Content Warning: Discussions of trauma, kidnapping, and child abuse.
Spoilers: Detailed discussion of My Hero Academia through Season 4.
It’s easy to think the best solution to any harmful trope is to avoid it altogether and, to an extent, in the short term, this is true. In the long term, however, avoiding a trope entirely can be counterproductive, creating a new harmful trope on the other side of that same coin.
In this case, trying too hard to avoid the Damsel In Distress trope can create the Strong Female Character™ trope, emphasis on the TM. Rhiannon describes this new trope as “another way for writers to avoid writing realistic women in their stories,” while BetterBeMeta on Tumblr opens our eyes to the fact that an across-the-board rejection of weakness in female characters also reeks of ableism and survivor shaming.
While strong female characters without the TM may be great, it’s possible to go too far. The fact is that devaluing characters of any gender who need help is as dehumanizing as insisting one gender cannot take care of themselves at all.
We have to talk about how we can portray disempowered characters without dehumanizing them as the Damsel In Distress trope often has. There is, after all, nothing inherently bad about a character needing help (or even with a character not needing help, as cathartic badasses do have their place). It’s only through the repetition of particular mistakes across many different fictional stories from a variety of dominant media cultures that the Damsel trope has become what it is today.
Not only has the trope disproportionately affected female characters, but also has a tendency to use captive characters as merely convenient plot devices for the benefit of another, often male, character’s development. One way captive characters can be humanized, however, is something My Hero Academia happens to do very well: taking the time to focus on how the victim is affected, allowing us to follow them on their road to recovery.
It’s a balancing act, as Shontè Daniels would say, to avoid the harmful aspects of stereotypes like the damsel trope in addition to not dehumanizing human weakness. My Hero Academia understands this as well. Even the series’ most agonizingly (or hilariously, depending on your viewpoint) clichè usage of the damsel trope—when the male protagonist, Deku, rushes in to save Uraraka during the entrance exams—was almost immediately followed up by Uraraka using her touch-based levitation “Quirk” (a superpower she was born with) to finish saving herself and save Deku.
My Hero Academia chips away at the Damsel In Distress’s core problematic aspect, the fact that the trope is gendered, even more by the more outright reversals of the trope:
- Bakugo, one of the strongest male characters in the series, has needed rescue not once but twice so far.
- Kota, a male child, needs rescue from Muscular.
- Iida needs rescue from the Hero Killer.
For an anime centered on themes of heroism, a theme that has been historically intertwined with chivalry, it’s very notable that almost every major arc revolves around rescuing a male character.
Another crucially important aspect, regardless of the damsel’s gender, is how it’s written. Reversing roles is not enough because it doesn’t address the other half of what made the damsel trope so deeply problematic in the first place.
The main criticism Mathew Stern had of the Damsel clichè is how there is often a lack of consideration for how the ordeal affects the characters and plot beyond the fact that “It’s just another dumb pretty girl getting herself in trouble and needing someone to rescue her.” Mathew Stern dubbed this the “Daphne Trap.” This is indeed a large part of what made the clichè so insidious and dehumanizing.
One way to avoid the Daphne Trap, besides ditching the repeated episodic rescue plots, is that a captive situation must have an impact on the story and its characters (like literally any other event in writing), especially the victim. For a female in our current media landscape, the gendered nature of the Damsel Trope is still somewhat problematic no matter how it’s written, but avoiding the Daphne Trap can help to sidestep the worst of the trope as well as grant a more satisfying narrative.
In My Hero Academia, the best examples of captive characters whose captivity had a meaningful impact on their character arcs and the story’s plot are Bakugo and Eri.
Bakugo Is Unironically One Of Anime’s Best Written Damsels In Distress
Even the strongest characters have moments of weakness. That’s not to say there aren’t cases where the damseling of a female character is still unrealistic or forced. Even My Hero Academia falls into the clichè of damseling a character who should’ve been able to save herself: Uraraka, a character with the power to make things weightless, appears to be trapped under rubble when Deku makes that decision to “save” her.
Yet we do have to be careful, because when criticizing clichès like this, it’s easy to also be influenced by our society’s deeply rooted attitudes of victim-blaming and toxic masculinity. (Yes, women who adopt aspects of traditionally masculine culture/expression can fall victim to the pressures of toxic masculinity as well, not just men.)
The fact that Bakugo of all people becomes believably captured and disempowered multiple times throughout the story helps break the myth that only weak people and weak characters need help or rescue. But no, that wasn’t enough; Horikoshi still felt the need to twist that knife. Bakugo’s primary internal struggle resulting from his experience is a scarred ego and false belief—reinforced by those around him (namely his own mother)—that he only got captured because he was weak.
Bakugo, the victim, blames himself and simultaneously falls deeper into his characterization other critics, including this old ComicsVerse comment, have aptly dubbed as a representation of toxic masculinity. This is appropriate for both the “macho” western version perpetuated in the superhero comics Horikoshi drew inspiration from as well as the slightly different, more traditional Japanese concept of masculinity. Bakugo himself grows to believe exactly what was just debunked for the viewers.
