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Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

This past weekend, my 14-year-old woke up deciding to create a new Dungeons & Dragons-inspired board game. Over cereal he printed out an image of a map, divided the map’s islands and waterways into territories with a black pencil, and populated each region with indigenous people and creatures. After this, he scripted out a list of quests and adventures based on what he’d laid out. By lunch he was meticulously rendering on paper the dozens of wyverns, warriors, royals, and adventurers that would inhabit this game.

By midnight, as I was getting into bed, he was ready to show me his work.

“This is the alpha-female Flame Breather,” he began somewhat breathlessly. “She’s a little like a kappa: She has a flat trench on the top of her head that’s filled with magma–that’s where she gets her power. No magma, no power. This is a Botanical Dragon. Its wings are made of leaves and its body will be brown and will look like it’s made from tree branches. This is a Sand Colossus. It’s made of stone and has faces on all four sides of its head so that you can’t ever sneak up on him. He has 250 health points and is inhabited by the spirit of an ancient warrior king who wanted to live forever. He’s the most brutal enemy in the game but appears impassive as he’s attacking you because, you know, his soul is dead.”

“This is amazing!” I sputter, immediately awake.

“Yeah, I know,” my son replies distractedly, shuffling through his sheaf of drawings before continuing.

“And this is the Peanut Butter King. He’s insane. Imprisoned his son, the Prince, in a sea of jelly so that he can rule forever without an heir. One of the love quests in the game is to save the Butter Queen and rescue the prince.”

Cautiously, I point out that the Butter Queen looks pretty bad-ass, exudes attitude with her angry expression and haughty, hands-on-hips body body language.

“Maybe she doesn’t need to be rescued, per se?” I ask gently. “What about designing the game so that you bring her the tools she needs in order to rescue herself?”

I’m met with immediate exasperation. “Mommmm! This is a love quest! She needs to be rescued! That’s how love quests work. It’s not as if all of the women in this game are helpless. Rosilyn is a better warrior than the main character–you have to bring her a basilisk fang before she’ll even help you. Emilie is a scholar that shows you how to make potions…”

Me, again: “I’m just wondering…do the queens ever rescue the warriors in this game? Or…hey, does Rosilyn get to have a boyfriend, too? Does she ever go back to her thatched hut at the end of a quest, exhausted, and have to deal with a teething infant?”

“Mom!” my son barks, stone-faced. It’s clear that I’m navigating tenuous ground. One more questioning allusion to the “damsel in distress trope” and that sheaf of papers will get whisked away back into their folder, further access denied.

“Okay, okay,” I murmur apologetically. “Understand: During the day, my job is to give people the tools they need so that they can help themselves. That’s just the way I’ve been trained to think, my default. So, tell me more about this love quest,” I entreat as I settle back into my pillow…

“The Damsel in Distress Trope” on Feminist Frequency.

Of course, there was no way that this was going to be the end of the discussion. Particularly after reading back-to-back articles in the New York Times this weekend: the first, an editorial by Stephanie Coontz, celebrating the fact that according to a new PEW Research Center study, women are now the sole or primary breadwinner in 40% of American households; the second, “Breadwinning Wives and Nervous Husbands,” warning that women’s professional gains may be contributing to a decline in the formation and stability of marriages because “while women prefer men to be intelligent and ambitious, men have these preferences for women only to the point where women threaten to earn more than they do.”

Given these findings, it isn’t surprising that when a wife earns more than her husband, the risk of divorce rises, too. To study this, the authors used a survey conducted in two waves, 1987-88 and 1992-93. (There were no more recent data available for this particular test.) Then they investigated the likelihood of a divorce in the five-year interval. For this sample, some 12 percent of all couples were divorced during this period — a sobering fact about the stability of marriages in general. But the divorce rate rose by half, to about 18 percent, for couples in which the wife earned more than the husband.

