype of the damsel in distress has changed, strong examples of the traditional archetype remain in our culture today. Large swaths of American society embrace conservative ideals and are influenced heavily by the bible. According to a 2007 Gallup poll more women go to church than men, more women believe in god than men, and more women look to god for guidance. Therefore Jesus is a hero in our country who is rescuing damsels in distress everyday. There are many theories as to why religion influences women more strongly than men in America, but I think history can give us some clues. The cult of domesticity and true womanhood of the 1950’s portrayed women as pure, holy, spiritual, and it gave them the responsibility of teaching children about religion. As a result women became very involved with religion and spirituality in American society, much more so than men were at the time. Men were supposed to dwell in the world of work, which was a dark place where the devil thrived. Women were supposed to dwell in the home, a place where god was welcome. In fact many of the qualities of a perfect woman under the cult of domesticity and true womanhood are reflected in the archetype of a damsel it distress, such a being pure, righteous, innocent, and delicate.
For whatever the reason, religion (Christian religion, and therefore Jesus) influences women strongly in American society. Some women even claim to have been saved by Jesus. In Carrie Underwood’s song Jesus Take the Wheel, the country singer describes a young mother (with a baby in the backseat), who is in mortal danger as her car spins out of control and then is suddenly saved by Jesus. In the song Jesus takes the wheel and guides the woman to safety. This woman is clearly a damsel in distress; she’s helpless and obviously very vulnerable and innocent, seeing as she has a baby in the backseat. In the Bible there are additional references to Jesus being the savior of young and helpless women, for example, when Jesus saves Mary Magdalene from being stoned by the townspeople:
3And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 4They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?... But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 9And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
Although Jesus isn’t portrayed as Prince Charming, he definitely is portrayed as a savior, and his character in the Biblical story can only be labeled as a hero.
In Cry for Myth Rollo May writes that, “Myths are our self-interpretation of our inner selves in relation to the outside world. They are narrations by which our society is unified” (May 20). So what does the frequency of the damsel in distress archetype in myth say about the human interpretation of ourselves, and what about this specific character and the story that usually accompanies it, is so unifying? From the evidence provided in myths as varied as the ancient Greek myth Andromeda, to Indian epic Ramayana, to Western fairy tales, we can say the damsel in distress is an archetype that fascinates us humans, and provides an appealing fantasy to men and women everywhere.