Ha Won: The Distressed Damsel

Ha Won Promo poster

All right, maknae here. Please take care of me and don’t mock me too ruthlessly for the following confession: Once upon a time, I wrote an academic paper defending Bella Swan from Twilight as a strong character. True story! And I still stand by that paper because I think that the character of the distressed damsel has gotten picked on long enough.

distressed Meg

Please note, I said distressed damsel, NOT damsel in distress. There’s a huge difference, one that I’d like to demonstrate using Ha Won and Hye Ji from Cinderella and Four Knights.

(BTW, SPOILERS. SO. MANY. SPOILERS. You have been warned.)

Cinderella and Four Knights

There are several components that go into a romance. For example, there is maternal feminism. You know that need for a man and a woman to overcome the odds and come together, often in marriage, to be a satisfying conclusion to a romance? That’s encapsulated in the maternal feminism movement. Maternal feminism is about equally matched women and men working together to improve their lives and the lives of those around them, creating an ideal relationship. Thus we have timeless stories, like those by Jane Austen, and the satisfaction of seeing characters like Mr. Darcy and Lizzy Bennett overcoming the social and economic odds to not only fall in love, but get married. This lecture is a great window into maternal feminism.

 

Wonder Woman (2017)
Gal Gadot

In a damsel story, you usually won’t find a strong, capable woman who has the knowledge, power, and resources to resolve the situation on her own. I love female characters who have everything they need to save themselves–and DO. I like them a lot. But I’m not talking about them because not all women can *be* them. Instead, we usually have one of the two damsels. More about them in a minute.

 

When dealing with a damsel, you will often find an alphahole (from Ilona Andrews’ brilliant blog post). A damaged hero, the modern alphahole knows he’s not necessarily a good guy. His primary character trait is competence, and he excels in his career. He usually isn’t emotionally attached to many people, but is extraordinarily loyal to those whom he considers family. Much like Lord Byron, the alphahole indulges in angst occasionally.

Our dear Ji Woon from Cinderella and Four Knights exhibits many alphahole tendencies, but he is also a caretaker, driven by those tendencies to protect those he’s loyal to.

 

NOW we get to the damsels. First the damsel in distress, as defined by me, is a main character who is confronted by a conflict that she *could* take on but that she chooses not to handle, instead waiting for a stronger, more knowledgeable character to swoop in and save her.

Ji Woo Hye Ji

Oh, there you are, Hye Ji. I’ve talked to a few people who were driven absolutely crazy by Hye Ji, and I’m willing to bet this is why. When confronted with conflict, Hye Ji either ignored it (for instance, when she pulled out all the “past due” bills from the mailbox, shrugged, and PUT THEM BACK) or waited for someone to rescue her (Ji Woon, usually).

I was highly disappointed by Hye Ji’s character, because in one of her early scenes, she was intelligently haggling for a piece of material she wanted in a length that she could afford. She took advantage of the situation in front of her and made it happen. That competent Hye Ji disappeared and never came back. Had she remained, Cinderella and Four Knights could have been so much richer. *insert dramatic sigh here*

 

On the other hand, we have the distressed damsel, again defined by me as a main character who is confronted by a conflict that is *out* of her control, does her best with the power, knowledge, and resources available to her, often to the point of self-sacrifice, and are saved by a stronger, more knowledgeable character.

Ha Won don't wait around
Ha Won! Oh, I love this child. Virtually penniless because of her stepmother’s selfishness, nevertheless, Ha Won got out there and made things happen for herself. She kept her grades up, took on multiple part-time jobs to save for college, and defended herself ably against the thugs in her life. It was only after she had gotten tangled up with the Chairman and his grandsons that she needed help. Even then, she did what she could on her own before allowing them to help her.

cute Seo Woo

(Seo Woo was an adorable puppy and often helped Ha Won out, but as he was the second lead, he’s not a part of this discussion. Which is too bad, because I love his character SO MUCH.)

