The Dilemma of the Self-Rescuing Princess

Many of our favorite stories revolve around a woman being rescued by a man. Luke liberates Princess Leia from the Death Star. Prince Phillip awakens Princess Aurora. Link rescues Princess Zelda from … well, lots of stuff.

We love these stories. Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty is one of my all-time favorite movies, although if I were writing that story today,  Aurora would probably bust out a crossbow and finish Maleficent herself.

Because one of the downsides to being egalitarian is that indulging in “strong male rescues weak female” stories betrays the principle of equality.

I’ve been wrestling with this issue lately not because of my stories — plenty of strong folks of both genders getting rescued there.

These days, it’s real life I desire rescue from. There. I said it. I want to be rescued. But I know that what’s best for me is to be strong enough to not need rescuing.

That’s really, really hard these days, for a lot of reasons.

So all that emotional baggage was piled up on me when this card hit my Facebook feed:

You don't need princes

It makes a nice pairing with this one, which I’ve loved for a long time:

The problem is, I don’t feel like that sword-bearing queen these days. I barely pass as a self-rescuing princess. I feel very much like boring old floor-scrubbing Cinderella, who would really love to have a prince — I’d settle for a mere knight — ride in and save the day.

OK, anyone who knows me knows I haven’t scrubbed a floor in years. That’s not the point.


Courtesy ThinkGeek.com

The point is, I’m living with the cognitive dissonance of believing wholeheartedly that everyone is created equally in the image of God, and that in Christ there is no male and female, while simultaneously wishing a big strong hero would show up and relieve me of my burdens.

Yes, I know I have a King who does just that.

But you know something? The King, like a good parent who both loves you and makes you crazy, has a way of answering requests for help with pithy little sayings like “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Thanks a lot, Your Majesty.

I shared a little of this on Facebook, and Katherine Coble gave me validation and then really cleared things up:

I totally get both the idea that we don’t need to be rescued and the desire we have to be rescued.

You know what? It isn’t WRONG to want to be rescued. It’s part of who some people are. For me the key was breaking it down like this:

It’s OK to WANT to be rescued.

It’s harmful to your well-being to EXPECT to be rescued.

—Katherine Coble

Katherine also pointed out that Gaiman was raised in Scientology, which “sells the premise that one is responsible for rescuing oneself.…Christianity is, on the other hand, built upon the premise that we accept rescue. Accepting rescue is humility, not weakness.”

“No human will ever entirely rescue you, but it is perfectly acceptable to look for a human who will offer you comfort, companionship, support,” Katherine added. “Those things give you the courage to keep rescuing yourself.”

She is too right. As I pondered the matter, I realized that perhaps instead of Gaiman, the pop culture icon I needed to quote was Bono, who sang the lyric, “We get to carry each other.”


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

15 comments on “The Dilemma of the Self-Rescuing Princess

  1. I struggled with this in my own work of fiction … in the narrative, the heroine saves herself in the first step, but the hero comes along shortly thereafter (ten minutes) and helps the rest of the way.

    Was I writing about a rescued princess, and how did I reconcile this with my Christian and Feminist ideology?

    I looked to my own life and realized: I’d been my own self-rescuing princess to the extreme. I’d lived an independent, self-supporting lifestyle for quite some time. But I was lonely. Did I want to be rescued, or did I simply need some help?

    In the narrative, and in my life, and even in my feminist/Christian journey, I realized that it’s okay to want to share the burden of our problems and troubles. I now have a partner – he rescues me sometimes, I rescue him.

    I realized that it’s the narrative of the helpless princess that needs so much correction, but not necessarily of the self-sufficient princess whose problems may exceed the capacity of any single human being – prince or princess.

    I made that a theme in the narrative – the hero is helping the heroine to save herself, and she’s helping him love himself. As their stories unfold, they will help each other, rescue each other, fight for each other. There will be no romantic love – their bond will be like a family.

    A lone self-rescuing princess – though admirable in many stories – wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to talk about people helping each other across gender lines, sharing their burdens, rescuing each other.

    When I was able to see that story – I let go of any guilt for wanting to be rescued.

    I hope that helps.

  2. Someone made the point to me quite forcefully when I was a child: “Never be too proud or independent to gracefully accept the help you actually need.”

    I’m grateful to this day for this instruction, and for learning that it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to say, “Yes, please help me,” and “Thank you” when there are situations where we can’t do it on our own.

  3. Well, I was still an impoverished peasant girl in stained rags who needed the Son of the Most High King to come die for me, clothe me in a white wedding gown, and make me a princess. And I still know, some day, my Prince of Peace will come again.

  4. Of course, I do have novel hero who wants very badly to be the heroine’s hero in the “comes to her rescue” sense and has the problem of he is an out-of-shape, disarmed Earther civilian and she is fit, Martian royalty, has military training, and has a gun. She’s also not dumb enough to get herself stranded anywhere and need a ride, either, so they have to get a lot more creative if he wants to ever fulfill his dream.

