Damsels in Distress vs. Distressed Dudes in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

There is a damsel in distress at the top of that tower, next to a villain. He’s threatening to burn her alive.

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

The basic feminist objection to the ‘damsel in distress’ trope is that it treats female characters as passive possessions for male protagonists to ‘win’ or ‘take back’. For a much more in-depth feminist critique, there is of course the Tropes vs. Women video series on Damsel in Distress (though this series focuses on video games, the critique can be extended to other media).

When a male character is in distress and needs rescue, it’s called Distressed Dude, though unlike the Damsel in Distress trope, it is not the default for a Distressed Dude to be rescued by a female character, and he is much less likely to be treated as a possession/prize.

Though perhaps I do not know Chinese mythology/classic literature well enough to make this claim, it seems to be that the damsel in distress trope is not nearly as engrained there as in European-derived cultures. That’s not to say that it’s unheard of in Sinophone stories/literature/etc. it’s merely less frequent

Miss Qu clearly has a cognitive disability, possibly what is now called Down Syndrome. She is also, as this picture shows, a capable martial artist.

In Jin Yong stories, the vast majority of female characters are also capable martial artists. Old lady? Probably a capable martial artist. Princess who has been cloistered in the imperial palace for most of her life? Probably a capable martial artist. Girl who has a physical impairment, such as a lame foot? Probably a capable martial artist. It is so uncommon for a significant character of any gender to not be a martial artist in Jin Yong stories that, if a character is NOT a martial artist, that’s a notable feature.

Since the vast majority of female characters are martial artists, they often have some options other than wait for rescue if they end up in distress. If she does turn into a damsel in distress, it has to be explained usually by a) poison b) having her acupuncture points sealed and/or c) encountering superior force. These devices also often turn male characters into distressed dudes.

So yes, there are some damsels in distress in Jin Yong novels, and a female character who gets enough page space will probably need to be rescued at some point. But being a damsel in distress is rarely the defining feature of a female character, and male characters are just as likely to turn into distressed dudes.

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Again.

One of the few straight-up examples of damsel in distress I can recall is, in fact, Qiao Feng and Ah Zhu. It is worth noting that, earlier in the story, Ah Zhu had rescued a different male protagonist, Duan Yu, and that she rescues yet another male character’s life later in the story (I will discuss that more in the next part). First, he treated her wounds so she would not die right away, and then gets into a badass fight so that a certain doctor will agree to cure her – in fact, this happens to be one of my favorite episodes from the 1997 TV adaptation (which I am astonished to learn is available with English subtitles – content warning for suicide). Ah Zhu falls in love with Qiao Feng while he’s taking care of her, and after she is cured, she tells him that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him.

Wanyan Honglie and Bao Xiruo in the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes

One of these rare examples of a significant female character who isn’t a martial artist is Bao Xiruo, and yes, she is a damsel in distress as well – but with a twist. In her case, Wanyan Honglie decided to marry her, but she was already married, so he arranged for her husband to be murdered and set it up so that he could go in and ‘rescue’ her. Even though Bao Xiruo does not love her Wanyan Honglie she feels obliged to marry him because she believes he had saved her life (also, as a young widow who isn’t even a martial artst, her alternative options were bad). This is like the ‘Western’ damsel in distress in that a woman is treated like a possession to be taken. However, the difference is that this is done by a villain instead of a hero, and the guy doing this is not presented in a sympathetic way.

In fact, off the top of my head, most of the examples of damsel in distress in Jin Yong stories I can think of are one of the following:

– the ‘rescuer’ has ulterior motives (example: Wanyan Honglie & Bao Xiruo)
– the damsel assumes the rescuer has ulterior motives, and refuses to cooperate (example: Shui Sheng & Di Yun)
– rescuer turns out to be a jerk so the damsel eventually leaves him (example: Yang Kang & Mu Nianci)
– due to Stockholm Syndrome, damsel does not want to be rescued (Wen Yi – to be fair, her ‘rescuers’ were more morally reprehensible than her captor, so she was effectively choosing the lesser evil)
– even though the damsel likes her rescuer, she refuses to pursue a romance with him because it goes against her principles (example: Yilin & Linghu Chong)
– even though the rescuer likes the damsel, he refuses to pursue a romance with her because it goes against his principles (example: Duan Yu & Mu Wanqing)
– damsel in distress is rescued by a mixed-gender team (example: Zhong Ling)
– damsel does not need rescuing because she is already free (example: Ren Yingying)
– damsel has already rescued male protagonist when he was in distressed dude mode, and will probably rescue him again later in the story (example: Huang Rong & Guo Jing) (and yes, I have plenty more to say about this)

Sometimes, the boy can’t save the damsel-in-distress/pregnant woman/distressed dudes by himself, and the girl can’t save the damsel-in-distress/pregnant woman/distressed dudes by herself, so the boy and the girl have to work together to save them.

