A piercing scream alerts the hero to where his beloved has been taken to, her life in the hands of his enemy. It's a familiar scene that could come from any number of summer blockbusters that may or may not have a superhero in it, but the choice is often between saving the many or choosing the woman he loves. Mary Jane Watson has been kidnapped more times than I care to count in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, not to mention the original source material. The same goes for Gwen Stacy as Peter Parker’s other plucky love interest. Sure, these women are feisty but they still end up hanging off the side of a building or flung into thin air waiting to be saved.
The damsel-in-distress fulfills her role when she is rescued. The superhero saves the world and those closest to him. Stakes are heightened when the person in danger is the object of affection. And this is exactly what these characters become when they service the plot in this way: an object. By placing her in peril it also isolates him. How can the hero have a personal relationship if this is the result? This conflict presents itself time and time again in the many Spider-Man adaptations. If Peter reveals who he is, then it will put Mary Jane or Gwen in harm's way. A life alone is better than the guilt of killing your crush. It is a tried and tested formula that dates back to storytelling in Greek mythology. It is the trope that cannot be killed.
Except maybe it can.
Spoilers ahead for Spider-Man: Far From Home and Stranger Things Season 3.
In Spider-Man: Far From Home it is old weapons versus new as she grabs a mace in a standoff against drones. She still clings to this London souvenir when she finds a battered but triumphant Peter on Tower Bridge. It is MJ who runs to Peter to make sure he is okay. Furthermore, the first time she partakes in his Spidey-swinging at the conclusion of the film, it isn't because he just rescued her.
Earlier, Peter saves a number of his classmates, first in Venice as the Water Elemental swirls, followed by the Prague fire showdown. On this occasion, MJ is a spectator, not the intended victim or lure. By coincidence, Peter’s bestie Ned (Jacob Batalon) and new girlfriend Betty (Angourie Rice) are the ones who need rescuing from the Ferris wheel that is awkwardly situated in the middle of a flame fight. Meanwhile, MJ scoops up what she thinks is a random bit of spiderweb-covered metal, which cracks the whole case.
MJ’s discovery also leads to her confirming her suspicions about Peter: he is Spider-Man. MJ asks him flat out, which he denies at first before spilling all when it becomes clear that Mysterio is a ruse. The reason why Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) wants MJ dead is the fact that she knows the truth, but because Peter has a wider trust circle she is not a solo damsel-in-distress. It is incredibly refreshing that this version of MJ not only has agency but isn’t the only one with a bullseye on her back — plus she is willing to pick up a weapon to defend herself.
Sometimes Stranger Things sacrifices character for the desire to reference other movies, which does lead to one damsel-esque moment. In Episode 6, Nancy has been trapped by the monster, which lies on top her salivating all over her face in a mirror of Alien 3. It is a tad eyeroll-worthy, but the one slight subversion to this trope is the fact that Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) saves Nancy, not her boyfriend — but Nancy is not Eleven's love interest nor does she exist to simper in the corner.
Of course, Eleven is the hero of the show, but this year she becomes much more than just her abilities. Rather than isolating her away from the other kids as the Duffers did in Season 2 (a huge misfire), she is with her friends throughout. Even though there are separate groupings, the defining factor is the kids taking charge as the women lead the way. There are no damsels because everyone has a role to play. Even with Eleven as his target, Billy (Dacre Montgomery) can't get to her because the group of friends outsmarts him at every turn.
Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin both get captured by the Russians and while they do need rescuing, there is an attempt to free themselves before Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica come bursting in. Again, this is no damsel scenario. Even Joyce (Winona Ryder) is proactive as she tries to figure out why the hell magnets have stopped magnetizing.
Neither Spider-Man: Far From Home nor Stranger Things season 3 are scream-free zones, but those screams are no longer attached to characters whose sole purpose is to serve the hero. Hopefully, others will follow this trend. There can still be conflict and distress, but the damsel is no more.