The origins of damseling are biologically-based and are as old as the human race. Technically speaking, the behaviour we refer to as damseling refers to a human being who announces its vulnerability to others – to husband, family, friend, stranger or to one’s tribe.
The announcement of vulnerability stimulates a neurological system in the brain designed to provoke reflexes of protection, caretaking and nurturance of vulnerable children and infants. However, the same neurological system can be provoked by adults who find themselves in a vulnerable situation, or by adults feigning vulnerability in order to acquire resources of protection, provision, and especially, comfort. While such vulnerability can be displayed by any human, whether a child or adult of either sex, when we use the word damseling it refers especially to adult women who engage in theatrical versions of these behaviours.
The word “damsel” derives from the French demoiselle, meaning “young lady”, and the term “damsel in distress” in turn is a translation of the French demoiselle en détresse. The behaviour of the damsel in distress; her screams, her fear, her appeals for relief in the face of immanent danger, are captured in the words of Julia Kristeva who says of life in the Middle Ages, “Roles were assigned to woman and man: suzerain and vassal, the lady offering up a ‘distress’ and the man offering a ‘service.’ “
Ancient mythologies around the world have captured the theme of damseling, and also the ‘parental brain’ state of the heroes who set out to rescue vulnerable maidens. While these tales are numerous, the practice of damseling did not become the centrepiece of any culture until a catering to women’s vulnerability was codified as a social expectation for men in the Middle Ages – a codification whereby men were asked to specialize as servicing agents in the role of alleviating women’s distresses. Giving birth to this idea, chivalry, courtly love, and a new sexual relations contract coalesced that placed women’s safety and comfort at the top of the hierarchy of social customs.
This gendered social development is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the “Enterprise of the Green Shield with the White Lady” a chivalric order founded by French knight and military leader Jean Le Maingre and twelve knights in 1399, committing themselves for the duration of five years to the protecting of all damsels in distress:
Inspired by the ideal of courtly love, the stated purpose of the order was to guard and defend the honor, estate, goods, reputation, fame and praise of all ladies, including widows.
According to his Livre des faits, in 1399 Jean Le Maingre, tired of receiving complaints from ladies, maidens, and widows oppressed by powerful men bent on depriving them of the lands and honours, and finding no knight of squire willing to defend their just cause, out of compassion and charity founded an order of twelve knights sworn to carry “a shield of gold enamelled with green and a white lady inside” (une targe d’or esmaillé de verd & tout une dame blanche dedans). The twelve knights, after swearing this oath, affirmed a long letter explaining their purpose and disseminated it widely in France and beyond her borders.
The letter explained that any lady young or old finding herself the victim of injustice could petition one or more or the knights of the ‘Enterprise of the Green Shield with the White Lady’ for redress and that knight would respond promptly and leave whatever other task he was performing to fight the lady’s oppressor personally.
During this period, men saving damsels was referred to euphemistically as love service, which saw male lovers referred to as homo ligius (the woman’s liegeman, or ‘my man’) who pledged honor, and servitium (service) to the lady via a posture of feudal homage. This growth of gynocentric specialization would later allow Modesta Pozzo to write the following:
“Don’t we see that men’s rightful task is to go out to work and wear themselves out trying to accumulate wealth, as though they were our factors or stewards, so that we can remain at home like the lady of the house directing their work and enjoying the profit of their labors? That, if you like, is the reason why men are naturally stronger and more robust than us—they need to be, so they can put up with the hard labor they must endure in our service.” (Pozzo – 1590 AD)
Such is the social ascendency of women and their ever-increasing cries of distress. Today we have a different dilemma in that damseling has evolved into a victim cult extending well beyond women. The damseling attitude now blankets much of the world with aggressive demands for redress, with social movements arising from the trope that are fomenting violence and decay within human societies. Exploiting primal reflexes, particularly those designed for parenting vulnerable juveniles, has become a runaway train with little to stop it. We can only hope that the current destruction will serve as the moment of reflection and restraint toward the damsel’s demands.
Two Modes of Damseling
E.B. Bax outlined two forms of damseling, one appearing as “simple weakness,” and the other as “aggressive weakness.” In his view simple weakness deserves consideration on its merits, whereas aggressive weakness deserves no assistance.