In short, there is usually some element which is at least partially ‘subverting’ the trope. I put ‘subverting’ in quotations marks because what I mean is that the trope is not working as it typically does in Anglophone cultures, but if Chinese stories aren’t working the way one would expect them to work in Anglophone media, that’s not necessarily a subversion.

Even in the example of Qiao Feng trying to save Ah Zhu’s life, she’s not being treated as a prize for him to win, he does not take possession of her when her life is saved, and most of the other characters are really suspicious of his motives.

There is an edge here, namely, that the rescuers of the damsel in distress are often suspect. On one side of the edge, one could say that Jin Yong is implying that the guys who rescue damsels in distress in order to claim ownership over them are not much – or any – better than the guys who put them in distress in the first place (and in the case of Wanyan Honglie, it’s the very same guy); real heroes do not expect rewards from damsels they rescue beyond the satisfaction of seeing the damsel set free. This is my preferred interpretation, not only because it is the more female-friendly interpretation, but it actually more consistent with what is in the novels than the other side of the edge. And what is that other side of the edge? That if trying to rescue females is a suspicious act – what does that imply about the value of female lives?

Generally, I am satisfied with the way Jin Yong uses the damsel in distress trope, and do NOT consider it to be evidence of sexism or misogyny. I do not want female characters to be invincible, and it seems to me that he does not use the damsel in distress trope in a way which depicts females as being less capable than males, or which treats females as prizes. In particular, females do not seem to be more likely than male characters to need rescue, and to the extent it is treated as a way to claim possession of damsels, it is usually depicted as a bad thing.

So, if I do not think Jin Yong expresses sexism or misogyny in his use of damsels in distress, where do I think he expresses sexism and misogyny? Well, one of the places it comes out is where the female characters are saving the distressed dudes. I will explain how that works in Part 2.

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 2)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Content note: this post contains a satirical drawing of hypersexualized women, and a picture depicting sexual harassment.

The Geek Feminism Wiki lists two common criticisms of strong female characters as being:

– she still has to conform to gender-normative standards of attractiveness

– she will wear skimpy or fetishistic gear to fight in, and her battles and acts of heroism will be presented to the audience as erotic spectacles.

There are also the Hark! A Vagrant comics about strong female characters one and two which satirize ‘strong female characters’, including how they are visually presented for erotic appeal.

This is from Hark! A Vagrant!. I think the ‘strong female character’ in the lower left needs to move further to the left so that the audience can see her butt (yes I am being snarky).

If you want to see what the Geek Feminism Wiki and the Hark! A Vagrant comics are critiquing, satirizing, I put in the internet search ‘female marvel characters’ and one of the first hits was this this of the 10 strongest Marvel female characters. I will let you judge the pictures of those strong Marvel female characters for yourself. And here is an explanation of why contorting bodies to show the butt is an issue.

I’ve established in Part 1 that the first criticism about conforming to gender-normative standards of attractiveness definitely applies to the stories of Jin Yong. To the second criticism, I would add that it’s not just female fighters – even (strong) female characters who do not engage in combat are a lot more likely to be visually presented for prettiness than male characters.

The second criticism mainly applies to visual media – whereas Jin Yong novels are prose, not directly visual. But all of his novels have illustrations. Let’s see if this criticism applies to the illustrations.

All of the characters in this picture, including the baby, are female. That baby is SO DAMN CUTE that every adult who meets her wants her to be their daughter, so martial artists – both male and female – keep on kidnapping her and fighting each other over custody. In fact, the two adult women in this picture are about to have a martial arts match over who gets to be the baby’s guardian.

In the above illustration, none of the female characters are drawn in a particularly sexually exploitive way. However, one of them is a baby (and it would be very disturbing if a baby were presented in an erotic way), and the other two are in their 30s, a demographic of women which is less likely to be presented erotically. Furthermore, this is not a fight scene. So let’s look at an illustration of a younger woman in a fight scene:

Here is ‘Iron Hand’ He, who has an iron hook on her left arm, in the middle of a fight scene.

So, here we have a young woman in a fight scene, and she is not being shown in a way which is sexier than her male opponent (well, we get a better view of her face and feet, but that’s mainly because we see her front and his back). In all of the illustrations I’ve seen of female characters in fight scenes published with Jin Yong’s novels, I do not recall any which depicts her in a way which is more erotic than the male characters.

Let us look at yet another illustration from a Jin Yong novel – an illustration depicting sexual harassment.

Zhao Min does not want Zhang Wuji to touch her foot.

Even in this illustration depicting sexual harassment, the female character is not drawn in a particularly sexual way. (To be clear, I am merely saying that the *drawing* depicting this scene is not problematic – the scene itself is very problematic).

