Does the princess have to save herself?

When my eighth-grade theater director announced that our spring musical would be Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, I nearly exploded with joy. One of my lifelong dreams was about to be realized: I would get to play an Evil Queen. I'd been perfecting my cackle and my claw-like gestures for years. I'd practiced every manner of tyranny on my younger siblings. Malevolence was my middle name.

My dream was shattered when I was cast as Snow White.

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As I tried to work on my "character development," I was continually thwarted by the fact that Snow White has, in fact, no character. Except that she's really, really pretty (a trait which my acne, frizzy hair, and prepubescent figure made hard to pull off). Snow White is entirely passive. Things happen to her. She never does anything, except to react to her surroundings in such a way as to put her in the position of needing to be saved.

By the time the final curtain fell on my musical theater debut, I had written at least ten chapters of a novel that retold the story of Snow White. In my version, she did all the natural things a modern girl wants to do: rode around with a sword on a horse having adventures. Unfortunately, the plot never developed much further than that. But at least, in my version, Snow White did something.

My eighth-grade self had no idea she was putting her finger on a convention that has come to dominate the fantasy genre: turning the idea of the "damsel in distress" on its head. The sword-wielding princess-assassin who saves herself is now its own trope, almost ubiquitous in book blurbs and Twitter pitches. And my 33-year-old self feels an aversion to it almost as strong as my eighth-grade self's aversion to Snow White.

I find myself asking: must the princess either save herself, or do nothing? Is there any other option? Why do I feel there should be?

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Part of the annoyance I feel with the Princess Saving Herself trope is that it poses as something new. It fails to acknowledge folkloric heroines who have always saved themselves, such as the miller's daughter in Rumpelstiltskin. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that subverting the Damsel in Distress trope has been an element of modern fantasy since the genre's conception. (Think Eowyn.) Back in 1864, George MacDonald wrote a spunky heroine who was no pushover in The Light Princess. His story has a princess who needs saving and a prince who saves her, but his characterizations subtly challenge traditional fairy tale gender roles.

One day [the prince] lost sight of his retinue in a great forest. These forests are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a sieve that keeps back the bran. Then the princes get away to follow their fortunes. In this way they have the advantage of the princesses, who are forced to marry before they have had a bit of fun. I wish our princesses got lost in a forest sometimes.
— The Light Princess, Ch. 9
 From  The Light Princess,  illustration by Dorothy Lathrop

From The Light Princess, illustration by Dorothy Lathrop

Despite all her spunk, the Light Princess finds herself in a situation she can't get out of by herself. She's cursed, and part of the curse is that she doesn't really understand that she's cursed. She needs help.

The fact is, people need help sometimes. This is the second reason I have a problem with the message that the princess must always save herself. In traditional Damsel in Distress narratives, the implicit message to girls is, "Just sit here. Someone will come along to save you." In traditional Princess Saves Herself narratives, the implicit message to girls is, "If you're not strong enough to fix yourself, there's no hope for you."

I'm a pretty confident, independent person. I tend to go after my goals with grim determination and face obstacles head on. As a senior in high school, I reasoned my own way out of an eating disorder, coming up with a plan to heal myself and powering through it. I'm amazed when I look back on the strength of will I had. But I don't recommend it.

I thought I had to save myself because I felt utterly alone. I was too scared to reach out, and I didn't think anyone would come if I called for help. While I may seem to some like the model of a "strong woman," I was actually too weak to ask for help, to reveal to anyone else that I couldn't do it on my own. Vulnerability takes incredible strength.

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I think that's why I wince at all the pre-made book covers showing scowling women in armor. The fact is, when I look around high school hallways, I see rank upon rank of scowling young women in armor. Young women terrified to let their guard down, young women who would rather die (literally) than admit they need help.

When I meet a girl without armor, a girl who isn't afraid to tell her friends she needs them right now, to show her true self even if it reveals she isn't The Strongest Woman Ever On The Planet, I'm always amazed. I think, that girl is my hero. She walks the path few are courageous enough to take, the middle way between Damsel in Distress and Princess Saving Herself.

I want to be like her. And I want to write heroines like her. The question is, how? How do you write a heroine who doesn't sit around waiting to be saved, but doesn't stomp around in armor, scowling and lonely and strong?

Let's go try.