The statistics and studies in Coontz’s editorial tell women they will suffer fewer depressions and have happier, more amicable marriages if they work outside of the home, even while their children are small. The statistics and studies in Richard Thaler’s “Breadwinner Wives” piece add a cautionary layer to this story however, telling women they’re more likely to divorce–or never marry in the first place–if they make more money than the men in their lives. In other words, ladies: Be smart and successful, but not too smart and successful.

As I’ve been known to say from time to time: What fresh, misogynistic hell is this?

Today, my son tested out the mechanics of his game with his older brother and their best friends in our kitchen as I dusted studiously a room away. The subject of the love quest came up again and my younger son explained to the group that all four love quests in his game involved men saving women.

“Are any of them redheads?” one friend immediately quipped.

“Wait! It’s only women that get rescued, and only men doing the rescuing? And you’ve got four of those in the game?” my son’s older brother asked. “Don’t you think one of the quests should be the reverse? Have a bro get rescued? So that girls will play your game and get to have that experience, too?”

“Actually, I’ve been thinking about possibly doing something like that,” my younger son admitted, hesitatingly.

“I just played this awesome new board game and I luvvvved it so much!” the admirer of redheads sang out in falsetto. “Whoever created this game is soooooo wonderrrfullllll!”

“Oh! Oh! You should make one of them a gay guy rescuing another gay guy, too!” another friend shouted.

And the conversation went on from there…

At first glance, it might seem silly or over-involved to pay such close attention to this one small element in my son’s (amazing, brilliant) game. The thing is, I believe that a great many attitudes and beliefs are formed, and then left unexamined, while we are still young.

Recently, the New York Times ran a fascinating piece on the emerging marriage problem in China. One outcome of China’s “one child” policy is that today there are 118 men for every 100 women in the country. By the end of the decade it is estimated that China will have a surplus of 24 million unmarried men. Marriage has become a much more difficult goal to achieve, with the richest men sometimes paying professional “love hunters” tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to find them the perfect mate, while it is not unusual for those less affluent to be hawked like bowls of noodles in stalls at “love bazaars” by parents desperate to see their sons marry.

In this changed world order, educated, marriageable women often extract a bride price in order to marry: a reverse-dowry that can range anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars up to a Beijing apartment. And yet, according to this article, despite the gender imbalance, Chinese women face intense pressure to be married before the age of 28, lest they be rejected and stigmatized as “leftover women.” As one love hunter is quoted telling a rich 36-year-old Chinese businesswoman in the article: “No wealthy Chinese man would ever marry [you]. They always want somebody younger, with less power.” So this isn’t just an American issue. Or a Chinese one. It would seem that power and love and money are all tied up into how we find happiness as human beings.

I adore the gallant streak both of my teenaged sons possess. Brought up on a steady stream of fantasy, they seem to hew “knight in shining armor,” at least in their imaginations and daydreams. But there can be a darker side to that trope, too. By definition, a knight in shining armor is only completed by someone in need of rescue.

Andrea Schwalm

Andrea is a Family Development Credentialed parent consultant from Long Island, New York. She takes way too many photographs and really hopes that the aliens who find Earth first are the friendly, Star Trek kind...

3 Comments
Laura Grace Weldon

June 7, 2013 3:42 pm Reply

This post is a full meal with many excellent courses. Thanks for pulling it all together so thoughtfully and artfully.

Kris Bordessa
Kris Bordessa

June 7, 2013 11:17 pm Reply

I loved reading this. I love that you’re encouraging your boys to think beyond the knight in shining armor scenario. I especially love that your older son broached this topic with his brother. Clearly you’re doing right by them!

Andrea Schwalm
Andrea Schwalm

June 8, 2013 5:04 pm Reply

I high-fived myself when the older guy said that :) That exchange showed me that it’s time to step back more, give the younger guy a chance to mull things over and play with his own conclusions, and trust that he will find his way some in developing his values. Errrr…that’s not my first instinct as a parent. I’m a little bit of a nosy hoverer who’s going to tell you what you should think. LOL.

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