As much as it pains me to admit it, a good fairy tale isn’t complete without a damsel in distress.
Damsels serve as the motivation for the hero. Whether it’s a charming prince fighting a dragon to save her or a poor lad trying to prove his worth, there’s always a girl involved with the hero’s quest.
But those girls can easily fade into the background.
So allow me to clear up some common traits and misconceptions about the beautiful damsels so often featured in fairy tales.
1. Damsels are beautiful.
Well, this is actually true. Beauty is, like, the damsel’s only defining and constant characteristic. Characters like Snow White are so beautiful that they inspire loyalty in strangers and enemies alike.
So don’t look for much in the way of personality in these girls. At least, not in the old stories. One of my favorite things about modernizations and retellings is seeing how authors breathe life and depth into these formerly flat females.
2. Damsels are good.
This isn’t always true. Some damsels, like Cinderella, are good and virtuous. Others, like the princess in The Frog Prince, are spoiled and selfish, though they soon learn better.
This opens up so many opportunities for writers adapting fairy tales today. Suddenly you have Cinderellas who are bitter and angry at their stepfamilies. You have rebellious Rapunzels who run away with the first handsome thief to cross their path.
I do love a confused and conflicted character.
3. Damsels are prizes.
This has always been the point that rubbed me the wrong way. Because damsels are beautiful and good (and grossly underdeveloped), they become the hero’s prize.
Save the kingdom from a dragon? Get the king’s daughter. Figure out and break the enchantment on twelve princesses? Take your pick and get married.
It’s not the most flattering portrayal, but it’s a staple of the genre.
We have to remember that the fairy tales we grew up hearing are from a different time and culture. Around the time that fairy tales became a genre of their own, the attitude towards flat, static character changed. Heroes became complex. Girls became heroes in their own right (thank you, George MacDonald, for The Princess and the Goblin).
And it’s so neat to see how modern writers have developed the stereotypes into deep and intricate characters. That’s one of my favorite things about studying a genre over a vast amount of time. You can see how it’s grown and developed.
What are your thoughts on damsels in fairy tales?
Until next time, word nerds!