“For modern Feminists of the sentimental school, the distinction is altogether lost sight of between weakness as such and aggressive weakness. Now I submit there is a very considerable difference between what is due to weakness that is harmless and unprovocative, and weakness that is aggressive, still more when this aggressive weakness presumes on itself as weakness, and on the consideration that might be extended to it, in order to become tyrannical and oppressive. Weakness as such assuredly deserves all consideration, but aggressive weakness deserves none save to be crushed beneath the iron heel of strength.
Woman at the present day has been encouraged by a Feminist public opinion to become meanly aggressive under the protection of her weakness. She has been encouraged to forge her gift of weakness into a weapon of tyranny against man, unwitting that in so doing she has deprived her weakness of all just claim to consideration or even to toleration.” Chapter 5: The “Chivalry” Fake, in The Fraud of Feminism (1913)
Whether real or purely fabricated, these displays of vulnerability represent the two main faces or modes of enacting the damsel-in-distress archetype. Both begin their display with an announcement of vulnerability and powerlessness, but their ways of enlisting assistance differ considerably. The simple damsel invites assistance by displaying utter helplessness, imparting a sense of inadequacy, impotence and a complete lack of agency to deal with the situation responsible for her distress. The aggressive damsel, on the other hand, angrily denounces the forces assailing her, and demands redress with bitter and vindictive calls for the world to exact revenge on her behalf.
Unlike the simple damsel, the aggressive damsel feels unable to attract chivalric reinforcements via the simple act of broadcasting her helplessness. Thus, she loudly seeks the attention of men and governments, demanding they provide chivalric redress for whatever ‘distress’ is assailing her. This kind of damsel relies particularly on governments to address her grievances, and she is likely the kind of woman that John Stuart Mill, an advocate of feminism, had in mind when he wrote the following;
“From the moral influence exercised by women arose the spirit of chivalry … a special submission and worship directed towards women, who were distinguished from the other defenceless classes by the high rewards which they had it in their power voluntarily to bestow on those who endeavoured to earn their favour, instead of extorting their subjection.
Chivalry left without legal check all those forms of wrong which reigned unpunished throughout society; it only encouraged a few to do right in preference to wrong, by the direction it gave to the instruments of praise and admiration. But the real dependence of morality must always be upon its penal sanctions – its power to deter from evil… The beauties and graces of the chivalrous character are still what they were, but the rights of the weak, and the general comfort of human life, now rest on a far surer and steadier support.” [John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women 1869]
Many readers will recognise Bax’s simple weakness in the behaviour of traditional gynocentric women, and likewise will recognize aggressive weakness in the behaviours of feminist women. However, contrary to Bax’s trusting view of non-aggressive displays of weakness, readers might recognize that these too can amount to manufactured displays of weakness every bit as manipulative and undeserving of assistance as that of aggressive weakness.
To labor this theme a little further, we also find these two modes of enacting the damsel within classical mythology, long before our modern world learned to exploit the victim routine for personal advancement. The two goddesses who best represent these positions are Persephone, the simple damsel who was abducted and victimised by Hades without ever showing personal agency of her own, and yet her helplessness alone provoked widespread efforts to save her, and secondly the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus who was forever seething in a sense of victimhood and grievance, while seeking cosmic vengeance toward those who wronged her. For more on these classical archetypes I recommend the YouTube channel of Greta Aurora who has made a series of videos exploring the victim complexes of these goddesses, along with explorations of many other archetypal figures.
Damseling in the Political Sphere
In 2019 a study was carried out in the Council of the European Union1 to assess how gender roles might affect the behavior of diplomats within the context of international negotiations. The study discovered that damseling by women provided an advantage in the political realm because the male targets reacted with displays chivalric deference to whatever bargaining requests were sought by female diplomats. The study concluded as follows:
In a survey experiment in the Council of the European Union, we find that female representatives behaving stereotypically weak and vulnerable may trigger a chivalry reaction among male representatives, increasing the likelihood that the men will agree to support a bargaining proposal from the women.
Many of the female diplomats working within the Council of The European Union would be quick to state their feminist credentials, including a belief in the strength, independence and competence of women in positions of power. Nevertheless when working in the political negotiating field many of these women are quick to fall back on the medieval practice of damseling, with advantageous outcomes.
