Think the storyline of your favorite action, adventure, fantasy story. Hero meets girl; hero is inspired to go on adventure; hero overcomes obstacles; hero defeats adversary, and … hero gets the girl!
It’s a trope that is firmly entrenched in the popular literature (movies, books, video games) of today’s culture. From romantic comedies to epic fantasies, superhero action tales to political thrillers — we expect that at the end of an adventure, quest, or battle, the hero of the tale will “get” the girl who inspired him to overcome the obstacles and confront the protagonist.
Lately we’ve seen some significant variations on this theme – not the least of which is that, in pop culture today, the hero can be a woman, and the “distressed damsel” can be a man. That’s exactly the situation in The Champion In Silence – our hero, Silence, is a girl (raised in the guise of a boy) and the romantic lead, Martin, is a boy (who isn’t aware that his best friend is female). When Martin is accused of a crime and sentenced to death, Silence has to come to his rescue – and as she’s battling to save his life, Martin hints that he may have known Silence’s secret all along.
But if Silence wins the duel and proves Martin’s innocence, should she expect to win his affection based on nothing more than her heroism? Does it seem fair for a man to submit to a woman simply because of her skill with a sword? (And if you find yourself bristling at that … you might think back on all the tales you can remember in which the girl falls for the guy in the end for exactly that reason!)
The question that Silence raises is this: Is the “romantic lead” (whether that character is male or female) nothing more than a prize to be won?
This element of storytelling is truly timeless, but (arguably) you could point to the medieval tales of King Arthur and his knights as the real starting point for our obsession with the “winning the damsel at the end of the quest” theme. Perhaps that’s why the story of Silence was so incredibly controversial when it was introduced in the 13th century – and it might account for its popularity as well. Here’s why …
There have been a few – and just a few – stories in today’s world that have been written to challenge that assumption. One that comes immediately to mind is the television show Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Despite its goofy title and campy action, Buffy was a show that was all about questioning, subverting, and reversing the expected female roles in modern literature. In the end, when the title character had overcome her personal demons and overthrown the ultimate adversary (the very spirit of Evil in the universe), she didn’t throw her arms around the hunky male lead and fade to black with a big ol’ smooch. Instead, she stood alone, simply comfortable with herself and her place in the world. She didn’t need a “trophy dude” to complete her.
But this approach is controversial – even in the 21st century! Several publishers have turned away the manuscript for The Champion In Silence for the simple reason that our hero, Silence, doesn’t “win” the romantic lead in the traditional way at the end of the story.
The trouble is … the original 13th century story of Silence is all about subverting expectations based on gender. There is no romantic element in the original tale – none at all! – and perhaps that’s because the author Heldris (a 13th century storyteller … who may have been a woman masquerading as a man!) felt unsatisfied with the standard “knight rescues damsel” trope that had become so common in his time. It’s why I truly think that the story of Silence can’t be true to its own nature unless is forces us to take a long, hard – and possibly uncomfortable – look at our own expectation that the damsel (or the dude) falls into the arms of the hero as the “prize” at the end of the quest.
What’s wrong with a story that involves a “trophy damsel” at the end of the adventure? Told too often, such stories can lead us to believe that women (and men too!) are nothing but prizes to be won in real life, rather than real human beings who should be respected and admired for their own strengths and values. Here is a excerpt from the blog 5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained To Hate Women by author David Wong that takes a look at the unrealistic expectations that are set up when literature tells us that the damsel is nothing but a trophy to be carried away by the hero at the end of the adventure.
Why do so many men react to rejection with the maturity of a child being denied a toy?
Well, you have to keep in mind that what we learn as kids is really hard to deprogram as an adult. And what we learned as kids is that we males are each owed, and will eventually be awarded, a beautiful woman.
We were told this by every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, video game and song we encountered. When the Karate Kid wins the tournament, his prize is a trophy and Elisabeth Shue. Neo saves the world and is awarded Trinity. Marty McFly gets his dream girl, John McClane gets his ex-wife back, Keanu “Speed” Reeves gets Sandra Bullock, Shia LaBeouf gets Megan Fox in Transformers, Iron Man gets Pepper Potts, the hero in Avatar gets the hottest Na’vi, Shrek gets Fiona, Bill Murray gets Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters, Frodo gets Sam, WALL-E gets EVE … and so on.
Hell, at the end of An Officer and a Gentleman, Richard Gere walks into the lady’s workplace and just carries her out like he’s picking up a suit at the dry cleaner.
And then we have Star Wars, where Luke starts out getting Princess Leia (in The Empire Strikes Back), but then as Han Solo became a fan favorite, George Lucas realized he had to award her to him instead (forcing him to write the “She’s secretly Luke’s sister” thing into Return of the Jedi, even though it meant adding the weird incest vibe to Empire). With Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling played with the convention by having the beautiful girl get awarded to the sidekick character Ron, but she made it a central conflict in the story that Ron is constantly worried that, since Harry is the main character, Hermione will be awarded to him instead.
In each case, the woman has no say in this — compatibility doesn’t matter, prior relationships don’t matter, nothing else factors in. If the hero accomplishes his goals, he is awarded his favorite female. Yes, there will be dialogue that maybe makes it sound like the woman is having doubts, and she will make noises like she is making the decision on her own. But we, as the audience, know that in the end the hero will “get the girl,” just as we know that at the end of the month we’re going to “get our paycheck.” Failure to award either is breaking a societal contract. The girl can say what she wants, but we all know that at the end, she will wind up with the hero, whether she knows it or not.
And now you see the problem. From birth we’re taught that we’re owed a beautiful girl. We all think of ourselves as the hero of our own story, and we all (whether we admit it or not) think we’re heroes for just getting through our day.
So it’s very frustrating, and I mean frustrating to the point of violence, when we don’t get what we’re owed. A contract has been broken. These women, by exercising their own choices, are denying it to us. It’s why every Nice Guy is shocked to find that buying gifts for a girl and doing her favors won’t win him sex. It’s why we go to “slut” and “whore” as our default insults — we’re not mad that women enjoy sex. We’re mad that women are distributing to other people the sex that they owed us.
Yes, the women in these stories are being portrayed as wonderful and beautiful and perfect. But remember, there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them.
Read the full text of the article 5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained To Hate Women by David Wong.