  5. Gaiman’s criticism is a dissonate absolute. I can’t speak to a woman’s desire to be rescued/rescue herself, but in our writing world we need, if this doesn’t sound too Lucasian (the True God forbid), balance. In the 50s and 60s, fantasy and esp sword and sorcery yarns were the same. Every female was either a princess/queen needing rescuing, a nubile slave girl or a woman warrior who could slaughter 10,000 armored knights with her little finger and never get cut. I exaggerate, but not by much! Then with the “culture” shift we see a swing back the other way to the woman who can do it all and doesn’t need anyone, especially one of those menpigs. Again I exaggerate for effect, but not by much. I love your allusion to Jesus as the King who will rescue you, who does rescue you, and how we all need that regardless of age or gender. In our stories, let’s strike a balance. Some female characters will need protecting, as does my Latka, who needs her father’s sword to keep her safe. Then there’s Koromai, who could turn Conan into filet de Cimmerian six or seven times before he could even get his sword out of the sheath. Balance. I think of David’s wife Abigail taken captive. If any woman needed rescuing it was her, and her husband saved her. I also think of Esther, who said “I will go to the king and if I perish, I perish.” She did not know if the man she married would rescue her or behead her for the effrontery of coming to court unsummoned. But both of these women trusted God. Both were real people. And ultimately it was God who did rescue them both. Hang in there, sister.

    • Thank you, Harold.

      You’re definitely right about the two storytelling extremes. The woman who don’t need nobody is just as unrealistic as the man who don’t need nobody. Because we are all desperately in need.

      I think the thing that bothers me about Gaiman’s dictum is not only that it takes a bunch of great stories and implies that they are rubbish, but mostly that it takes a storytelling trope (hero rescues heroine) and puts it off the table. I’ve said before, anything that happens in real life is fair game for fiction, and in real life guys do rescue gals. And the other way ’round.

      • “I don’t like it, therefore no one should” is a dictum I see a lot, inside Christian circles and outside it, like Gaiman’s remark. We all have our likes and dislikes, but that does not codify them to be imposed on others, I for one have never understood nor will I ever understand the stranglehold sports has on American males across the board. But that doesn’t entitle me to condemn sports just because I’d rather spend my time doing something else. I like what you say too about “takes it off the table.” A trope is a trope is a trope, it’s what we DO with them that makes the difference. And a lot of people today don’t understand what a homage is either, but that’s another rant I’ll save for later. Keep it all on the table!

  6. Wait … so, are you saying that it’s WRONG to be a damsel in distress/need rescue? Because when my husband walks through the door, and the kids are eating me alive … I’m sure not rescuing myself, if you know what I mean.

    • No, I’m not saying its wrong to actually need help, or to actually accept help. There is a mutuality of assistance that I think Gaiman misses. And I bet there are ways your husband would say you have rescued him, too. 🙂

  7. I love this post because I’m in between. I’m fiercely independent and have no problem standing up for myself. However, it’s nice having someone there beside me.
    The Biblical help-meet is a good description. When I married my husband I was so excited to turn the family finances over to him. I do most of the household chores, but he’s very helpful too. I contribute a reverse proportion with yard work, etc.
    What I really wanted was not a rescuer but a provider. My husband and I are in the same profession and despite the rhetoric, have the same earning potential. At least for this season, I want to work part-time to have more time with the kids, church, writing, and if I’m honest, time for myself. It goes beyond that too. Frugality was a trait I sought in a partner. I wanted someone who would be a good steward, and I married him.

  8. Beautiful post! I try to create characters that rescue themselves by learning something new from the hero or other rescuer, because that’s how I see my friends (like Kat!). They’re the best at putting tools in my toolbox, throwing light on my path, pointing out just the right key for a locked door. So, maybe that’s rescuing the heroine, but I don’t see it that way. You have to be open to help and suggestion to find those tools, and that takes humility.

  9. This is a beautiful article. A beautifully human article of life in a fallen world. The struggle of egalitarian versus complimentarian is real. In fact it has been tipped unevenly to one side with the world screaming that women need to be independent… woman don’t need no man to rescue her… to lead her. However, the truth is far from the present reality. After seeing all of the other species of God’s creation with their mates, Adam came to the stark realization that he was in need of someone to compliment him… he was not meant to be alone. But he needed to realize that first. God created for him someone to compliment him, to help him fulfill the purpose for which he was created. As we get further and further away from fulfilling God’s purpose for us, we become more independent. Not only independent in ourselves, but independent from God. A place that He does not want us to be. He wants us dependent on Him. The point is we all need each other. Women need men as much as men need women, but in different ways. There are two amazing books by an author named John Eldredge. The first book is “Wild at Heart” and the second is “Captivating”. I highly recommend them. They are beautiful books about the heart of a man and the heart of a woman. God’s way is always the best way.

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