The following video by Janice Fiamengo provides further evidence of damseling as it appears in the political sphere today.
Suffice to say that damseling remains with us and indeed appears to be growing stronger with every new year of feminist influence. This fact has not been lost on feminists themselves, many of whom have cited the victim complex that sits at the core of feminist thought, and of the wider society it has influenced.
Damseling and Feminism
Most observers today, including feminist observers like Christina Hoff-Sommers, Camille Paglia, Rene Denfeld, Katie Roiphe and others agree that feminism comes close, if not all the way, to being a cult of victimhood.
The phenomenon has variously been referred to as grievance feminism, victim feminism, safe space feminism, and even fainting-couch feminism – with Christina Hoff-Sommers portraying its mythos as “a battle between fragile maidens and evil predators.” 2
Feminist icon Naomi Wolf tells that victim feminism evolved out of “old habits of ladylike behavior that were cloaked in the guise of radicalism,” 2 and laments that a substantial segment of modern feminism is devoted to its cause.
Denfeld writes that current feminists “promote a new status for women: that of the victim,” and adds:
“This is victim mythology. From rape redefinitions to feminist theory on the “patriarchy,” victimization has become the subtext of the movement, the moral to be found in every feminist story. Together these stories form a feminist mythology in which a singular female subject is created: woman as a helpless, violated, and oppressed victim. Victim mythology says that men will always be predators and women will always be their prey. It is a small place to live, a place that tells women that there is really no way out.
“Like other mythologies, victim mythology reduces the complexity of human interaction to grossly oversimplified mythical tales, a one-note song, where the message of the story becomes so important that fiction not only triumphs over fact but the realities of women’s experiences are dismissed and derided when they conflict with the accepted female image.4
While Denfeld does a good job of describing feminism’s victim mentality, she labors under a myth of her own by characterizing it as a “new” fetish among feminists. Anyone reading through the history of feminist literature can see it appealed to by literally every feminist writer.
In all of these accounts the behavior being described is damseling, a practice feminists have been at the forefront of preserving from the medieval canon. Evoked in conjunction with claims of male brutality, rapiness, depravity and insensitivity, the ultimate purpose of damseling is to draw chivalric responses from men, a routine Wolf makes clear in her remark that “victim feminism casts women as sexually pure and mystically nurturing, and stresses the evil done to these ‘good’ women as a way to petition for their rights.”3
A famous example of feminist damseling, both literal and figurative, is Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian is known for raising concerns that video-games are misogynistic – like most everything else found in the feminist worldview. Her primary concern was that female game characters are often portrayed as damsels-in-distress saved by male heroes, which promotes, she says, sexual objectification and a range of other problems. To address that issue in video games she moved to launch a study project to raise awareness.
Sarkeesian established a fundraiser for $6,000.00 for her project, but after receiving some initial trolling by trolls on social media she damseled herself to potential donors by saying she was under grave threat, swooning with such finesse that she was showered with 158K in donations from fellow feminists and white knights. Over a thousand people donated after hearing of her “plight.”
With that financial success, Sarkeesian subsequently replayed the scenario over and again particularly in the context of further fundraising efforts and public speaking; swooning about online attacks directed against her or over female gamers enduring abject sexism, female video-game characters being cast in degrading and/or humiliating roles, and about young impressionable girls being robbed of agency after being subjected to the damsel trope in games.
Sarkeesian’s case is particularly poignant because, from the many subjects she could have highlighted to damsel herself for attention, she chose to damsel herself over the very existence of damsels. This demonstrates that even when disavowing the medieval pageant of damsels in distress, feminists continue to enact it even while obfuscating their complicity in the tradition.
Feminism would have died out long ago if it were not for the power of this ancient ruse, and whilst damseling continues to draw rewards from a public primed to cater to it, the planet will increasingly come to resemble a tower full of imprisoned, vulnerable Disney Princesses.
 Gender Stereotyping and Chivalry in International Negotiations: A Survey Experiment in the Council of the European Union
 Christina Hoff-Sommers, How fainting couch feminism threatens freedom, American Enterprise Institute 2015
 Naomi Wolf, Fire With Fire: New Female Power, 1993
 Rene Denfeld, The New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order, 1995
*Note. Part of the Damseling and Feminism section was previously published at Gynocentrism.com