Beyond being a plot device for the subversion of our victim-blaming societal beliefs, the way Bakugo blames himself for All Might’s demise is reminiscent of survivor’s guilt common among trauma victims. Survivor’s guilt is most commonly understood as “the feelings of guilt for surviving when others do not,” but these feelings can also stem from guilt for what the survivor did or did not do during the event, for failing to help more than they did, or, in Bakugo’s case, for not being able to prevent it altogether.
Crucially, survivor’s guilt also does not necessarily have to stem from an event causing the loss of life. Hence, Bakugo is experiencing survivor’s guilt for failing to prevent All Might from getting hurt and having to retire. This survivor’s guilt has a profound impact on Bakugo’s character and the plot, and is even part of what leads him to discover the secret behind Deku’s status as the “chosen one.”
The effect of Bakugo’s survivor’s guilt can be seen in this particularly tense scene split between the end of episode 52 and beginning of episode 53. Bakugo’s prolonged moment of stunned silence could be initially interpreted as a reaction to Deku’s new move, but the first person he addresses after this is All Might, not Deku.
In retrospect the reason is obvious: Bakugo almost caused All Might to get hurt again.
We can go even further back to conclude Bakugo being captured by the sludge villain in episode 2 also had a significant impact on his character. After he loses to Deku in the first training exercise and realizes he could have also lost if it were a serious fight, his reaction is so extreme that it resembles a panic attack. The anime showed him shaking and hyperventilating in addition to what we heard of his erratic and racing thoughts. These are all key symptoms of a panic attack.
Later in this same episode, Bakugo vents to Deku about how weak he is but that he also wants to become stronger. This clarifies that the cause of his panic was likely his feelings of weakness and inferiority, the latter of which All Might would later say is what “exploded” when Bakugo fought Deku again after the provisional exam.
Bakugo has always had incredibly high expectations for himself, amplified by expectations placed upon him due to his strong Quirk. Even as a child he became enraged by Deku’s offer to help him stand after falling in a shallow creek, believing help from others meant they were “looking down on” him.
This extreme amount of pride would certainly have been severely scarred by an actually dangerous moment of disempowerment, such as being held hostage and nearly choked to death by the sludge villain. His intense emotional reaction to losing to Deku and having to admit there are other students in the class stronger than him (such as Todoroki) is no surprise with this knowledge in mind.
However, the fact that the sludge villain could be a significant factor in his character development is not explicitly called out until the sports festival arc. It’s Monoma (the school’s resident douchebag, of course), who brings it up in the middle of the cavalry battle. During this whole arc, the only thing that shifts Bakugo’s attention from winning the festival is Monoma who, after taking his headband, mocks him for his “fame” as the sludge villain victim.
By this point it’s reasonable to conclude that Bakugo’s experience with the sludge villain isn’t the only reason he wants to become strong, but it is still a powerful factor. Bakugo’s desire to become the strongest hero was already established before the sludge villain incident, yet the way he reacted to Monoma indicates his experience has amplified his resolve.
The way he behaves after All Might retires also shows how his preexisting resolve is being tested. This is a great example of a character who is substantially affected by a disempowering experience, but not defined by it.
Not only is the aftermath of Bakugo’s captivity naturally compelling and chips away at the Damsel Trope’s problematic core through the well-written humanization of a male victim, but the fact that so much of this wasn’t obvious until season 3 makes an ingenious statement in itself. It drives home how some of the symptoms of trauma often found in people with masculine socialization—specifically increased irritability, anger, and a need to take concrete, physical action—tend to go unnoticed.
Of course, this only amplifies the problems arising from how men tend to have a hard time asking for help and accepting help due to societal pressures on them to be “strong,” a trait that’s portrayed as one of Bakugo’s greatest weaknesses in My Hero Academia. Bakugo’s arc simultaneously outright breaks some stereotypes while also providing a candid look into why those stereotypes exist in the first place.
The delayed reaction to Bakugo’s trauma by the adults and other characters in the world of My Hero Academia is in sharp contrast to Deku and Mirio’s immediate response to Eri’s inability to smile. The importance of smiling is one of the core, arguably symbolic themes of My Hero Academia, in this case explicitly showing that trauma does not end when the traumatic event is over while also allowing us to see a gendered double-standard in action.
Not only are people more attentive to the happiness of younger little girls than older, rowdier boys, but boys and girls are raised to embody these expectations through both explicit teaching and unintentional conditioning. It is indeed similar to how Bakugo became the way he was because of the way adults treated him on account of the “heroic” Quirk he was born with (interestingly, also in the words of his own mother).
Eri, unlike Bakugo, due to her gender, age and lack of a “heroic” Quirk, was likely never taught to be aggressive or to think she needs to prove anything to anyone. Therefore Eri was more open and straightforward about her feelings than Bakugo, speeding up her healing process.
