Defending Damsels: Encouraging All Emotions in Modern Heroines.

I don’t think there is anything more nostalgic than sitting down with a book I enjoyed when I was little and reading it now with adult eyes. My studies have allowed me to dive into the world of children’s literature, and I’ve found that I have a new appreciation for all of the books that I read as a child. I’ve always been one to encourage reading in childhood as having a love for literature can open so many doors and benefit us in ways we may not even realise. 

Lately I’ve fallen down a bit of a fairy tale rabbit hole, as you will have noticed if you keep up with me on Instagram. If you haven’t already, you can follow me @katelovesliterature

Fairy tales always provoke very interesting conversations in my opinion, and I think that classic fairy tales are often treated unfairly in today’s media. Literature will always reflect the time that it was written in, that is in many ways the role of literature, to shine a light on all aspects of society, the good, the bad, and the things we wish didn’t happen. I will admit, many fairy tales are imperfect. There are aspects of some older fairy tales that would likely not be included if they were written today by a modern writer. I find it interesting that fairy tales are readapted and reimagined so often, because new adaptations tend to bring out critics who enjoy tearing the original to pieces. I’ve found that sometimes in an effort to correct some outdated ideas that an original story may present, the adaptations in question can sometimes swing too far the other way and present a different idea that is not exactly ideal either, however that is a much broader conversation and one that I will share another time in a different discussion. 

I will give a very brief example of what I mean, and I just want to be clear that in this example, I’m not referring to any story in particular, instead I’m speaking generally about an idea that I’ve seen in various different pieces. 

I’m an advocate for female empowerment and female agency in stories. 

I love seeing female characters who know their own mind, and speak confidently about their own desires and interests. I understand the idea behind wanting to show young children stories about women who are well-rounded, complex, dimensional characters. This is great. For a long time female characters were subjects of the male gaze and I think it is fantastic that there seems to be a shift and finally we are getting to see female characters exist and function beyond how they’re viewed by men. I always like to say that there is nothing wrong with being a love interest, but you shouldn’t only be a love interest. That should not be a female character’s only purpose, however I dislike the trend of calling the heroines in original fairy tales nothing more than “damsels in distress who do nothing but wait to be saved.” 

The heroines in older Disney movies face this kind of criticism as well, and I think it is very unfair. In my opinion it is too simplistic. That kind of critique completely ignores the fact that these stories were written in a very different time. It is the same with period pieces, people complain if female characters don’t act in a way that perhaps a modern woman would, but this critique again ignores the fact that many period pieces take place in times when women were at the mercy of the men in their lives. If you didn’t have access to any money, if you didn’t have anywhere to go, if you didn’t have any kind of education depending on one’s status, if you didn’t have any say in who you married, then it is almost impossible to just up and leave. I still think it is inappropriate to say that today in 2022, because the truth is that we cannot know everybody’s private circumstances and to say “just leave” is ignorant and dismissive. I will not scoff at original heroines. I will not call them passive, helpless, and I will not say that they did nothing but wait for a Prince. If you actually read the original fairy tales properly, you will see that many of the original heroines did their best despite being in dire circumstances that were beyond their control. I also don’t like the idea of promoting a narrative that says accepting any kind of help means you’re weak. I think there needs to be a balance. It is important to have complex, realistic, layered female characters who know they can speak their mind, assert boundaries, and take control of their lives the way a male protagonist would without question, but I think one must also acknowledge that it is okay to have friends, it is okay to accept help, it is okay to cry and be vulnerable sometimes, and it is okay to need people and have romantic desires.

I’ve noticed that female characters shutting out love because “they’re perfectly fine on their own” has become a bit of a trend. The idea behind this is wanting to show a character who doesn’t need a romantic relationship to be happy. That is great, but the idea is often undermined by the fact that she will almost always end up in a romantic relationship anyways, often with the man that she’s been shutting out for the entire story. I think this is a bit contradictory and reductive. Plenty of people are happily single and plenty of people genuinely don’t want a romantic partner and that is perfectly fine, but I’d rather see a character who is happily single throughout instead of seeing a woman actively shut down any romantic feelings or desires because she feels she has to, because she feels that allowing herself to be romantic somehow makes her weaker. Again, in my opinion, it is a question of balance. All independence should not be lost because you are in a relationship and these characters should still be able to function independently and chase their dreams and thrive at work even if they do admit that they really like someone else. Independence is very important. I think it is vital to be able to be alone and enjoy one’s own company, however I don’t think it is reasonable to expect anyone to be alone all of the time. These types of narratives tend to involve characters learning that it is okay to let people in, and it is okay to share feelings and be vulnerable, and it is okay to want someone or people in your life – these discoveries don’t always have to be romantic, they can come from relationships with friends, families, and mentors too, and all of that is great, but I’m a bit tired of that being the lesson. 

To sum up this point, the gist of what I’m saying is that of course I do want female characters to be well-rounded and dynamic and to be more than just a love interest, however I also don’t want to venture into a territory that says emotions or accepting help or being in love automatically equal a loss of strength and/or independence. 

This is a topic that I want to explore/write about in much broader detail with fleshed out examples so stay tuned for more discussions like this if this is a topic that interests you.

My book review of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is coming soon.

Have you read this book? Let me know.

Kate xo.

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