Pop Culture dictionary

damsel in distress

[dam-zuh l in dih-stres]

What does damsel in distress mean?

A damsel in distress is a young woman in danger. The term often refers to a stock character in fiction who is rescued by a male hero.

Where does damsel in distress come from?

damsel in distress
RJ Carroll

Damsel—meaning a young woman, particularly a noblewoman—comes from French and Latin roots meaning “lady.” Captive damsels rescued by male heroes have long figured into myth and literature. Chained to a rock, the princess Andromeda is spared from a sea monster by the heroic Perseus (an example of a damsel in distress from ancient Greek legend). The trope became particularly popular in chivalric medieval romances.

The specific phrase damsel in distress emerges in English in the 17th and 18th centuries. A 1692 poem, “Sylvia’s Complaint,” describes a “damsel in distress” in a discussion of the age-old conflict between passionate lust and decent love. A similar phrase, lady in distress, appears in a mid-18th-century ballad, “The Spanish Lady.” Damsel in distress is also notably used in a 1755 translation of Don Quixote when a priest disguises himself as a damsel to win a favor from Don Quixote.

As the example from Don Quixote suggests, damsel in distress, while indeed used in earnest, is also often a conceit to expose the follies of men. In 1919, celebrated British humorist P.G. Wodehouse wrote a novel called A Damsel in Distress. In it, an American composer believes he is rescuing a noblewoman only to discover she truly loves someone else. The novel was adapted as a musical film in 1937, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin.

Examples of damsel in distress

She zip-lined right in there and kissed him like he was some kind of damsel in distress.
Lindsay MacDonald, TV Guide, March, 2018
Some Niggas be having Superman Syndrome .. they can only be with women that make them feel as if they need them .. damsel in distress type bitches .. I’m not it
@IamShainaJaye, February, 2018
Every line of dialogue is delivered as stoically as possible—except, of course, for the lines allotted to the one female character in the entire affair, who immediately falls into bed with Nick and, despite protesting that she can take care of herself, is quickly threatened with rape by other characters and turned into a damsel in distress.
Karen Han, The Daily Beast, March, 2018

Who uses damsel in distress?

Damsel in distress is commonly used in discussions of the trope in literature and media, including classic films like King Kong to the Super Mario video game franchise. The phrase is familiar enough in popular lexicon to be used in casual speech and writing, too.

It’s used in academic and popular criticism as an example of sexism. In an 1894 essay on moral character, Irish polymath and activist Sophie Bryant argued that damsel in distress stories require females to be incompetent, creating a dearth of literary role models for women. Well over a century later in 2013, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian released a series of YouTube videos explaining how the damsel in distress idea casts women as victims, citing many examples in contemporary popular media.

As a widespread narrative device, the damsel in distress is often played upon. The 2018 comedy-western Damsel presented its damsel as “the toughest character in the movie,” according to a Variety review of the film. In this vein, damsel in distress also been duly gender-flipped: Dude in distress or distressed dude have been proposed as names for the male counterpart to the damsel in distress.

The phrase is also riffed on outside of arts and entertainment, with damsel in distress referenced in women’s self-defense and personal safety training contexts.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of damsel in distress like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of damsel in distress that will help our users expand their word mastery.