There is still the questions of Jin Yong adaptations. Generally, I would say that they do not VISUALLY present female character in a sexier way than the male characters. There is a bit of a double standard in the comic book adaptations by Tony Wong, but even those are mild compared to what would find by browsing the display window of an American comic book shop.

First, let’s see an example from a Marvel blockbuster movie. I typed ‘black widow fight’ into Youtube, and then looked at the first hit which was less than five minutes long – it’s this one from Iron Man 2 (I wanted to pick the first clip under 5 minutes so that I would not cherrypick the example). On the one hand, it’s not that bad in terms of depicting Black Widow as an erotic figure. If I were not critically examining it, it probably not bother me (or at least, not bother me much in isolation – if I kept on seeing stuff like this over and over in movie after movie, there would probably have a cumulative effect). However, her dress emphasizes her breasts and ‘sex appeal’ in way which the male characters’ clothes do not emphasize their sex appeal (not to mention the first bit where we see her take off her shirt and her naked leg).

Here is a fight scene from a TV adaptation which does not just feature any female character, but a female character who is supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world. The fight scene, however, is not an erotic display. (I do have problems with how this TV adaptation handles this fight scene, but they have nothing to do with sexism). I do not recall seeing any fight scenes from any TV adaptations of Jin Yong’s work which are any more erotic than this. Oh, and if you’re curious, yes the fight scene from that TV show clip is also depicted in an illustration from the original novel – the illustration of that fight scene looks like this:

There is the most beautiful woman in the world fighting a whole bunch of guys in a monastery. Even though she ultimately does not ‘win’ the fight, the fact that she holds out so long while she is badly outnumbered is very impressive.

If one really wants to know what this fight is like in the novel, here it is (note: I only took a quick look to make sure it’s the right scene, since I haven’t really read it I cannot tell whether or not this is a good translation).

Even in this scene (which pushes the sexy visuals envelope past what one would usually see in a Jin Yong TV show), there is a good look at the male character’s bare skin too.

Does this means that Jin Yong is not sexist after all? HECK NO! I think the lack of visual eroticism has less to do with respect for women, and more to do with Sinophone cultures’ general reluctance to put erotic visuals in mainstream media. Even in Taiwan – which, unlike some Sinophone societies, does not have government censorship of popular media – if one wants to see people shown in a visually erotic way (like the “Strong Female Characters” picture above), one has to turn to a) American media, b) Japanese media or c) go to the porn section. In Sinophone media, unlike American and Japanese media, there is not a continuum of mainstream-to-porn (or porn bleeding into mainstream, which is another way to look at it) – if it’s not explicitly intended to be porn, then it’s not going to be visually eroticized too much.

(Now I’m going to shift away from Jin Yong to Huang Yi. Just to be clear, Huang Yi is NOT Jin Yong)

I will say that in the works of Huang Yi, there is a discernible visual double standard between the illustrations of male and female characters (to see what I’m talking about, look at this, this, and this. Furthermore Wan Wan in the Cantonese language adaptation of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan has the most skin-exposing outfits of any major female character of an wuxia TV show I’ve seen. However, the other female character in that show seem to have clothing which is no more revealing than the clothes of their male counterparts. No Princess Leia in a slave outfit here!

Black Widow vs. Wan Wan: who has the more sexually -objectifying-aimed-at-male-gaze outfit?

(One can compare the dress of the male and female characters in this video of the theme song of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan, and yes, I like the theme song for the show quite a bit because it’s a very appropriate song for Kou Zhong, and it’s sung by the actor who plays Kou Zhong).

In short, Huang Yi is worse at this than Jin Yong, but Huang Yi is still mild compare to, say, Marvel Comics/Cinema.

There is something more going on here. Maybe you’ve noticed it already in all of these pictures and video clips. Namely, Jin Yong works (and even Huang Yi works) put relatively more emphasis on expressive parts of the female body, whereas Anglophone mainstream media puts relatively more emphasis on less expressive female body parts.

Here is a video which is just about the ‘beautiful women’ of just ONE Jin Yong TV adaptation, which then ranks six female characters from least to most beautiful. The fact that there is a lot more cataloguing of the beauty of Jin Yong’s female characters than the handsomeness of Jin Yong’s male characters says something. However, the body part which is most emphasized in catalogues is the FACE. In fact, we do not see much of the female characters’ other body parts.

If one goes back up to see the video showing Wan Wan, one also sees that it is mostly focused on her face. Even her dress – which shows a lot of skin for an wuxia outfit – is designed to emphasize her face, not her chest.

Yang Kang really likes Mu Nianci’s feet (this is from the 2008 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes).

