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Bob the adventuring hero is approached by Alice, who is in some kind of trouble. Her village is being ravaged by a monster, or she's being forced into marriage against her will. Bob, like a good hero, goes to help her... except, whoops! It was all a lie. Alice isn't in trouble; she's the mastermind, and Bob just walked straight into a trap. No, not that kind of trap (usually).
This is when a seeming Distressed Damsel is actually luring the hero in for her own ends, usually by playing on his heroism (and sometimes his lust for her). Just about Always Female. Compare Femme Fatale, Honey Trap and Wounded Gazelle Gambit. A subtrope of Using You All Along.
Due to the nature of the trope, spoilers ahead.
Anime and Manga
- In one episode of Sailor Moon, Zoicite seeks to lure out Tuxedo Mask by pretending to be Sailor Moon and "rescue" people, and then he makes it look like he's captured. He then attacks Tuxedo Mask when Tux tries to save him, thinking he's Sailor Moon.
- In Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid, Yu Lan does this to one of Mithril's agents when he "rescues" her. Turns out that she was with Amalgam, and had been disguising herself as one of the ambassadors who were kidnapped in a hostage situation. It's obvious before the poor sap got his throat slit open that he was very satisfied with having rescued such a beautiful Damsel in Distress. She even gives him a flirty, appreciative look after he unties her.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's: Barbara from the Crashtown Arc.
- Tsubaki from Mirai Nikki. Looks and acts like a Yamato Nadeshiko, is a Manipulative Bitch.
- There's an entire village of these in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, all under Guame's control. They fool every single male on the Dai-Gurren (except for Leeron).
- In Ratman, main character Shuto is tricked into joining the "evil" organization Jackal when his classmate, Mirea Mizushima, is abducted by them. Not only is she the little sister of Jackal's leader, but was the one who suggested that they recruit Shuto to be inducted as the titular Ratman. It's ultimately a Subverted Trope, however, as she's a genuine Nice Girl and Jackal's members are more Anti-Villains than anything. Plus, by becoming Ratman, Shuto is able to (sort of) live his childhood dream of being a superhero.
- Minatsuki "Hummingbird" Takami from Deadman Wonderland. She plays up her Shrinking Violet role for all it's worth when she's matched to fight Ganta; she acts like she's horrified by the violence, and adds in some clumsiness and sexual tension to really throw him off. Not only was it a complete act, she's crazy as hell and in prison for a very good reason. