Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Damsel is a Word not a Trope

I have noticed lately a trend in which the word "damsel" is used as short-hand to mean "damsel in distress."

As in:
"I need you to scream for me."
"Like a damsel?"

"I imagined a story where I didn't have to be the damsel."

This chaps my hide.

"Damsel" is not an intrinsically pejorative word. It simply means "young, unmarried woman." The word itself has no relation to powerlessness.

In fact, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word damsel comes to us (by way of French) from the Latin domina which means mistress, as in a female master.

So the entire foundation of the word damsel is rooted in power.

It just happened to share the same first letter as the word distress, and thus someone, who confused alliteration with wit, coined "damsel in distress."

To conflate the "damsel in distress" trope with the actual word "damsel" is NOT A GOOD THING. 

Because -- remember, damsel by itself just means woman -- what you're actually saying is:

"I need you to scream for me."
"Like a woman?"


"I imagined a story where I didn't have to be the woman."

When the word those screenwriters were really looking for is VICTIM.

"I imagined a story where I didn't have to be the victim." 

That is what Dolores should have said in the most recent episode of WestWorld. The show has rubbed our faces, across multiple episodes, in the victimization of Dolores, beating us over the head with how she is intended to be raped and murdered. That's her storyline, because that's all the men who visit WestWorld want -- to rape and murder an innocent farmer's daughter.

But her being a woman isn't the thing that needs fixing. She can be a woman -- a damsel -- who fights back. She can be a damsel hero. A Big Damn Damsel Hero.

What she wants fixed is her role of victim falling foul of evil, murderous men.

And the word WOMAN is NOT a synonym for VICTIM.

I don't care that what you really meant to refer to was the trope. What you're SAYING and what people are HEARING -- whether consciously aware of it or not -- is that women are victims. They have no other role. They can't be heroes. Women are by default "in distress"-- so much so that you don't even have to add the "in distress" part, you just say woman and the audience will fill it in on their own.

Oh, and only women can scream, apparently. That's adult women for ya, sniveling, crying, screaming. Men never do that.

I've only seen the trailer for that Tarzan movie, not the movie itself, but apparently the scream/damsel exchange was considered important because it's in said trailer. WHY?? Why does that merit a spot in the trailer? That's how our heroine is defined, is it? Ooh she's better than Ordinary Women, she's not a damsel!

Of all the comebacks she could have snarled, and this being a period piece, she could have spouted some very worthy phrases of disdain (I SAID GOOD DAY, SIR), all she does is throw shade on damsels? 

You can do better, screenwriters.

If for no other reason than the fact that "I imagined a story where I didn't have to be the damsel" is an ehh line given strength by the situation, but "I imagined a story where I didn't have to be the victim" is MOVING, with call-backs to all the scenes of victimization we've witnessed before, where Dolores, Special Victim Extraordinaire, takes back her power and violates her programming to defend herself.

Eschewing stereotypes and trope trigger words in favor of being ACCURATE is just BETTER WRITING.

Try it.