Episode 72: Feminine Archetypes

On December 7, Kasie and Rex took on two classic feminine archetypes: the femme fatale and the damsel in distress. Here are the show notes (note: a lot of borrowed work here, use the links to find the original sources):

Theme for the day

Female Character Archetypes: The Femme Fatale and the Damsel in Distress


  • The Femme Fatale
  • The Damsel in Distress
  • How to do it right
photo of woman standing by the wall
Photo by Luizmedeirosph on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

From Wikipedia: The phrase is French for “fatal woman”. A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, or sexual allure. In many cases, her attitude towards sexuality is lackadaisical, intriguing, or frivolous. In some cases, she uses lies or coercion rather than charm

Frequently seen in Detective Fiction

During the film-noir era of the 1940s and early-1950s, the femme fatale flourished in American cinema. Examples include Brigid O’Shaughnessy, portrayed by Mary Astor, who murders Sam Spade’s partner in The Maltese Falcon (1941); manipulative narcissistic daughter Veda (portrayed by Ann Blyth) in Mildred Pierce who exploits her indulgent mother Mildred (portrayed by Joan Crawford) and fatally destroys her mother’s remarriage to stepfather Monte Barragon (portrayed by Zachary Scott); Gene Tierney as Ellen Brent Harland in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and the cabaret singer portrayed by Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946),[17] narcissistic wives who manipulate their husbands; Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944), Ava Gardner in The Killers and Cora (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on novels by Ernest Hemingway and James M. Cain respectively, manipulate men into killing their husbands

Likely to lure the male protagonist to his demise. (source)

Whether she appears as a film noir vamp enticing a man to commit murder on her behalf, or as an unjust and fictionalised media portrayal of a real woman à la “foxy Knoxy”, this stock character is drenched in masculine insecurities.

Femme fatale in the Gothic (source)

Romantic poets took a shine to the femme fatale figure of myths and legends, perhaps because of Romanticism’s fascination with the sublime – the experience of seeing something beautiful, yet powerful and frightening.

A maneater (source) or mysterious and seductive woman

Like the hard-boiled hero, the femme fatale dates to classic myth. Examples are Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into swine in Book X of The Odyssey and the Sirens, whose beauty and alluring song attracted his sailors in Book XII. Odysseus vanquishes the first with a magic root from Hermes and the second by sealing his men’s ears with wax. The necessity of extra-human help in resisting the femme fatale’s sexual temptation is an ancient feature of the archetype; adherance to the “code” fills this role in the hard-boiled novel.

In the Middle Ages, Christianity refashioned this archetype as a devil, called the succubus.

Segment 3

From Wikipedia: The damsel-in-distress, persecuted maiden, or princess in jeopardy is a classic theme in world literature, art, film and video games; most notably in those that have a lot of action. This trope usually involves beautiful, innocent, or helpless young female leads, placed in a dire predicament by a villain, monster or alien, and who requires a male hero to achieve her rescue. Often these young women are stereotyped as very physically weak and almost completely dependent on the male lead. After rescuing her, the hero often obtains her hand in marriage. She has become a stock character of fiction, particularly of melodrama. Though she is usually human, she can also be of any other species, including fictional or folkloric species; and even divine figures such as an angel, spirit, or deity.

The word “damsel” derives from the French demoiselle, meaning “young lady”, and the term “damsel in distress” in turn is a translation of the French demoiselle en détresse. It is an archaic term not used in modern English except for effect or in expressions such as this. It can be traced back to the knight-errant of Medieval songs and tales, who regarded protection of women as an essential part of his chivalric code which includes a notion of honour and nobility.[1]

What does the saying damsel in distress mean? (source)

The figure of the damsel is typically virtuous – relative to patriarchal definitions of virtue – and completely hopeless at taking care of herself. Dangers she faces include dragons, disguised wolves, and imprisonment. In her defense, not at all easy situations to deal with.

The archetype is still prevalent in the fiction of today, but in many areas, this has changed and continues to change.

Is there a middle ground for damsels?

You’d be forgiven for reading the above examples and thinking a female character has to either play into the damsel archetype or be a total badass.

But, combining some classic traits with a little rebellion can create interesting and well-rounded characters.

Buffy Summers of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series is a great example of a character who is a strong woman but who is still allowed to have romantic traits and emotionality.

Whedon wanted to represent Buffy externally as the typical victim in the horror genre but create a character who defied convention. Instead of the hunted, she is the hunter.

On the other hand, Buffy is strong in a complex way and isn’t a cardboard cutout heroine. Whilst she is the Slayer, a Chosen One archetype, she’s not perfect — she has her faults that make her so human.

She’s no damsel, but she longs to have the life of a normal teenage girl and she often sees her supergirl status as a curse or a burden.

What can we learn from this?

The damsel archetype teaches us that fictional characters progress along with society. It teaches us that we should break the mold — archetypes are helpful, but they’re not enough.

We need to create well-rounded and believable female characters. If you want your characters to truly jump out of the page, don’t make them two-dimensional.

The Writing Cooperative Offers this:

A naïve girl who sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. The girl who thinks the world has no harms in it. And the girl whose optimism often feels more like escapism.

You can see her in Disney’s Pollyanna. In the Little Red Riding Hood. And in the Greek Goddess, Persephone who was abducted by Hades, Lord of the Underworld because she was unaware of the dangers in the world.

Men and the Maiden

The Maiden may be child-like, but she attracts a lot of admirers because she has an open, live-in-the-moment attitude.

Men hound her because she makes them feel younger. And because of that she tends to attract older men who want to take care of her and provide for her. The ones who see her light and want to experience that innocence first-hand.

In this manner, the Maiden shows her partner the wonders of the world. And touches his life with the bliss she lives with every day.

In short, she teaches him to take off his unnecessary burdens and let loose.

Common Aspects of the Damsel in Distress Archetype (source)

  •   Needs rescuing
  •   By the Hero
  •   Often female

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