In Sinophone cultures, generally when someone says a woman is beautiful, they mean that her face is beautiful. Besides the face, the parts of the body they are most likely to discuss are her hands and feet. One can see this in Jin Yong novels – for all that he emphasizes how beautiful his female characters are, he has very little to say about their breasts or butts.

Does it make a difference which body parts are emphasized for physical beauty? Yes, it does. Breasts and butts are not very expressive. One cannot learn much about how a person thinks or feels by looking at their breasts and butts. Thus, focusing on those areas ignores them as an agent. By contrast, faces give tons of information about a person’s feelings and state of mind. Hands can also be very expressive. Feet are not as expressive as hands, but more expressive than breasts and butts. Thus, when one is mostly looking at the face (and to lesser extent, hands and feet) it is much more apparent that these women are sentient beings and not mere pretty objects.

Even though I do not think wuxia’s restraint in displaying female characters in an erotic way, and the emphasis on the face/hands/feet vs. emphasis on breasts/butts/exposed skin comes from a greater respect of women, I welcome it nonetheless. This is not the main reason why I love wuxia, but for me, it is an extra reason to gravitate more towards wuxia than mainstream American geek pop media.

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Last month I posted “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong”, and Siggy replied with a comment about Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’. This led to me thinking about whether or not Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’ applies to Jin Yong fiction. Since the answer is complex, I’m breaking this up into multiple posts. This post, obviously, is going to be about exploiting female characters for sexy looks.

As I said in the first post of what seems to becoming a series, most Jin Yong non-elderly female characters are described as being physically beautiful. If they are too young to be sexually mature, then they are phenomenally cute (which, to be fair, is not being exploited for sexy looks). In fact, it is remarkable when a non-elderly female character is not pretty because that is uncommon in Jin Yong stories. Off the top of my head, I think Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) is the most prominent non-pretty young female character in the Jin Yong stories.

An illustration showing Cheng Lingsu

By contrast, most young men in Jin Yong stories are described as being plain looking, and if they are described as being handsome, they are probably a villain. IIRC, the only male Jin Yong protagonist who is described as being handsome is Yang Guo (he is so handsome that he starts wearing a mask so that girls will stop falling in love with him as soon as they see his face).

Yang Guo is hiding his handsome face.

So … tons of pretty young women with few plain-looking women, and tons of plain-looking young men with a few handsome young men, mostly villains. I hope that the double standard here is so obvious that I do not have to explain it.

Did I mention that the plain-looking male protagonists of most Jin Yong stories have three or more pretty young women pining after him? (okay, to be fair, a few of them have only TWO pretty young women pining after him – for example, the male protagonist that Cheng Lingsu falls in love with has only two pretty women in love with him) (but hey that means that all Jin Yong stories have at least two female characters, which means they are automatically one third of the way to passing the very low bar set by the Bechdel test)

This is also a common problem in Anglophone geek pop culture. It can even be a problem in ‘feminist’ geek media. For example, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is often described as being ‘feminist’, yet some readers have critiqued it because most of the prominent female characters are gorgeous while most of the prominent male characters do not have handsome looks (the notable exceptions are Cordelia Naismith, Ivan Vorpatril, and in the most recent novel, Oliver Jole).

So far, I have only been talking about Jin Yong novels. When his stories are adapted to screen, his male protagonists experience a bout of adaptational attractiveness. The most notorious example of this is casting Hu Ge to play Guo Jing, a male protagonist who is repeatedly described in the novel as being plain looking.

In case you don’t know what Hu Ge looks like, here is a picture of him playing the allegedly non-handsome Guo Jing.

This, however, is also not particularly different from Anglophone media. I will say this in defence of the Jin Yong adaptations – in the only adaptation I saw with Cheng Lingsu, they did not cast a particularly pretty actress to play her (though, looking at photos of other adaptations, it seems that Cheng Lingsu can suffer from adaptational attractiveness).

What do I want? First of all, unless there is a good and specific reason not to have it, I want there to be gender parity for the level of physical attractiveness of male and female characters (i.e. I want it to be just as likely for a dude to be handsome as a lady to be beautiful).

Second, I want characters to have a diversity of appearances, including those which are not conventionally attractive. I like eye candy too, and I do not mind at all having *some* conventionally attractive characters, but I do not want it to go so far as to exclude everyone else. Only telling stories about conventionally attractive characters (and making all of your major female characters conventionally attractive) sends the message that people who are not conventionally attractive (including women who are not conventionally attractive) do not matter, and that’s not cool.

***

So far, I’ve been saying that Jin Yong stories are just like Anglophone geek pop media. This was the point at which I was going to start talking about how Jin Yong stories (and wuxia in general) are DIFFERENT from Anglophone geek pop media, until I decided to split this post into two parts. So, that will be discussed in Part 2!