Keep Calm, Trope On: Damsel in Distress

We all have our favorite and least favorite tropes. From love triangles to slow burns, tropes are often the best ways to showcase great characters and storylines. They can also be frustrating and make you question why it is even a trope at all. In this weekly column, we’ll take a deep dive into some of the most classic television tropes.

This past weekend another new Netflix show, called Daybreak, dropped.

It follows the lives of children and teenagers that are left to fend for themselves after a nuclear bomb kills most of the adults. As someone who loves teen dramas and post-apocalyptic shows, there was no way I was not going to binge it all weekend.

The season centers on a kid named Josh who wants nothing more than to find a girl he loves named Sam Dean. Throughout the season, we get to know more about their relationship – all the ups and downs before the apocalypse hit – all the while Josh is on a mission to “save her” after being separated since the bomb went off.

Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t already binged the series, but at the end of season one, Josh and Sam finally reunite. Josh thinks he finally saved the girl he loves. But in a giant season one finale twist, Sam straight up tells Josh off for thinking that she needs to be saved in the first place. In fact, she is thriving in the apocalypse – the damsel in distress trope be damned.

It was a terrific moment that flipped an entire season’s plotline on its head. I’d also be lying if I didn’t say I let out a giant cheer for Sam at that moment.

Daybreak is just one of many television shows trying to break the mold. I will admit, part of me wants to spend the entirety of this week’s column just talking about it. It had great female characters – even a twelve-year-old – that are powerful by themselves without any men. But Daybreak wouldn’t exist had it not been for countless other shows that paved the way for their success.

Source: The CW

The 100, for example, is one my favorite shows and it also happens to be a great example of breaking away from the damsel in distress trope. The women of the show constantly demonstrates that they are anything but damsels in distress. Clarke, Octavia, and Raven are just a few of the incredible women of the show that prove that they don’t need a man to do the saving. Truth be told, men tend to do more harm than good in The 100 (*cough* Pike *cough*) and it’s the women that need to save everyone from the mess they’ve created.

The thing is, however, this trope isn’t necessarily bad. I don’t mind watching Mulder save Scully a bunch of times in The X-Files. The problem arises when men inherently believe that only they can save women. Men, like Josh, who think that a woman cannot possibly be okay unless they intervene.

That’s why I tend to gravitate towards shows that flip the narrative — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supergirl and Wynonna Earp to name a few. What these shows have in common is that they are led by a female superhero who is usually the one doing the saving. That’s why so many people became fed up when Mon El was introduced in Supergirl. They thought that he was controlling, and often viewed Kara as a damsel in distress, even though she is Supergirl.

I wasn’t totally against Mon El like people were, but I see why so many people had problems with him. It’s not to say that occasionally Supergirl doesn’t need saving, or shouldn’t need saving — it was Mon El’s controlling and overprotective behavior that made things problematic. He got better as time went on, but for a while, he really didn’t think that Kara could take care of herself, and that was just wrong.

Source: The CW

Like I said — I don’t hate this trope. And what I really enjoy is when shows really twist it around. Chuck and Castle are two shows that constantly put the male lead in distress and have the female lead save them. Kate Beckett and Sarah Walker are two of the most badass women out there, and with all the trouble Castle and Chuck get into, it’s no wonder they need these two women in their lives.

“Stay in the car” is one of the best and most common lines from Chuck. It also signifies just how easily Chuck can find himself in distress, in which case Sarah or John Casey has to save him. But there are really too few shows out there like Chuck and Castle that really try to defy this trope.

I actually watched an interview a while back with Megan Boone, from The Blacklist. She plays the female lead, Liz Keen. For the first two seasons or so of the show, I kid you not, Liz is in danger almost every episode. Sometimes she does end up saving herself, but it is usually Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington that swoops in to save her. In this interview, Megan talks about how it was kind of absurd how many times Liz was a damsel in distress in the early seasons.

“You can’t kidnap her three times in a season,” Boone says in this interview. “You can’t kidnap her and then have the guys come and save her every time. Like if you do kidnap her, give her the wherewithal  and the autonomy to figure it out.”

Have truer words been spoken? Probably, but I still have so much respect for The Blacklist in actually agreeing with Megan Boone and evolving to be the show it is today.

Shows like The Blacklist and Daybreak prove that you don’t need to have the women in distress all the time in order to be interesting. I’d go so far as to say that The Blacklist is a much better and stronger show than it was in the beginning. And Daybreak has me aching for season 2, just because of the final moments with Sam and Josh.

Like I said — the damsel in distress trope be damned.

What do you think of this trope? What’s your favorite show that defies it? Share with us in the comments below!

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