The "Damsel in Distress" Syndrome

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Title: The "Damsel in Distress" Syndrome
Creator: Lorelei Jones
Date(s): November 17, 1999
Medium: online
Topic: fiction writing, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, The Sentinel, Hurt/Comfort, Clam
External Links: The "Damsel in Distress" Syndrome/WebCite
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The "Damsel in Distress" Syndrome is an essay by Lorelei Jones.

It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series.


There are several sub-genres in fanfiction, starting with the larger groups of gen and slash and spiralling down to the "Could-Have-Been-An-Episode" story and the somewhat infamous "Mary Sue" story. The one I want to address actually shows up both in gen and slash, and I call it the "Damsel in Distress" story. The basic plot of such a story is that one character is put in a position in which another, or several others, must come to the rescue. Extreme h/c is often involved, along with several emotional scenes in which the "damsel" dissolves into tears. To state my position now, I really dislike this type of story, but I'm curious as to its endurance. This type of story usually, though not always, can be found in the fanfiction for a show with no strong female leads. I say usually, because I have seen it happen in both X-Files and Silk Stalkings fandom, in stories where Scully and Cassie are little more than GI Joe in skirts and Tom and Mulder are quivering masses of emotion. Generally, the favored "damsel" is younger than his companions, and often he is the scientist, doctor, teacher, etc., in a world of military or policemen. Blair Sandburg of TS and Daniel Jackson of Stargate are prime examples of this. Peter Caine in Kung Fu is an exception to this last tenet, being a cop, though he fits in every other respect. It is always the character that is most openly emotional, the one most "accessible," which is certainly logical, given that this is the character about which it's easiest to justify and write this type of story.
It's easy to hurt one character and have the others gather around him in a circle of protection and comfort. What's more, it can be a wonderful way to throw the relationships of the group into high relief. H/C, when done right, is some of the best fanfiction around, and I love to read it. When it's done poorly, however, as in the case of most "D in D" stories, it's a prime example of why a lot of people look down on fanfiction. It's character assassination, though it may not be intended as such, and it hurts to read.

So, back to my original question. Why the heck is it so prevalent? As I mentioned earlier, a possible answer could be because it's easy. If you're a new writer, or if you're just not feeling very inspired, it's one of the easiest stories to write. No inter-character tension, no plot complications, and you have a built-in excuse for all the smarm they won't give us on the show. The problem is, it gets unbalanced. Just as a story of unrelieved torture and mayhem can be painful to read, so, too, a story that's nothing but wallowing and warm fuzzies can leave you pretty cold.

Another factor might be that accessibility I mentioned. Many of us have men in our lives who are less than communicative, and we find it frustrating. It's not surprising that the frustration, and the desire for its cause to disappear, both make it into fanfiction. We have, literally at our fingers, a man we can make tell the people around him everything he's feeling. We can make him express himself as we know our husbands, brothers, sons, boyfriends, fiances, etc., never will. Sure, it's unrealistic, and if the man in question got his hands on the story, it would more than likely make him even less emotional for fear of being like "this little wimp," but in the meantime, we get a little gratification that there's one man out there who's not afraid to show his feelings.