Girl in trouble; boy to the rescue. Chances are you’ve seen this trope countless times. Whether it’s in a book, a play, or a movie, the damsel in distress has been reused and re-purposed for seemingly every other story.
On the surface, it looks like a simple and harmless plot device. But what happens when we start to view fiction as nonfiction? Suddenly, the trope isn’t so harmless.
What we watch in media can often influence our views, both consciously and subconsciously. Tropes such as the damsel in distress or the love interest can reinforce negative beliefs, often portraying women as weak, dependent, or undeserving of autonomy.
Depicting empowered female characters helps break through these limitations, which is why it continues to be a prevalent talking-point in contemporary media criticism and the future of storytelling. It’s also why representation is so vital.
Women’s empowerment in media isn’t a novel concept. While progress has been made, more truthful, nuanced, and diverse female representation is still needed in a society where patriarchal views persist. Whether in entertainment or the news, it’s a comfort for many young girls and adult women to see others like them go beyond the expectations of society.
Pushing sociocultural perspectives forward through media fuels confidence and offers hope. It also demonstrates the possibility for change. It’s why there’s a rush of excitement when we watch Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) battling xenomorphs in Alien or Mulan taking down the Huns in the eponymous Disney film; why listening to Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” or Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” instills confidence; or why characters like Matilda in Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book or Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games become inspirational.
Society has made strides in promoting gender equality, but there’s still room to grow. Alongside overt hatred, there are underlying stereotypes in the media, which have their ways of doing covert, subliminal damage. From how a woman’s character is written to inappropriate celebrity interview questions, these subtle comments continue to limit women in various facets of life.
These beliefs are damaging because they don’t allow women the chance to be anything more than the false images they see. In essence, disempowered representation silences women, taking away their power, self-esteem, and freedom.
With times changing, we’re seeing more and more iconic women rise throughout media. Women like Chloé Zhao, who won a Golden Globe for Best Director, are deservedly getting greater recognition as the innovative and inspirational storytellers they are. Similarly, seeing all the women of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fight together is enough to give chills. Meanwhile, remakes are booming as they can update classics such as Ghostbusters (2016) or Ocean’s 8 (2018) with female representation. But reaction isn’t always embraced.
Even before its release, Ghostbusters (2016) and its predominantly female cast of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones received immediate backlash. Without giving the movie a chance, the reaction online was to complain about the gender swap.
Whether the remake itself was good or bad is unimportant. What is important is its change from Hollywood conventions. We want to see more women’s empowerment that isn’t just in skintight clothes, that isn’t just waiting around for a man, or that isn’t fixated on love above everything. Seeing women change society’s expectations isn’t only fun, it’s inspiring.The empowerment of women in media creates endless possibilities, showing girls or women of any age that they can be more than what society tells them. The point is to have a choice and be confident in it. Whether we want to be like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde (2001) or Merida from Brave (2012), or be nothing like them, diverse and progressive representations of women empower us to be who we want and help advance acceptance for generations to come.