 

A lot of so-called “damsels in distress” actually fall into the distressed damsel category. They are characters who are thrown into situations where they lack knowledge, power, or resources. However, when faced with the inevitable terrible choices forced on them by the antagonists, they do the best they can, even if it means a sacrifice of self or of something they love. They are often saved by a protector, usually an alphahole who has found a new side to himself after encountering the distressed damsel and seeing the world and his situation through new eyes.

It’s important to note that the alphahole/protector chooses to protect the distressed damsel because they have the potential for an ideal relationship, a relationship of equals in which both parties treat each other with respect. This ideal relationship will often cross a kind of boundary that would normally be an impediment to the relationship, but the distressed damsel and the alphahole will set aside their prejudices to make this match of equals work. 
Ji Woo Ha Won

 

So my plea to you, dear reader, is this: Before you dismiss a female character as weak, take a look at her circumstances. Does she have the knowledge, the power, and the resources to improve her situation? And is she taking steps to do so? If not, she’s a damsel in distress and really deserves whatever happens to her. But if SO, give her a little credit and see what happens when she does acquire those things. I’ll bet you that she will wrestle the circumstances until they suit her, and you’ll be cheering her on. I will be, for sure.

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16 thoughts on “Ha Won: The Distressed Damsel

  1. I love your well-constructed argument. You are right. I tend to like distressed damsels, but the whiny damsels-in-distress drive me bonkers! I never really though about WHY. Thanks!

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  2. This does make me see things a little differently.

    My problem is when almost all women are made to look like they naturally don’t have whatever they need to overcome the distress by themselves. If the damsel is always put in a situation that no matter how hard she tries she can’t overcome it unless the man steps in then that perpetuates the idea that women need men to succeed. I usually do not hate distressed damsels but I do hate that writers continue to put them in those situations without the tools they need to save themselves. Or save the guy in other ways than cracking through his hard outer shell and making him feel love.

    That all being said, I found this article a wonderful way to look at heroines and it will probably help me the next time I’m annoyed with a female character.

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    • Your comment gave me a lot to think about, especially when it comes to story cycles, and I’ll probably have a very complete answer for you in a future blog post. I would like to point out that from a maternal feminist viewpoint, it’s not that a woman needs a man to save her, but that *together* they are better and can overcome the circumstances in front of them.

      And I’m glad I could provide a different perspective!

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      • I can agree with the together thing as long as the writer portrays them as equally capable of overcoming the obstacle.

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  3. It might work better in this drama if she didn’t have 5 men taking care of her. Not only is she weak, but she allows herself to be manipulated. I don’t like how kdramas sometimes equate poverty with a lack of intelligence. She could be resourceful enough to take care of herself all her life and never become part of the rich crowd, but we’re not allowed to have that.

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  4. I can’t vouch for Cinderella and Four Knights since I don’t know much about the series, but you raise a good point. Personally, I think we all have a different understand of what a strong female character is. I’ve seen some lists of strong female characters in dramas and feel they should be replaced with entirely different characters. Probably because we all see these characters differently.

    At the same time, I also think a character with flaws shouldn’t immediately be dismissed as a weak character or a damsel in distress. As long as the character has other strengths that balance out her weaknesses, I’m fine if the female lead is poor or perhaps less educated (but I do mean real strengths, not simply things like kindness and good heart). And I love when such a character grows and becomes stronger over the course of the series. That being said, some dramas sure love to emphasize how much more inferior the female lead is to the male lead, in terms of looks, intelligence, wealth or whatever. I find it pretty insulting, especially in this day and age.

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    • I agree that we do all perceive characters differently — the way we see a story will always be shaped by our experiences and our worldviews. And yes, flawed characters aren’t necessarily weak or damsels in distress. My main point with Hye Ji, though, is that she CHOSE to ignore something vital, rather than asking questions and figuring it out. I would have *loved* to see her grow and become stronger, like you said. 😀 I also don’t think that being kind or having a good heart should be written off as a strength — seeing the good in someone can become a very powerful catalyst for change.

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  5. Great post! I agree with you and like the term “distressed damsel” hehe. Hye-Ji did drive my nuts also, lol. And the fact that she was a damsel in distress was probably why. That and her very emotionless acting.

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