Recently, I watched a video on The Take Youtube channel opining that the counterreaction to the Damsel in Distress trope went too far. It said that the original trope was, indeed, sexist and evil, but that the current overreaction has become evil. As a normative moral and ethical position, I consider neither trope to be unethical or immoral and see nothing wrong with them existing or anyone producing pieces in those traditions. They’re both fine. The Damsel in Distress is a folk tradition of Western culture and I’m not going to engage in my own cultural destruction unless a tradition seems to be unethical or immoral.
The folks over on The Take are thinking within the current Hegelian geist and in a very myopic philosophical framework in their attempt to argue whether a genre or folk tradition is moral or immoral. Harold Bloom said if you do a feminist analysis of Hamlet, you’ll learn a lot about feminism and nothing about Hamlet. They used Sleeping Beauty as an example but I don’t think any psychologist would find that it caused audience to be less kind, more greedy, more callous, more civically apathetic and I don’t think anyone in the following decade’s position on second-wave feminism, the Vietnam War, or Johnson’s Great Society, had anything to do with classic fairy-tales in a creamy 1950s style. Now the movie Psycho, produced not long after, did contribute (no shit) to negative stereotypes of people with mental health conditions and used the “N” word for mental illness as the title.
Whether a piece of art is moral or not has to do with its message, its meaning, and its effect on the audience. Sleeping Beauty was set during the 14th century and based on a 17th century story and it using traditional gender roles is more a symptom of the piece being true to the time than anything else. By the logic that it was sexist, one should never do a historical piece unless the characters have anachronistic political values. Kiera Knightly complained, as seen in the video, about her POTC character being a damsel in distress and has said that Elizabeth Swann, the character she plays, is a 21st century girl in an 18th century world. That, to me, is lazy on the part of the scriptwriters and betrays a lack of courage among the audience. It says they’re so ethnocentric that they require their characters to possess values they’re comfortable with.
In addition to this presentist approch ignoring the subtext, meaning, and metaphor to focus on the incidental cultural trappings of a particular time and place, it also regards ethics and morals as being purely deontological and political. Was Prince Phillip in Sleeping Beauty a bad person? Was Aurora? If someone lived according to their values would they be good people? That’s something we would need more information to deduce since they didn’t interact with the peasantry or really anyone less fortunate than them. The 14th century saw the Wat Tyler Revolt and if I found out that Aurora and Phillip supported the Wat Tyler Revolt, my regard for them would increase extremely.
There is much merit in including politics in art and it would have been radical for a peasant revolt to have been included in Sleeping Beauty. Ultimately, the reason is because politics, more than anything, is about power and the relationship of the powerful and the powerless. The best way to know if a 14th aristocrat would, if they lived today, be a feminist to is know their relationship to marginallized groups in the social movements of their own culture. Feminism is about power dynamics and it really doesn’t matter the genders one plugs in as long as one is oppressing the other. Elizabeth Swann may be an enthocentric anachronism who is magically feminist despite everything in her culture, I’d be much more interested in the people whose psychologies would feminist today. Those are the people who sympathize and empathize with the marginalized.
To recognize that, to recognize that politics is about power and the best way to transplant modern politics to another time is to use one of their social movements as an allegory for one of ours is the beginning of a timeless and universal story with rich subtext because that is the first step in the direction of being perinnial and universal. Because that is about power dynamics, not one labelled group’s problem with another labelled group, and is thusly about the human condition rather than a specific time and place.