"Why is she always the one getting kidnapped?
I'm the princess!"
— Amalia Sheran Sharm
A character, usually female and nubile, is made helpless
and put into immediate danger in order to put the cast in motion. Her plight unites the cast, causing them to put aside their differences
and work together to save her.
The nature of the distress varies. The classic damsel has been kidnapped or captured and is locked away, awaiting rescue and afraid for her life and virtue. She may also be lost or stranded in a hostile area, trapped, desperately ill, or suffering any number of terrible fates where she needs help to survive.
This set-up is plausible if the damsel in distress is a beloved character, but can be very jarring if the audience fails to see what's so valuable about the damsel and why the rest of the cast should drop everything to go to her rescue. Some damsels are so annoying that the audience wouldn't mind seeing them dead
; others end up in trouble in a way that just screams Character Derailment
. This is particularly dangerous for the resident Action Girl
who will seem suddenly weak and helpless
if her stint as a damsel isn't properly justified — if the moment is bad enough, she can be demoted to Faux Action Girl
. On the other hand, anyone can have a bad day; perhaps she just had a moment of Badass in Distress
after being thrown a Distress Ball
Don't expect people to sympathize with the damsel if she doesn't free herself
, even if she really is helpless. The trend of the moment is to give the damsel something to do besides stand around uselessly. The Damsel out of Distress
will put up a fight, which can either help or make things worse. The Defiant Captive
damsel will snarl and rage where her meeker sister would scream. There are even subversions in the line of Play-Along Prisoner
: the Decoy Damsel
puts on all the appearance of this trope, but her helplessness is all for show.
Sometimes the character gets kidnapped for the sake of her good looks
or royal blood
, but in other works she's more likely doing something that is a threat to the party that kidnaps her (reporters are common
), which allows her to look smart and independent before she needs to be saved
. Alternatively, she can end up prisoner as a Heroic Sacrifice
; situations where she puts herself in peril so that others can get away are popular, even if her plan ultimately fails.
Generally expected to give The Hero
a Smooch of Victory
when he rescues her. Assuming he does
, of course
This is a type of Living MacGuffin
. Chained to a Rock
is an ancient form; Girl in the Tower
and Hypnotize the Princess
came later. Damsels in distress are often Bound and Gagged
, especially where Author Appeal
If the kidnapper in question is particularly nasty, expect an I Have You Now, My Pretty
situation to occur. If the character does not become a Damsel Scrappy
but still is constantly captured, they are a Designated Victim
. A more sexist version is the Disposable Woman
For the Gender Flip
, see Distressed Dude
. See also Distress Ball
, Standard Female Grab Area
, Determined Widow
, I Have Your Wife
, The President's Daughter
, Save the Princess
. If the girl is actually faking
this for her own benefits, depending on her purposes she's either a Deliberately Distressed Damsel
or a Decoy Damsel
. A typical damsel that rescues herself is a Damsel out of Distress
. If she has a strong spirit despite captivity than he/she is a Defiant Captive
. See also The Captivity Narrative
for a plot based on this.
There is much interest in making this a Discredited Trope
due to the perceived sexism historically associated with it. It is definitely not as widespread in the western world as it used to be and there are many instances in media that are deliberately written as an aversion
to this trope.
Not to be confused with the 2012 comedy film Damsels In Distress
This item is available in the Trope Co. catalog.
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- Child Ballad King Estmere. The king goes wooing on the recommendation of his brother, and arrives to find the lady is being forced to marry. He rescues her.
- Child Ballad The Maid Freed from the Gallows has the heroine about to be hanged if she is not ransomed. Various relatives arrive and declare they are there to see her hanged. Finally, her true love arrives and ransoms her. (Most American versions of this ballad feature a Gender Flip version, of a man about to be hanged, but this is the older variant.)
- In the Child Ballad Sir Aldingar, the queen.
- Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video had this twice, in the movie the Michael and his date are watching at the start, then again the date's dream. It's implied that it happens a third time once she wakes up.