How ‘Joy’ Rewrote The “Damsel In Distress” Trope In Film – She Became Her Own Hero


When it comes to fictional characters on screen, it’s easy to see how females are coming out on top if you look at some of the biggest films of the past couple of years: ‘The Hunger Games‘, ‘Frozen‘, ‘Divergent‘, and now ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘. But what about female-driven stories based on real life women who don’t rely on a bow and arrow or super powers?

We are seeing the start of a major wave of films told from a decidedly female perspective in ways that defy the typical Hollywood boundaries when it comes to women. Movies like ‘Carol’, ‘Freeheld’, ‘Bleeding Heart’ and ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ document the types of women who exist far and wide in society, but often don’t get to tell their stories on the big screen, whether it be about LGBT issues, sexuality, romance or family, it can be hard to find films that are willing to go above and beyond the popular female tropes.

One of the tropes we are used to seeing quite often is the “damsel in distress”, whose sole victory relies on a man, or someone other than herself to come out on top. In our opinion, it is the stories where women are shown to be their own heroes that are the most aspirational, as they teach female audiences to tap into their own potential. We saw it in ‘Erin Brockovich’ the movie based on the real life story of a legal clerk and single mother who took on a major corporation in a lawsuit to protect a small town from being harmed.

And now we have another major film that builds on the “she became her own hero” idea: David O’Russell’s ‘Joy’, starring Jennifer Lawrence. It tells the real life story of Joy Mangano, a single mother who battled the odds and a troublesome family to become a multi-millionaire businesswoman, and inventor of the iconic Miracle Mop.

Ever since it’s release at Christmas 2015, the film has gotten a lot of buzz about Jennifer’s performance and possible Oscar nominations, but most prominent is the way people are talking about it’s female empowerment theme.

Canadian film reviewer for CTV, Richard Crouse, said the film is a “real life female empowerment story that plays like a fairy tale.”

“When we first meet Joy Mangano (Lawrence) she’s a young girl making a fairy tale kingdom out of bits of paper. When she’s told a prince would complete the picture she says, ‘I don’t need a prince,’ suggesting that Joy may be headed for her own happily ever after, but will do it on her own terms,” he writes.

That statement from a young Joy in the film is the best way to sum up how this film is different from others. In the trailer we hear Jennifer Lawrence telling her on-screen daughter “the world doesn’t owe you a thing”, setting up the idea that this is a story where a woman isn’t looking for someone else to be her hero, she knows perfectly well that she has it within her to save herself.

In an interview with Deadline, David O’Russell says ordinary stories about every heroic women like Joy Mangano need to be told more.

“It’s remarkable that you have someone as exciting as Jennifer, who then can get the studio and audiences excited to want to see what seems like an ordinary story. Like any of my movies, it starts with ordinary people and becomes something else,” he said.

The choice to tell the Miracle Mop founder’s story was personal to him, which made the empowerment aspect all the more authentic.

“My mother wanted to get back in the workforce after she raised a family, and she couldn’t and it was very unsettling for her. So for Joy to have created her own business is something I respect enormously,” he revealed.


In a conversation with Women In The World’s Tina Brown, alongside his main star, David expands on why this film is more than just a feel-good rags-to-riches story.

“I loved the idea there was a Cinderella without a prince. That was one of the most daring things about the film,” he said.

The notion of positioning a female character whose fate doesn’t necessarily rely on those around her is something that isn’t seen enough on screen.

“It’s a challenging concept to sell audiences on, but one that is ultimately empowering. Joy is successful purely because of her own drive and ability, and often in spite of the men — and family — in her life. While she doesn’t need a man or a romance to achieve corporate domination—and the story, in fact, would be weaker if it conceded to the trope — it’s also true that relationships become a bit more difficult for wildly successful women,” writes WITW’s Allison McNearney.

Actress Elizabeth Rohm, who plays Joy’s fictional sister Peggy in the movie, told Bustle how the drive of Joy Mangano not faltering in the face of rejection is an key aspect of the film’s female empowerment theme.

“Whether you’re 22 or 52 or 82, there’s something that connects all of us, and it’s inner resilience and not taking no for an answer. We’re all motivated to do better and be proud of our accomplishments in life,” she said.

She also says the famed and award-winning director gets feminism right in this story.

“A lot of the things that happen in the movie are inspired by other women who have inspired David — daring women that have impressed him throughout his life,” she said.


This film sparks conversations around the notion of women “having it all” which has been a popular topic over the past few years in light of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement encouraging women to pursue careers as well as family aspirations.

Joy Mangano herself, who made an appearance at the same WITW interview with Jennifer and David, said her story is one she hopes will go on to inspire many more women and girls.

“I used to say if one woman or one person is impacted by this movie that will be an amazing thing. I no longer say that. Millions, millions of women, people young and old, are going to be impacted by this movie. It has a touch-point for everybody,” she said.

And that in a nutshell is why this is an important film not just for women today, but for men to also see why empowering women to be equal, independent, and dynamic is beneficial to them.

With the current trend in society of moving away from teaching girls to be princesses, teaching them to aspire to marriage or that their worth comes from their physical appearance, ‘Joy’ is a beacon of hope in the film industry, allowing female audiences to capitalize on their own ideas of what it means to be a success and live their dreams.

“There comes a point where we have to say who am I? Where is that courage going to come from? Once you find that space within yourself, well then, you really can attack anything, I think, and achieve anything,” said the real life Miracle Mop founder.

You can watch the full conversation with David O’Russell, Jennifer Lawrence, Joy Mangano and Tina Brown below:

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