Inner Life of the Damsel: The Survivor Archetype in Fairy Tales

There are few tropes more common, and few more criticized, than the Damsel in Distress who meets Prince Charming. In the western canon Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, other old fairy tales, and even some ancient myths follow this story arc. Today the idea seems quaint at best, offensive at worst. And though some contemporary media have either skewered it or updated it, the theme still hangs on in the culture unironically in children’s stories, romantic films, love songs, and more.

At first glance it’s easy to dismiss these tales as sexist or old-fashioned. But at second glance it's clear these stories may be reclaimed to empower survivors of abuse and other forms of emotional control, servitude, or abandonment. For a closer look reveals these stories not as blithely sexist romances but as something much deeper, much more urgent to the lives of survivors. It’s a cultural tragedy that we’ve come to believe the Damsel in Distress represents the passive, weak feminine-in-waiting, and that what she’s waiting for is to be rescued by Prince Charming who is, of course, active, strong, and pursuing his destiny: the classic masculine-in-charge.

In fact, that cultural fantasy couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s not how these stories go at all.

Gritty, Gutsy, Resourceful Young Heroines The longstanding cultural narrative is that fairy tale Damsels are dewy, innocent, helpless victim figures waiting for a Prince to rescue them. This impression may have more to do with what we’ve come to project onto women and girls than it does with the actual tales. In fact the young heroines of these stories, by and large, show more grit and guts than the Princes who appear at the end. It’s a particularly important and poignant reality to notice at this cultural moment when a global storm of women’s voices gathers to decry real-life harassment and abuse.

Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, like so many real-life women, are victims of child abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Cinderella is emotionally abused, essentially imprisoned, and enslaved while her father does nothing to protect her. Snow White, too, has a hapless father who leaves her to endure the jealous, hateful projections of a narcissistic stepmother that culminate in stalking and several attempts on the girl’s life. Sleeping Beauty is cursed by a jealous, spiteful fairy and then sheltered and isolated by overprotective parents as a result. Rapunzel is bargained away to an enchantress by a weak father trying to avoid the consequences of his own actions. Later the girl is imprisoned, isolated, physically abused, and ultimately cast out to fend for herself.

Anyone can see these girls are not passively sitting in castles waiting for Prince Charming to gallantly spirit them away. Abused and neglected children have a job to do, the primary task of which is to stay alive and awake until they can get out. The second most important task is to consolidate resources, plans, and contacts to support their getaway. And the third is to actually bring about their own escape. That is exactly what these Damsel-heroines do:

  • Cinderella grieves her mother, maintains an unfailingly kind demeanor with her abusers, does all the chores demanded of her, befriends birds and mice, and somehow finds the courage not only to ask to go to the prince’s ball – but to do it anyway, in secret, when her request is denied. Does anyone really think she left him one glass slipper by accident?
  • Snow White survives her mother’s death, ingratiates herself to her father, convinces her would-be assassin to spare her life, finds her way through the dark forest to safety, befriends the dwarves, and survives three attempts on her life by her abuser-turned-stalker.
  • Sleeping Beauty survives a childhood of overprotective isolation, follows her own sense of adventure and curiosity, and finds the courage to ask an old woman if she can try her hand at the spinning wheel – something the young woman had never seen before.
  • Rapunzel endures four years of imprisonment, survives physical and emotional abuse, and teaches herself to sing. Once she meets the Prince she flaunts the rules by developing a relationship with him (even, in some versions, becoming pregnant in the tower) and resourcing her own escape – all in secret. Afterwards she survives single motherhood while lost in the desert for years until happenstance reunites her with the Prince.

In short, these fairy tale heroines are anything but helpless or passive. Facing horrible abuse, neglect, and exploitation, they find ways to console themselves, get through each day with pride, discover and nurture hidden parts of their interior lives, forge connections with the outside world, and ultimately find the courage and resources to escape – sometimes through frightening ordeals. Rather than helplessness, these heroines model grit, resourcefulness, and courage.

These fairy tales are not romantic froth. They are hardcore survival stories.

Emotional Prince and Immediate Marriage What’s more, the Princes in these tales are most definitely not agents of survival, healing, or rescue. They're actually quite simple: Prince Charming sees the young woman and instantly falls in love. Typically the first question he asks is not “What do you need?” or “How can I help?” but “Will you marry me?”

