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.