What Does Damsel In Distress Mean To Me?

Rapunzel in her bower more than anything else. Well, she IS a classic.

copyright 2005 by Pat Powers

That's the question I asked a group of mainstream movie buffs at a discussion board I frequent. :::Waves hand, Obi-wan Kenobi style::: Never mind which board, that's not important -- and these are not the droids you're looking for, anyway.

The point is, the people on this board were not into bondage, that I know of. They were just movie fans. So when I asked them, "What do you think of when you hear the term, "damsels in distress?" I wanted to know what kind of response the term evokes in people who don't respond to mainstream movie and TV scenes involving bondage elements as a sexual thing, unless it's specifically presented as a sexual thing, and maybe not even then.

The responses were as follows:

Rapunzel in her bower -- 4

a generic image of a woman tied to the railroad tracks with a train approaching, and that funky silent movie piano music in the background. -4

Perils of Pauline

Victim stooge of the patriarchy

Marian from Raiders of the Lost Ark tied up in the tent

Lois Lane being rescued by Superman

Fay Wray in King Kong - 2

Penelope Pitstop

The Bond girls

Arthurian legends

Mighty Mouse, singing as he prepare to rescue his mouse lady

The action movie cliche of having a woman onscreen for the sole purpose of accumulating ragged nakedness, screaming and slowing down the hero

The guy at the top of the tower in Monty Python's holy grail

Sweet Polly Purebred

Gloria (Debra Shelton) in Body Double

Nell tied to RR tracks by Snydely Whiplash -3

That bit from Disney's Hercules -- "I'm a damsel, I'm in distress, I can handle this. Have a nice day!"

What do these results prove? Nothing, really -- it's not a scientific survey. Even so, it's food for thought. Two things really surprised me -- the extent to which people responded with aural rather than visual cues, and the frequency with which they referred to animated, rather than live-action damsels in distress. People mentioned the piano music that stereotypically played as the villain tied the damsel to the railroad tracks. They even identified the classical music piece which it's borrowed from. They mentioned Mighty Mouse singing "Here I come to save the day!"

Now, in many discussion with others who find bondage sexual even when it's a badly done mainstream scene, the only aural cue I can remember being metioned -- granted, it gets mentioned a LOT -- was mmphing, the sounds a damsel makes when she's gagged, or pretending to be gagged. Not one word was mentioned about this. Of course, I was asking a general question but it's interesting that several aural cues were mentioned, yet not the one that bondage fans really zero in on.

The prevalence of animated as opposed to live action damsels is perhaps not so surprising. Cartoons have a certain freedom that live action shows don't have -- freedom to both excel and to be crappy. Two of the best, funniest shows on television in recent years have been the Simpson and Daria. But cartoons are also capable of being really bad (witness most everything Hanna Barbera did in the 80s) and that's what most cartoons are, most especially here in the U.S., but also in Japan where a lot of the anime that never get exported are reportedly godawful by any standard.

Two U.S. cartoons used damsel in distress imagery in their openers, the scenes and theme song that precede every cartoon. "Dudley Do-Right" had a short bit with Snydely Whiplash tying Nell to some railroad tracks, and Mighty Mouse had a scene of him rescuing his sweetie from some peril or other (though I don't believe the peril involved bondage). In addition, Underdog frequently rescued Sweet Polly Purebread. And most notably, the Perils of Penelope Pitstop featured Penelope tied up in almost every episode.

With cartoons using DiD imagery so freely and with such stereotypical effect, there's little wonder that they are the images that are triggered by the term "damsel in distress."

But perhaps the most telling point was that several guys said they associated the term "damsel in distress" with women who were girly-girls, helpless, femmy types who couldn't do much of anything to help themselves, but needed a rescuer. I realize that this is a common stereotype -- how many times have we seen old movies in which the heroine, running from the bad guy/monster/whatever, tripped, or just stood around and screamed instead of doing something constructive?

As a guy with an interest in sexual bondage scenes, I have pretty much ignored this aspect in favor of the sexual aspect. But of course, the people who don't see DiD imagery as sexual don't have any motivation to ignore the stereotypical girly-girl aspects of damsel-in-distress scenes, which is why they register them so much more powerfully than those of us who do. And why they see "damsels in distress" as meaning helpless, femmy type women.

And that is why I'm gonna switch from damsel in distress to the term "femjep" when describing scenes in mainstream movies where women are tied up.

Sure, I could be literally accurate and refer to them as bondage scenes, but let's face it, the term "bondage scenes" has the connotation of "sexual bondage scenes" and people think of them as involving naked women with ballgags in their mouths and vibrators in their pussies being paddled by a guy in black robes.

So the term "bondage scenes" doesn't work either, because most mainstream scenes aren't anything like that, as I think the Loosie Awards demonstrate. In fact, most mainstream scenes aren't really sexual in nature. They're more like a woman who wears open-toed sandals because they feel good, without any concern for whether or not they're turning on foot fetishists around her. Foot fetishists may be turned on by her naked tootsies, but that's their problem, not hers.

So if you have to choose between the phrase "damsel in distress" and "bondage scene" it's a clear case of ....

wait for it ....

wait for it ....

damselled if you do and damselled if you don't.

"Femjep" is a term invented by network execs to describe traditional damsel in distress scenes, or any scene whose main hook is a woman (or women) in peril. I don't really like the SOUND of the term "femjep" but I REALLY like the fact that virtually no one outside the TV/movie industry knows what it means. Because whenever a mainstream person reads or hears the terms "damsel in distress" or "bondage scene" their heads fill up with ideas that aren't really meant by us when we use them. And at least "femjep" has the advantage of being a blank slate. People may not know what is meant by it, but at least they don't know things you DON'T mean by it.