Certainly we could understand this as the type of impulsive emotionality the culture likes to project onto women (making the idea of Prince Charming as strong savior all the more laughable!). But this is a fairy tale, the playfield of the archetypes, so we must feel our way into a deeper understanding of the Prince’s impulsive emotionality and marriage proposal. The two are inextricably tied.

In the realm of the archetypes, a marriage signifies the coming together of two opposites to create a new, vibrant, creative energy. If a fairy tale features a marriage, it compels us to ask which opposites are being united. In the emergent understanding of gender as nonbinary, it is no longer sufficient to say, well, Prince Charming is male and thus represents the Masculine archetype, and Cinderella et. al. are female and thus represent the Feminine archetype, therefore their marriage is a union of two opposing gender archetypes, end of story.

No, the opposites seeking union in these tales are not gender-related, despite their costuming. What’s opposite are the specific traits of the specific characters themselves. The young women have traumatic histories; they are gritty, resourceful, courageous, and resilient; they actively plan and pursue their freedom. (They are in more ways than not representative of the traditional Masculine archetype, for those who insist on the gendered terminology.)

On the other hand the Princes, we can guess, have led fairly easy lives; they are a bit soft, impulsive, pliant, and emotional; they respond from their feelings to opportunities that arise but do not plan much of anything, which is more a reflection of the classic Feminine. (To be fair, Rapunzel’s Prince has a bit more verve and initiative than the others.)

After a lifetime of trauma, our heroines have earned the archetypal Prince Charming – not the external man but rather the tenderness, easiness, and especially the unconditional love he represents. They have earned it by enduring the cold darkness of their childhoods which were largely devoid of love, safety, warmth, or compassion.

So Prince Charming is not an external reward. He is the young women's psychic experience of internalizing these softer traits so the heroines can provide for themselves the tenderness nobody else has ever offered them. Prince Charming is the final piece of the Damsels’ emotional growth to fall into place. If she can develop the safety and unconditional love for herself that the Prince represents, then she has truly left her abusive past behind.

These are tales of survival and development, not tales of helplessness and external rescue. By surviving loss and abuse, by seizing on her own inner resources, by making independent and even defiant choices that are attuned to her inner life, by casting aside fear and embracing courage, by forging new and healthier connections on the outside, by finally coming to a place where she can engage in tender and protective self-care, in the end the Damsel-Heroine is the one who rescues herself.

This is what “happily ever after” really means.

Myth and Fairy Tale: The Use of Old Stories in Psychotherapy

I love telling stories in therapy.

I don’t do it frequently, but sometimes the work unfolds in such a way that, in a given moment, a particular story seems the most resonant and helpful response.

Usually the stories I tell are myths or fairy tales -- the Old Stories -- stories of imprisoned and enslaved women like Rapunzel and Cinderella; of orphaned or unwanted children such as Vasalisa, the Ugly Duckling, and the Greek Hephaestus; of trauma and redemption, for example the Mesopotamian story of Inanna's descent to the underworld, or the Japanese tale of the Crescent Moon Bear; stories of individuation, such as the Grimm Brothers’ “Fitcher’s Bird” or “The Frog Prince.” There are many more, of course: many more stories and many more universal themes of human existence.

Of course, people love a good story: that’s one of the things that makes us deeply human. But modern society is replete with options for entertainment, so what makes the Old Stories unique? More pointedly, what makes them so valuable in depth psychotherapy?

Archetypes and Your Internal Life

The importance of the Old Stories unfurls far beyond entertainment or historical interest. Their therapeutic value is less in their overt content than in their symbolic depths: the Old Stories are archetypal. That is, they bring to life invisible blueprints for diverse parts of the human psyche, intangible reflections of the basic impulses that exist within each of us. We tend to favor, and sometimes get hooked by, certain archetypal aspects of ourselves, for example the peacemaker, the yes-man, the victim. Simultaneously we often repress the opposite -- say the warrior, the rebel, the rescuer. (Which are favored and which are shunned will be different for each person, of course.)

Everyone more or less chooses unconsciously which archetypal energies to express (and how), and identifying these tendencies is nowhere near as simple as taking an online quiz. We are not so cut-and-dried as to choose a particular way of being and stick with it consistently across all situations: some things trigger us more, or differently, than others. Moreover the archetypes are not so two-dimensional either. Each one is a complex constellation of energies, each of which may bloom or wither depending on the context.

