The Damsel in Distress Symdrome
by Lorelei Jones
This is something that’s been kicking around in my mind for a while, and Lucy’s column on criticism inspired me enough to actually sit down and write it out. All opinions and assertions are my own, but I can tell you from discussions with associates, I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way.
I’m mostly going to be using examples from Kung Fu: The Legend Continues fandom, in which I edit a fanzine, and The Sentinel, which I’ve been hooked on for about a year and which is the fandom in which I am currently devouring fanfic at an alarming rate. A few others will crop up, but those are the ones I know the best, so those are the ones I’ll draw the most heavily from.
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.
I write a lot of fanfiction, and I know every author brings her own interpretation of the characters to the page, but I've always tried as hard as I can to stick with what I saw on the television screen. I can go hogwild with motivation, but I know how the character will react in certain situations, I've seen him do so. I know, for example, that Peter Caine cries very rarely, never at physical pain, and he fights to suppress it every time. I know his first reaction to being outnumbered in a fight is to start making smartass comments, and I know threats just tick him off. So when I read about him cringing in terror from an enemy, or dissolving into tears at the drop of a hat, it not only annoys me because it's maudlin, it makes me indignant because it's not in character.
In TS, Blair Sandburg isn't a cop and he isn't a trained fighter, but he's no wimp, either. If he can't get out of a situation, he bluffs his way through. From "Cypher," I know a psycho may scare him, but he's not going to lose his head. He's going to use that gifted brain and hyperactive tongue to hold the enemy off until help arrives or he can think his own way out. Even in "Siege," when he first encountered what it meant to be Jim's Guide, he did his best to get out, kept his cool in the face of a lunatic, and when he finally did crack under the pressure, he didn't start to cry and plead, he simply freaked out in a way that I personally think was calculated to make Kincaid give up and leave him behind as too much trouble. Blair wouldn't admit it, but he's a fighter, and he proved it time and again on the show. Even when he was shot in "Survival," he didn't crumple into a little ball on the ground. He was in serious pain, and he made no bones about it, but he did his best to follow Simon and Jim's orders, and keep from making the situation worse. That's bravery even Jim has to admire.
That said, I will confess I know one reason the "damsel in distress" story may persist. It's easy, pure and simple. If Blair is emoting all over the place after being physically or emotionally wounded, it's easy for Jim to comfort him. If Peter is too badly injured or too frightened to save himself, it's easy to have his father come rescue him, thereby showcasing not only Caine's love for his son, but his amazing Shaolin abilities as well. However, as one of those people who likes Peter better than Caine, and Blair better than Jim, I don't want to see that. I want the character on the page to match the one on the screen, or more accurately, the potential of the one on the screen. Network politics dictate there has to be a clear-cut hero on a show, singular, not plural. And so Caine does the majority of the incredible feats and the rescuing because the show belongs to David Carradine, and Jim is usually the savior of the city because he's the buff, macho cop the network execs wish they could relate to. As a result, Peter, a competent cop in his own right, is reduced to the status of "Number One Son," and Blair, resourceful world traveller and brainiac extraordinaire, gets to play "Boy Wonder." This is a bit of a digression, but in a way, it shows that the "damsel in distress" syndrome is not limited to fanfiction. Even the show can get a case of it on occasion.
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.
Still another possibility presents itself, as well. Both of my primary fandoms are for shows that have been cancelled. Since I didn’t get into KF: TLC fandom until the end of the show’s run, I didn’t notice the phenomenon at first,but I’ve since been able to compare it with what I’m seeing in TS. In both cases, the number of "D in D" stories started increasing a few months after the show stopped airing first-run episodes. Someone else has already mentioned the alarming turn TS "smarm" has taken, and I’ve seen a similar thing happen in a few other fandoms. I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t some peculiar form of nostalgia, indulging in the melodrama inherent in the "D in D" motif in a rather extreme attempt at once more evoking the emotions the show raised in the author. If so, I hope it succeeded for the author, because it just leaves me cold.