A Quick Recovery

This spring I get to go visit Lindsay in Botswana, which is very exciting. I'm traveling alone, though, and I can't help but think of the movie Taken. What if I am captured by human traffickers on my international travels? According to the movie, I would need an interested party with a particular set of skills to come rescue me. And although I'm drugged, beaten up, and prostituted, in the end it will be fine because I will be rescued and, like, all better immediately.

I don't like that movie. The daughter, the one that's taken, goes through a horrible ordeal and comes out on the other side completely unchanged. She's like the ark in Raiders, been in a pit of snakes but no worse for wear.

Many movies, TV episodes, and video games use the damsel in distress as an easy plot device to motivate a central male character. Stories revolving around a rescue have a couple advantages. The central character's motivation tends to be clearcut. The high stakes are built-in as are the obstacles. The whole story structure can fall pretty quickly easily into place, leaving the author room to get on with the action. Rescue and even damsel stories are not bad in and of themselves, but they commonly make the mistake of treating the rescuee - the object of the story - like just an object.

Where this mistake bothers me the most is in the "return" part of the story. The object of rescue, having endured enough terrors - because, remember, the captured person needs to be in serious danger in order to motivate the protagonist and raise the stakes - is rescued, and we see them return to normal in the matter of a few closing minutes.

Narrative Wheel
I was disappointed by an instance of this in a recent (for me) episode of Angel. (Now, the writers on Angel go to the damsel well all the time - Cordelia, as far as we can tell, exists in order to be captured and rescued.) "Billy", season 3 episode 6, is about a man (Billy) who imparts violent misogynist rage upon other men by touching them. The central moral question to the episode is whether Billy is infecting these men or rather just uninhibiting them - the violence and the rage against women being already inside them, innate.

It's one of the first episodes of that show where I've seen some promise of it reaching the heights of Buffy in its ability to blow up real evils and explore them through fantasy. It's an exciting episode.

Wesley comes into contact with Billy, and later, when Fred is stuck alone with him, he starts to attack her. He pursues her in hopes of killing her, his friend, potential love interest, and colleague. It's Amy Acker and she's just a little thing.

When the impact of Billy wears off of Wesley, Wesley is horrified, embarrassed, and devastated (as it goes) by what he's put Fred through. He quits the team. He won't leave his apartment. He's returned (see wheel) and changed. Fred, on the other hand, doesn't get a scene like that. She doesn't get to change. We see her, after the ordeal, showing up at Wesley's door, forgiving him and asking him to come back to work. She's been attacked, verbally and physically, by a best friend, and she doesn't miss a beat.

I want a scene where she can't sleep, where she cries at night, where she wakes up with night terrors. Then have her go and forgive Wesley. Make it hard for her because it would be (hard) if she were a person. Give her real pain and real courage. Make it her story, too.

Beyond not giving female characters real shakes at personhood, I dislike the quick recovery of formerly damseled characters because I worry it impacts our idea of how long it takes real people to heal after traumatic events. It's difficult to support someone through that process, and with our society's general discomfort around victims, I'm afraid it's easy to think, "Can't you be like what's-her-name? Get over it, already."

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