Amy Cooper Played the Damsel in Distress. The Troubling History of this TropeRoundup
tags: colonialism, racism, Native American history, captivity narratives
Mia Brett is a PhD candidate in American legal history at SUNY Stony Brook and cofounder of feminist think tank All Women's Progress.
Though built on white privilege, the protection offered to white women against other groups actually serves anti-feminist goals of infantilizing women and using their safety as justification to enact bigoted violence. In cases where women’s safety cannot be easily weaponized against a black, immigrant or trans person, the figure of the damsel in distress has evoked little societal response, even if a woman is in genuine danger.
The white “damsel in distress” trope has a deadly history in the United States. It has been used to justify racist violence since the formation of colonies in the 17th century when captivity narratives became popular. Captivity narratives exaggerated and fictionalized the details of real kidnappings by Native American groups to make the experience seem more extreme.
One of the most famous and earliest captivity narratives published in the British North American colonies was “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” published six years after Rowlandson had been captured with her children during King Philip’s War in 1676 and held for 11 weeks. Her book was so popular it went through four printings.
Rowlandson’s story captivated the public because it indulged people’s curiosity about Native Americans while reinforcing bigotry and using Christian imagery to describe the ordeal. Captivity narratives like Rowlandson’s provided a justification for violence against Native Americans. The fear that indigenous people would steal wives and daughters away in the middle of the night and do terrible things to them became the grounds for waging war and displacing them from their lands.
Captivity narratives were often written by white women but edited for publication by men. Editors turned the women’s stories into useful propaganda to justify religious superiority, violence against tribes and arguing for more government protection for frontier settlements. The concern over white women’s safety was used to cover the greed for more land. Fears about “barbaric” Native Americans traveled as the frontier moved westward.
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