However, Eri’s socialized advantages in captivity relative to Bakugo as a victim end there.
Eri Takes A Step
Eri’s captivity itself brings a completely different but equally valid perspective compared to Bakugo’s. Her arc first focuses on the emotional strength anyone can have in the actual moments of disempowerment regardless of physical strength, and the dives headfirst into the scariest realities behind long-term abuse. Her captivity is all the more frightening because it shows that sometimes the lines between empowerment and disempowerment can become blurry.
One of Eri’s brief but defining moments is her very first appearance. Despite being desperate for help and having come so close to escaping, she immediately leaves Deku’s arms when she realizes Overhaul will attack them if she doesn’t do something. She returns to her captor in order to prevent harm to others.
Unlike Bakugo, directly fighting back isn’t an option for Eri, who must instead use her wits to survive and is often forced to make a choice between negotiation or playing along with her captor to minimize harm to both herself and others.
Most anime try to grant some agency to their damsels by having them physically fight back against their captors. Although these desperate violent struggles do happen in real life, other kinds of experiences related to the disempowerment of being trafficked or abused are often underexplored in media.
Although many of us like to imagine captive situations primarily as a sudden and violent event, it’s not so simple for the majority of survivors in real life. Many survivors, especially younger ones like Eri, are not even initially taken by force at all: they are either tricked, manipulated, sold, and/or in some cases agree to go with a trafficker under the belief that it’s better than where they were before (due to a combination of extreme poverty and manipulation or misinformation). What keeps people trapped is not just the physical restraints, violence, and threat of violence they face in captivity itself, but the fact that they may not have anywhere to go even if they do escape.
Despite everything, even captive children taken far away from home may still attempt to escape once their situation or the conditions become unbearable, as the two boys towards the end of “The Dark Side of Chocolate” documentary (linked above) demonstrate. Fighting back directly is rarely an option, though. They had to use their wits to not only escape, but also be lucky enough to find someone to help them afterwards.
This is exactly what happens with Eri.
Yet Eri is indeed young and impressionable, like many victims of abuse and trafficking. She is being emotionally manipulated, and the effects of this manipulation impact her decision making. Eri believed that she was cursed because Overhaul told her so and then took actions to reinforce that belief in her.
This is a difficult subject (understatement of the century): Eri is in a terrifying situation where even her well-meaning actions often end up playing directly into Overhaul’s hands. Despite this, the anime still shows her trying to act within her limited agency and twisted emotional state. Even knowing Overhaul would stop at nothing to get her back, she tries to escape and seek out the help of others. Eri even tries to negotiate in captivity by demanding that Overhaul heal the people who got hurt trying to save her in exchange for her compliance.
Ultimately, Eri makes the choice to jump into Deku’s arms. She does this because she realizes Overhaul will not respect her wish for him to heal the heroes, and that people will keep getting hurt until she lets herself be saved. Eri overcomes Overhaul’s manipulation right when it counted.
Reclaiming a Trope
Not only do Bakugo and Eri’s captivity have a profound impact on their characters, but how the characters are impacted contains a surprising amount of inspiration from real-world realities. There is a good reason for this. As this Trope Talks video illustrates, one way to avoid the pitfalls of common fictional archetypes, including the damsel in distress, is to simply draw inspiration from reality. The way Eri attempted to navigate her capture, as well as the manifestation of her and Bakugo’s subsequent trauma, are all examples of this in play.
While Bakugo’s story is a well-written account of short-term captivity trauma for someone from a relatively privileged background, Eri could be read as a trafficking/abuse victim from a relatively less privileged background. These are two very different takes on captivity narratives.
Eri’s story may have started out like the cookie-cutter version of the damsel in distress trope, where rescuing her is the beginning, middle, and end of her involvement in the story, serving to primarily benefit another character’s arc. The somewhat repetitive “If I can’t save one girl in front of me” sentiment sprinkled through the Overhaul arc cemented this impression.
The third phase of the Damsel Trope’s usual structure, however, gets subverted when we and Deku learn that “saving people with a smile” goes beyond the act itself. Episode 84 makes a point to show that Deku’s development and motivation was influenced by all of his classmates, not just Eri, while Eri’s character arc is ultimately treated as her story rather than as part of another character’s. Deku’s actions to help Eri are, structurally and literally, more for the benefit of her character arc than his.
The overall structure of Eri’s story so far is nuanced enough to have multiple interpretations, positive and negative, but I think the nuance in itself is a step forward. Nuance is necessary to avoid the creation of more one-dimensional tropes, after all.
We can reclaim the Damsel trope in a way that neither looks down on human weakness nor dehumanizes women by using them as plot devices to service another character’s development. My Hero Academia shows us two different versions of the Damsel trope in the form of Bakugo and Eri, but there are also plenty of other ways to tell captivity narratives without falling into harmful cliches.
Hopefully more stories will allow their male characters to need rescue as much as the female characters and delve deeper into ideas and themes about disempowerment and trauma in sympathetic ways.