Indiana Jones and the Damsel in Distress

A couple of weeks ago, my fiance and I went to see the Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark quote-along at the Alamo Drafthouse. If you haven’t been there for a quote-along or sing-along, you should go. It’s awesome. (Free advertising, Alamo. You’re welcome.)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this particular movie, and I’ve always thought Karen Allen was the best Indiana Jones companion. A viewpoint that must be shared by enough people for her to be dug from obscurity and pushed back into a co-starring role with Harrison Ford in an ill-fated Indiana Jones sequel which will not be mentioned further here. There are no aliens in the Indiana Jones universe, and that’s all there is to say about it.

For some reason, I had never thought about Karen Allen’s character in an in-depth way before, but it must have been fresh in my mind that day. This time, as I watched the film, I realized that as cool as Marion Ravenwood is, she still falls prey to the dreaded Damsel in Distress trope time and time again.

There she is, in her bar, queen of her own world, drinking a big guy under the table. Indiana Jones walks in and she has the ace in her sleeve. She has all the power in their relationship at this moment, because she has something that he needs and she doesn’t owe him anything so it’s his job to convince her to cooperate. Good! She’s in charge of her own situation. Right up until the Nazis walk into the bar.

Then circumstances are entirely out of her control, and she’s about to be tortured by a sadistic Nazi interrogator. The Damsel in Distress fairy strikes again! Luckily, Jones, who had left the bar by this point, returns in the nick of time to save her. Good thing he has every hero’s inbuilt ability to know when the Damsel needs rescuing so that he can sweep in and take care of business.

It seems like every time Marion has the opportunity to be the resourceful and independent woman that she should be, something unexpected occurs to send her back into D in D status.

For example: When Marion and Indy are attacked while roaming the marketplace, Marion is unceremoniously tossed into a hay-filled cart by Indy. She doesn’t stay there, but decides to jump into the fray. She knocks a couple of guys out before she’s forced to hide in the most obvious place conceivable–a giant basket. Really? Is that the best you can do, Marion? I don’t think so.

Of course, she’s discovered and carried off by the villains, but not before leading Indy on a wild goose chase through the streets as she screams his name ineffectually from her basket-y prison, which, I hasten to add, would be pretty easy to topple over and escape from if she moved around a bit more.

Or what about the plane scene? As cool as it may be that she hops right in that plane and beats down a Nazi pilot, then uses the resources around her to help Indy fight off the incoming crowd of Nazis, she still gets stuck in the plane as flaming gasoline pools around it, and Indy still has to rescue her at the last minute.

Throughout the film, she’s totally damsel-ized by Jones, Belloq, Katanga, and the Nazis. They all refer to her as “the girl” and generally treat her as a possession, bandied about from possessor to possessor. Rene wants her because she’s one more thing that he would be taking from Jones. The Nazis see her first as a source of information on Jones and then as a placating gift to Belloq. Jones and Katanga fall into the trap of calling her “the girl” too, nevermind that they are trying to save her, by refraining from using her name, they remove her personhood from her. Why doesn’t she get to determine where she will go and with whom?

She’s objectified by more than just the removal of her name, but also the removal of her clothing. Belloq asks her to change into a pretty white dress– later Katanga gives her another lovely white gown. Always with the white gown; we’re not being subtle here with the color symbolism. Marion is “pure” and “innocent” in her borrowed white dresses. Her own clothing is taken from her and replaced by men, who choose to give her the type of clothing they think she should be wearing. Pants are exchanged for gauzy lace and satin dresses.

Perfect damsel-wear. Down to the pretty little high heels.

It’s not that she’s unable to help herself, clearly she has been able to take care of herself in the years after her father died, and she’s absolutely willing to jump into the fray and help Jones instead of sitting there uselessly on the sidelines. The problem is, every time she tries to help herself or Jones, it somehow backfires. What are we trying to say here? Is she inherently incapable of helping him or of taking care of herself?

