“Let her go” say all the movie stars
There’s lots of heavy political shit going on right now (the imminent end of legal abortion in red states after the Supreme Court gets a shot at that Texas law being a biggie) but it’s Friday, so screw it, let’s talk about movies. Specifically, this amazing supercut of actors yelling, “Let her go!”, put together by the Huffington Post.
So many damsels. Such distress. It appears that every major male actor in Hollywood has filmed a scene where he gallantly stands there while the bad guy holds a whimpering woman and scolds the bad guy for dragging a woman into this important grown-up man business. Granted, not every “let her go” is exactly like that. One of them was even a female actor! It’s only like 75% of these scenes.
The damsel-in-distress is one of those things that I forever have mixed feelings about. On its own in any movie, it’s often not a big deal. Some filmmakers go out of their way, in fact, to give the damsel a life outside of being damseled. A lot of modern damsels in distress are strong, smart, independent women blah blah blah, but, you know, none of us are in control when a gun is being held to your head. Perversely, this actually makes the trope work better than if she’s a more traditional simpering idiot of a damsel, because, having come to like the character, you are worried about her safety.
But, as with all cliches, the problem is not just that you see it once but that it happens over and over again. That’s when it starts to be toxic, because it stops being just a plot device and starts being a cultural assumption that says a lot about men, women, power, etc.
The thing that frustrates me the most about it is, like a lot of benevolent sexism, the trope sets the bar shockingly low for what makes a man a fucking hero. Oh, so he doesn’t want an innocent person to die? Even though he knows for a fact that she’s female? Well, throw this man a goddamn parade. He is the best man that ever was and will be. Similar to wanting someone to give you a blow job for politely opening a door and, should that not happen, lying to people on Reddit about all these feminists who kneed you in the balls for opening doors. Opening doors for people behind you and begging for the lives of innocents isn’t hero behavior. It’s what you’re supposed to do, male or female. And yet, it gets subtly inscribed as some great heroics on the part of men by the endless repetition of this trope. While the people who employ it are no doubt relying on the woman’s gender to ramp up the sense of vulnerability and pathos, the cumulative result is the devaluation of women’s lives, because the implication is that they exist mostly as ego boosts for men.
And since I know this will be an objection, damseling is not necessary to make an action movie effective. Captain America: Winter Soldier avoided the trope and was by far the coolest action movie I’ve seen in a long time. I mean, Cap rescues Black Widow a couple of times, but in a style that is not any different from how male heroes help each other. Of course, Steve Rogers is a real divergence from the typical action movie hero, in that a huge part of his character is he’s a humble guy and doesn’t want a bunch of accolades for doing what he considers the bare minimum required to be a good person.