The Brittany Higgins drama being played out in Australia at the moment is being framed as another bitter example of #MeToo injustice. “Like all women who experience sexual violence,” Ms Higgins said on Instagram after the retrial was cancelled, “I knew the odds were stacked against me from the outset.”
But there is another way of viewing this sordid melodrama which also makes sense: the damsel in distress. This familiar trope from fairy tales, novels, movies, and comic books features a weak and submissive young woman who is rescued by a heroic and virtuous man. “Snow White and Prince Charming” is the paradigmatic example.
During the First World War, Allied recruiting posters often featured attractive young women shrinking from the bestial Hun. The Australian artist Norman Lindsay deployed his considerable talents as a high-society pornographer into propaganda encouraging heroic and virtuous Aussies to enlist in the Army to fight for the British Empire.
And then there were the movies: Tarzan rescuing Jane; King Kong rescuing Ann Darrow; 007 saving young women in terror for their lives; Superman swooping in to snatch Lois Lane.
That was the era of patriarchy. It was the destiny of women to get in trouble and the destiny of men to rescue them. But we have moved on.
In a feminist “girls can do anything” era, the “damsel in distress” trope is consistently parodied. Contemporary movies feature strong women who rescue men. In the 2007 Walt Disney film Enchanted, Robert is captured by a ruthless queen in the guise of a dragon. Like King Kong, she lugs him to the top of a New York skyscraper, which Giselle climbs, sword in hand, to rescue him.
But have things really changed?
In Canberra, politicians and journalists have turned the clock back several decades. We’re in the 1970s, with Superman and Lois Lane. Brittany Higgins is being portrayed as a passive, helpless victim of toxic masculinity.
Of course, this may be the truth. Now that the public prosecutor has decided not to proceed with a trial, the conflicting stories of Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann about what happened on that evening in March 2019 will never be resolved.
This affair has been very grubby and has exposed — once again — a poisonous culture of hedonism in Canberra’s political class which may have destroyed the lives of two talented young people.
But in the absence of conclusive evidence one way or the other, why should the media give Ms Higgins the benefit of the doubt?
When you think about it, why did Prime Minister Anthony Albanese praise Ms Higgins as “a woman of considerable courage … a woman who has been very brave”? Those soothing, paternalistic sentiments are not necessarily complimentary.
Isn’t the PM reprising the “damsel in distress”? Isn’t there something terribly archaic about his chivalrous benevolence? Isn’t he reverting to the patriarchal norms of a bygone era?
The feminist frame for social interaction is increasingly incoherent. On the one hand, feminists claim equality with males and reject meek submission to a patriarchy. On the other, they still frame women in trouble as innocent damsels in distress.
Purging our culture of “the patriarchy” will take longer than we think.