The Damsel in Distress is not simply a Trope, but an Archetype. Its meaning and power do not stem primarily from male domination/power fantasies, but rather from the principles of the unconscious. It is one of humanity's oldest symbols for the struggle toward self-knowledge.
As you may have guessed, this series is something of a response to Anita Sarkesian’s Tropes Vs Women in Videogames series. That said, I would like to stress two things:
1). This is not a point-by-point refutation of Tropes Vs. Women. Ms. Sarkesian makes some good points, whether you believe she is a crusading feminist in the good sense or the bad sense.
2). This is a response to Ms. Sarkesian’s central presupposition; that is to say, the definition of the Damsel in Distress as a Trope.
Again, I have no interest in joining the pro-Sarkesian cheer squad or the anti-Sarkesian Two Minute Hate. This is about Tropes vs Archetypes, not Feminism vs Patriarchy or indeed Ethics vs Social Justice.
So let's move on to the tropes. The description on YouTube for the first video of Tropes Vs Women in Videogames states:
“This video explores how the Damsel in Distress became one of the most widely used gendered clichés in the history of gaming and why the trope has been core to the popularization and development of the medium itself.” (Retrieved 11/09/2015)
There’s a lot going on in the statement (and even more going on in the video series), so I am going to boil Ms. Sarkesian’s presuppositions into three essential points:
1). The Damsel in Distress is a TropeHopefully we can all agree this is essentially what Ms. Sarkesian is getting at. I don't think anyone would argue the second point - Ms. Sarkesian definitely thinks that the Damsel in Distress Trope is sexist. This is where the majority of the debate takes place – are video games sexist for using this Trope?
2). The Damsel in Distress Trope is sexist
3). This sexist Trope is why video games appeal to men.
But we're going to set aside the second point and third and focus on the first: is the Damsel in Distress best described as a Trope?
There is perhaps no better place to go for a definition of Tropes than TVTropes.com, the internet’s foremost collection of Tropes. This venerable institution's homepage defines Tropes in the following way:
“Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations.” – (Retrieved 11/09/15 - The site seems to have undergone a major renovation recently, but here's a Wayback Machine link)
At first glance, the Damsel in Distress seems to pass this definition of Trope. It is most certainly a “device and convention” seen quite commonly in media and a writer can most definitely “rely on [it] as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectation.” Indeed, the Damsel is perhaps one of the most common narrative hooks.
I’m sure that Ms. Sarkesian would have no objections up to this point. Writers use Tropes because they work; Nintendo used the Damsel in Distress Trope over and over again because audiences understood and enjoyed it. Ms. Sarkesian claims that Nintendo chose the trope because it had already been widely popularized by King Kong and Popeye the Sailor Man.
Of course, the Damsel in Distress Trope is much older that King Kong – Ms. Sarkesian herself points out that the trope is an ancient one (or as TV Tropes terms, it is “Older than Dirt”).
But as anyone who has taken a Driver’s License test knows, there is a difference between “a correct answer” and “the most correct answer.” A cow can correctly be defined as “a source of beef,” but studying a Big Mac is not the best way to understand what a cow is. Is the Damsel essentially a Trope or can it merely function as a Trope?
I'm going to argue that The Damsel is not best defined as a Trope (or indeed, as 'the Damsel'), but as an Archetype. It does not show up again and again throughout myth, legend, literature, and video games because men are sexist. The Rescue of the Damsel is not about men and women at all. It is about the journey of the soul to discover its own hidden truths.
The Damsel can function as a Trope, but only as a cow can function as a hamburger. To find out what the Damsel symbolizes to the unconscious mind, we're going to look at Jung, Campbell, and some of humanity's oldest stories.