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One of the oldest themes in literature and drama is the damsel in distress, in which a young and presumably innocent woman is held captive against her will by an evildoer, or cannot free herself from a curse or some other psychological captivity. The only person capable of rescuing the damsel is an altruistic hero figure, typically a knight in shining armor in Medieval literature. The roots of the archetype, however, can be traced back as far as Greek tragedies involving young female mortals and their harrowing encounters with gods and demigods.
Although the "damsel" in damsel in distress may sound Germanic in origin, it is actually a corruption of the French word demoiselle suggesting a delicate young woman. In a literary context, a damsel would often be interpreted as a naive woman-child with few natural survival instincts or real world experience, perhaps a sheltered member of a royal family or an untraveled country maiden. A girl such as Rapunzel, however, might use her wiles to assist her eventual rescuer or lull her captor into a false sense of security.
One of the essential parts of the scenario is the heroic effort to rescue her. In many tales of damsels in distress, several would-be rescuers fail because they have ulterior motives of sexual conquest or otherwise lack the moral fortitude of a true knight in shining armor. The moral of many of these stories is not strictly about the rescuing process, but the altruistic reasons for the rescue. Evil must be defeated before the damsel can be released from its grip, and only the most heroic and purest of heart would have the power to succeed.
The concept of a dependent and helpless female relying on the largess of a dominant or heroic male figure has become more controversial in recent times. Many women now consider the "damsel in distress" dynamic between men and women to be a polarizing remnant of a male-dominated society. As long as men continue to view women as submissive creatures in constant need of rescue and protection, true equality between the sexes may be a difficult thing to achieve. Perpetuating the classic theme may work well in romance novels and movies, but it may not work as well in the real world.