Damsels in Distress or Damsels that Impress?

by Alana Foster-Smith

Women have long been deemed academically inferior to men. The first woman in the United States to receive a degree was not was not until 1831, almost 200 years after Harvard was founded. Women had to fight not only to go to school, but also to be taken seriously in the classroom. Because of these norms, men have long dominated higher education. But, what if these tables have turned?  What if women are moving away from being the damsels in distress and towards the damsels who impress?

In the Wall Street Journal article entitled, “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College: ‘I Just Feel Lost,’” Douglas Belkin highlights the educational gap between men and women. Women have begun to dominate higher education making up almost 60% of college students. With such statistics, it is obvious that this generation has shifted the norms for women and thus, need an archetype to describe them. Archetypes are by definition supposed to be “a very typical example of a certain person or thing.” When I was looking at the most common female archetypes, according to “Female Character Archetypes and Strong Females Characters” by Jennifer Ellis, no one seems to accurately describe the new “typical” woman, who is seeking not male validation but a higher education. Some examples of common female archetypes listed include: The Nurturer, The Girl Next Door, The Seductress, The Damsel in Distress, The Queen Bee, and The Father’s Daughter. Obviously some of these archetypes do describe portions of 21st century women but the typical women coming into society today value their hard work and have commitment to academic achievement, which is not highlighted in any of these common female archetypes. But, thankfully, as society progresses, archetypes are meant to shift with these progressions. The “typical” person changes with society and a new literary archetype arises. “The Career Queen” or “The Damsel to Impress” both seem much more accurate to describe the 21st century women.

The beautiful thing about archetypes is that they are supposed to change depending on typical women at the time. However, the ideas of classic female archetypes are still bound in society. Even in recent films, women are portrayed as merely side characters and an object of attraction to the male lead. The more that females in movies, television and novels are portrayed as strong female leads and accurately describe women of this era, which former classic archetypes fail to do, the more these updated archetypes can become commonplace into society. I don’t want to be surprised when I see a strong, smart female lead, I want to expect it. Because, as we have learned, damsels are not in distress anymore, we aim to impress. 

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