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Guest Post: ‘Damsel in Distress’: The First Fairy Tale Trope – from Jessica Hobson

A princess kissing a frog.
Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

With a blog called Foxes and Fairy Tales, I don’t think it’s a great surprise to anyone than I’m sort of fascinated with fairy tales, retellings and how the same story can evolve in different ways across time and cultures.

For today’s guest post, I’m very excited to share with you some thoughts on the classic Damsel in Distress trope from Jessica Hobson. Jessica is currently completing a bachelor’s degree in English literature, and is working on a project focused on children’s literature, specifically gender roles and familial tropes in fairy tales.

Take a look at her thoughts below, and leave your own with a comment.

‘Damsel in Distress’: The First Fairy Tale Trope

Throughout fairy tales there are a number of tropes which appear time and time again. From the cunning young boy to the evil stepmother, you can be sure to encounter a recognisable character or two when reading these magical children’s stories. The most common, and arguably iconic, of these characters is the ‘damsel in distress’ character; the young girl or princess who finds herself in danger and is ultimately saved by the handsome, and often presumptuous, stranger.

The naïve young woman

The Bone Spindle:

The Bone Spindle by Leslie Vedder is a Sleeping Beauty retelling pitched as “Sleeping Beauty meets Indiana Jones”. It is a 2022 release and the first in The Bone Spindle series.

The first recognisable trait of a ‘damsel in distress’ is her presumed innocence and apparent naivety. The character is often presented as clueless and seemingly unaware of even the idea of danger (ignorance is bliss I suppose!).

In Charles Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods”, the nameless princess is cursed as a young baby, but she is never once told about her deadly premonition. Her forced naivety leads to the fulfilment of this curse, as she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel (which she didn’t even know to avoid!!).  

She is then titled ‘reckless’ and ‘thoughtless’ for her actions, despite nobody warning her in the first place?!?! Maybe if someone had told her about the curse, she could have saved everyone the trouble of trying to save her! Perhaps it wasn’t the curse which was the real danger to the princess, but people’s perceptions of her as vulnerable and feeble-minded.

In Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood”, the female character (who once again goes nameless!) is tricked not once, but twice, by the cunning wolf who preys on her innocence and naivety.

After she mistakes a dangerous stranger for a friend (remember – stranger danger) she is then tricked into thinking a wolf is her grandmother. Clearly this girl is far too trusting, or perhaps she doesn’t visit her grandmother nearly as much as she claims to. Either way, it is her naivety which gets both her and her grandmother killed by the wolf.

To be fair, her grandmother also gets fooled by the wolf, but she was ill, so we’ll let her off.   

The value of beauty

Even in the clasps of death, a ‘damsel in distress’ is always photo ready as her beauty is her most valuable asset.

In Perrault’s “Bluebeard”, our female lead, (whose name is- I’m just kidding, of course she doesn’t have a name) is admired for her beauty, even when she is in mortal danger. Despite being married to a man with a bluebeard (*shoulder shrug emoji*) who has several missing ex-wives, the woman is supposedly beautiful, so much so that her looks could melt a heart of stone. Apparently, her husband’s heart was made of much stronger material as he proceeds to add her to his collection of dead wives.

The Seventh Bride

The Seventh Bride is standalone Bluebeard retelling from T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon). It also combines elements of another fairytale, Fitcher’s Bird.

If you thought admiring someone’s beauty while they’re about to be killed was bad, try reading Sleeping Beauty. As our princess lies frozen in time and basically dead, the kingdom tells tales of her beauty. A century later, after hearing about her legendary good looks, the prince rides to save the princess, convinced he loves a one-hundred-year-old woman he has never met or even spoken to.

If people watched me sleep, I’m not so sure they would comment on how beautiful and angel-like I looked – maybe it was part of the curse, to soften the blow. Then again, I’m not so sure I’d want some random guy falling in love with me while I was trying to sleep.

The male saviour

Finally, what is a damsel in distress without her male saviour?! A male saviour can be anyone – from a random brother you forget existed until you needed saving, to a random guy who decided to fall in love with you while you were comatose. Regardless of who he is, the male saviour can always be depended on to swoop in and save the day.

In Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’, our damsel looks to her brothers to save her, even though her sister is literally in the same house!!! When being threatened with murder, she calls for her sister, but instead of teaming up to take down the villain, she simply asks her to look out for their brothers. The brothers eventually arrive, just in time to swoop in and save the day. How noble of them!

Sleeping Beauty’s saviour doesn’t even try to save her, he merely stands next to her, and his love is so powerful (*eye roll*) that she wakes immediately. She also knows who he is, seemingly being saved from her own ignorance as well as the curse.

In the Grimm’s version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, known as ‘Little Red Cap’, after being eaten by the wolf, Red and her grandmother are saved by a random huntsman who is seeking revenge on the wolf.

Scarlet

Scarlet is the second instalment in The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, which gives fairytales a YA sci-fi spin.

The story, however, doesn’t end there, as the brothers Grimm propose an alternative tale. In the second story, Red and her grandmother outwit the cunning wolf and lure him into a trap. *PLOT TWIST*. That’s right, the females save themselves using their intelligence. Who would have ever thought it possible?!


Which other fairy tale tropes do you enjoy?

Do you like stories with the ‘traditional’ Damsel in Distress, or do you prefer books that subvert it? Let Jessica and I know some of your favourite stories!

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: ‘Damsel in Distress’: The First Fairy Tale Trope – from Jessica Hobson”

  1. Oh, I much prefer stories that subvert the Damsel in Distress trope. Or at least, ones that give the damsel some legitimate reason to be in distress. For example, for all the things I get annoyed about with the Disney versions of the fairy tales, I do appreciate that their Sleeping Beauty touches the spindle because she’s enchanted and not because she’s careless or clueless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True. I tend to prefer that things that happen to the heroine are some kind of choice or consequence (even if its due to something that makes her ‘unlikeable’) rather than something than just sort of passively falls upon her?

      Like

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