Her involvement with Jones and his adventures seems to shove her into damselhood; simply the fact of her moving into his world causes her independence and individuality to fade away until she becomes a generic D in D. It’s as though the screenwriter wanted to make a brave and independent female character, but was afraid that she would not be able to fit into the type of action hero vehicle Spielberg and Lucas were creating. So her personality seems at odds with the character archetype she’s been pigeonholed into.

She strives to be the kind of character we, as the audience, imagine her to be, while still operating within the D in D box. It’s particularly unfortunate when you realize that once Marion Ravenwood’s damseled status is revealed, the most powerful female character in the Indiana Jones universe becomes Elsa Schneider the Nazi scholar from The Last Crusade.

Elsa succeeds in turning the damsel trope on its ear, as she successfully plays the damsel, all the while remaining in control of herself and the situation. She manages to fool both the Jones men and they unwittingly help her to locate the resting place of the Holy Grail. She’s beautiful, intelligent and ambitious, but unfortunately, her ambition is her downfall. Her intense desire to possess the Grail consumes her, and she’s not willing to let it go, even when faced with the choice of saving her own life versus saving the Grail.

Certainly, Elsa is the less sympathetic character between the two women, but she is definitely the most powerful female character in the Indiana Jones trilogy. (What fourth movie? There is no fourth movie. Hush.)

The biggest problem is that powerful female characters like Elsa are more often cast in the role of the villain. The immediate examples which leap to mind come, sadly, from Disney. Just about every female villain I can think of could be considered by our modern society standard a strong and independent character.

Think of Snow White’s evil stepmother, ruling a kingdom alone after Snow White’s parents have presumably died of natural causes. Sure, she’s entirely consumed with her appearance, and at first she entrusts the valuable task of killing her stepdaughter to a clearly incompetent woodsman, but at last she learns it is always best to take matters into her own hands. First things first, she transforms her physical appearance, becoming a hag. Because of course a beautiful queen cannot commit a murder. Her outside must reflect her inside. Her vanity momentarily set aside, she’s ready to make a plan of action.

Unfortunately, her method of killing Snow White is vastly different from her original plan of having the woodsman cut out her heart. The queen won’t be that gruesome, instead choosing to poison her– traditionally poison is a woman’s weapon. It’s sly and passive, requiring more cleverness than brute strength.

So, she’s not too badass; just badass enough for a 1937 Disney movie. And let’s not forget that she is chased down by a bunch of men, who, I must add, do not cause her death. In her efforts to gain the advantage over them, she climbs to higher ground, and tries to crush her pursuers with a boulder, but is foiled by an act of God when lightning strikes the ground she’s standing on, and she falls to her death.

No one is directly responsible for her death–except possibly her. Just like Elsa, the wicked queen’s own desires and ambitions are the cause of her demise. Interesting message we’re sending here, guys.

Or what about Cruella De Vil? She’s in charge of 2 whole henchmen and a massively disorganized plan to make a dogskin coat, but even so, she’s the boss. Jasper and Horace may not respect her at all, but they grudgingly follow most of her orders. Sadly, she succumbs to hysterical madness, yet another common downside to female villainy.

Dare I mention Maleficent? Or what about Mother Gothel? Or Lady Tremaine? Or even Ursula the Sea Witch? All of these characters are independent and clever, relying on their own wits and abilities to defeat the patriarchy around them and make a living on their own, without any man to stand behind. They are all eventually defeated, though, because the heroine is sweet, kind, and innocent enough to get a man to rescue her, reestablishing the status quo.

In fact, the only non-villainous female Disney characters that immediately leap to mind as strong characters who successfully win on their own wits and abilities are Mulan and the Frozen princesses. Frozen has done a particularly good job in escaping the damsel in distress trope, but that’s a post for another day.

Returning to our original Indiana Jones topic, I’m not sure that our current action movies have actually evolved beyond this, to be honest, and I don’t really know what to make of this. It’s disappointing, for sure, but Hollywood seems to be slowly moving away from the Damsel in Distress. And when I say slow, I mean at an evolutionary pace. Like how long did it take for the T-rex to become a chicken?

Yeah, that slow.

I think we may be able to help the process along a bit, but in order for that to happen, we have to start talking more about the problem, demanding a change in our movie fare. And we have started doing that– let’s keep talking.