Many people are familiar with human- and animal-like archetypes such as the king and queen, the golden child, the orphan, the rebel, the witch, the peasant, the beast, and many more. But in and around each of us are also archetypes of other kinds: forest, flood, tower, war, beauty, love, sex, birth, death, underworld. The list goes on and on. Often even entire stories are archetypes -- stories of descent, rebirth, journey, struggle -- and in these tales other archetypes, like those named above, act within the story’s framework. In fact, it’s fair to say that the entirety of history (and prehistory too) is a bustling bazaar of archetypal energies all intermingling, interacting, and influencing one another.

When Archetypes Meet Story

Certainly archetypes are interesting enough to study in isolation from one another, but when they constellate together inside of a story, that’s when they wake up and really start moving. Then we can see their many varied aspects and deepen our understanding of the world, of each other, of ourselves.

Snow White.jpg

Imagine the character Snow White without the forest, without the wicked stepmother, without the huntsman, the dwarves, or Prince Charming. The young woman may exist, but we don’t know much of anything about her (or, more pointedly, about the archetype she represents) until we see her in the landscape of the story, interacting with various types of people -- various other archetypal figures. The stepmother awakens one aspect of Snow White (the meek daughter), the huntsman another (the free woman), and the dwarves still another (the generous matron). And we haven’t even got to the disguised stepmother or Prince Charming yet!

Who would you be in that story? We might all like to think we’d be the brave, kind huntsman who lets Snow White run free. But can we really say there is no part of us that is the jealous stepmother, fearful of the loss of her beauty? Or the weak father, afraid to stand up to his powerful wife? What about the besotted prince with perhaps a bit of a rescuer complex -- is there any of us who hasn't felt such an impulse? Do we not all have within us a truth-telling mirror, a dark and dangerous forest, a cozy cottage, a poison apple? What is your poison apple, and which part of you persists in delivering it? Which part of you succumbs to it? Which part will pull you back from the effects of that poison?

Now we begin to see how any single person may manifest a countless number of archetypal energies. Now we begin to see how self-inquiry coupled with story may lead to consciousness and how that, in turn, may give us a wider array of choices about how to act. 

Now we begin to see what purpose the Old Stories may serve in psychotherapy. 

Seeing Ourselves in the Old Stories

Through story we learn who we are.

Stories first remind us that we’re not alone, that neither our anguish nor our triumph isolates us, that the full spectrum of feeling is, in fact, a key legacy of being deeply, fully human. We recognize ourselves in the longings and the foibles of our ancestors' stories – for example in the Ugly Duckling who longed so hard to fit in that he almost lost sight of his true self, or in Rapunzel’s father, who made a deal with the dark side to avoid being punished – only to subject himself to greater punishment in the end. Stories are revelations that others have confronted and survived such terror and awe as our own.

Stories also remind us of truths we’ve lost, re-inviting us back into awareness. We learn to trust our instincts through the dark wilds of the psyche, to sort through the daily noise to get at the things that really matter. We find missing parts of ourselves. With the Russian Vasalisa we rediscover our intuitive voice; with the ancient goddess Inanna we learn to sit with our pain rather than fight so hard to dispel it; with Frodo and Sam we realize the value of shedding the extraneous in order to power through what seems unbearable.

We learn we can, after all, bear the very thing that seems most unbearable.

And finally, the Old Stories evoke images that live within us as a counterbalance to the toxic personal stories we tell ourselves -- stories like “I don’t have what it takes” or “I always mess things up” or “I’m unloved and unwanted.” In fact these poison darts are the mundane starting-points, respectively, of the stories of hobbits and Hercules and Vasalisa -- all of whom came through their trials greater and more truly themselves for it.

If we let them, such characters will sit with us like strange and wise companions, little daemons that curl up in our guts, tap on our shoulders, and resound in our chests -- bidden or not -- when we need that reminder. If we listen to their stories, if we take the time to understand them, if we really make friends with them, and let them live in our psyches like enduring stories do, they’ll be there waiting when our mundane modern selves most need to feel connected, and speak truth, and summon the courage for a new way forward.