In Defense of Damsels in Distress by Kathryn Troy


Let me start by saying that Xena, Warrior Princess is my hero. She’s a badass, kick-ass heroine, and almost everything I do is in some way inspired by her.

But I’m not an action figure.

Not only have I become bored by the large majority of fantasy books that feature female main characters acting like superheroes, but it’s problematic in more ways than one.

Let’s start with the issue of believability. Do I believe that a character who, say, is just old enough to be a lead in a YA book and dwells on predictably adolescent emotional hangups is also old enough to be a trained assassin? Absolutely not. Is it plausible that a heroine can, in her first foray into magic, monster-hunting, portal-traveling, or what-have-you, be effective enough to save her world? Gimme a break. What about the supremely overused premise of a female who knows nothing of her fictional special abilities at the start of the book and yet is the most powerful and consequential person in her universe ever? GTF outta here.

Fantasy is based on the fantastic, yes. But it’s not the characterization of fantasy heroines that should stretch the realms of believability. Yet that’s what books offer up time and time again.

Perhaps more important than this is how “strength” is defined. If a female character doesn’t tote weapons and talk about killing people with brisk nonchalance, she’s considered not strong enough, certainly not strong enough to be a lead in her own story. That’s a huge problem. Such a narrow focus on physical strength and combat capability in determining whether a woman (or any) character is strong succeeds in doing the exact same disservice to women that made writers shy away from the “damsel in distress” trope in the first place, only in reverse. Now, it is outdated, and I would argue, toxic, masculine traits that are used to define women as “strong” and therefore worthy of a reader’s consideration. Would we say, for example, that female slaves of the past were not strong?? Would you say that women who suffer(ed) through the damage and destruction of patriarchal societies were not strong, their actions not worthy of consideration?? Whatever happened to determination? Perseverance? Resilience?

Human beings and their fictional counterparts, be they male, female, both, or neither, are not invincible. None of us is an action figure. We have strengths, not just a monolithic physical strength, and also weaknesses. Shying away from depicting female characters with weaknesses leads to characters that are less lifelike, less human. Being physically or mentally weak does not make anyone any less human. Being victimized does not make them victims. And it does not make characters who share such human limitations devoid of literary value.

Seraphine Alvaró, the female lead in my latest book The Shadow of Theron, is not depicted as physically strong. She’s described at times as being waif-like and ethereal, a slip of a girl, and she lives in a semi-patriarchal society to boot. Early in the submission process, I was asked by a prospective publisher to dramatically re-write her character to make her more action ready. I politely refused. Fundamentally, I disagreed with their opinion that she is not a strong enough character because she does not fight her way out of jams.

Rather, she thinks her way out of them. She is the smartest, worldliest character in the book. By design. It felt more authentic to me to demonstrate a character whose world imposed limitations on her, and to demonstrate her wit and resourcefulness in navigating her environment and coming up with solutions to the challenges that she faces.

And she doesn’t face them alone. That is another major pitfall of the taint that now accompanies the “damsel in distress” trope. In order to not be a victim, in order to not be useless, a female must be capable of doing anything and everything on her own. That’s not how human beings work. It’s not healthy, either. It’s another toxic holdover of America’s obsession with rugged individualism that devalues a sense of community, belonging, and asking for or relying on the help of others.  Operating on that premise is certainly not how authors can establish interesting, meaningful relationships between their characters. Especially in romantic fiction, a pairing of people should be one in which the positive and negative of each individual are acknowledged, and that the strengths of each complements the other.

To summarize: the literary world has made strides in how women are represented on the page. But overcompensating and overcorrecting by giving female characters the roles that their male counterparts traditionally played simply shows how much work we have left to do.

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