Thoughts on the origin of the “damsel in distress”

The idea of the “damsel in distress” has always mystified me.  One reason for this is that I am not really aware of it as being a theme in the Chivalric Romances of the past.  The knights generally had a lady they loved but they weren’t saving them from distress.  It also doesn’t seem to a theme during the 1800’s (at least, as far as I know).  In this way, it seems a product of the 1900’s.  Of course, I’m no expert but I’m under the impression that it originates from several historic themes:

  • After the Napoleonic wars there was something like a patriotism in England.  This help cause what I call the “Chivalric revival”.  Basically, this refers to the revival of many chivalric ideals which originates from the knights during the Crusades.  As a result, it emphasizes knightly ideals.  One of these is that the knight will defend women, widows, orphans, the poor, the disadvantaged, and so on.  This is inspired by Christian belief.
  • The “Chivalric revival” also put emphasis on the knights love for his “lady” which would lead to and influence the following . . .
  • In about this same period of time (early 1800’s) there developed the Romantic movement.  This, of course, emphasized love and romance.  This became particularly strong as the 1800’s went on.

The movies, it seems to me, have had a dramatic impact on this:

  • In the U.S. many of the plots, even to this day, are actually variations of the knight theme.  Basically, it created the the “lone hero” who “saves the day”.  This theme created the superhero, action hero’s, and many other movie hero’s in the U.S.  What this means, more or less, is that many popular stories and movies actually originate from the Crusades!
  • Another effect of the movies is that it has a limited time to unfold the plot and, accordingly, it needs simple sub plots that supports the main plot.  As a result, since many of the movie hero’s are based in the knight it created a need for the quick and easy sub plot of the “damsel in distress” by using the already existing historical-based qualities described above.

These all unified together creating the image of the “damsel in distress” in the 1900’s.  Basically, the hero of the movie, playing the part of the knight, displayed one of the knightly ideals: defending women. This would be associated with the Romantic movement and now he defends the woman he loves.  The “damsel in distress” is then born.  

If what I said above is true it means, more or less, that the “damsel in distress” is a result of the time constraints of a movie!  Sort of funny in a way.


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Books, movies, and music, England, Britain, and all that, Historical stuff, Other stuff, Victorianism, Bourgeoisie, noble imitation, and sycophancy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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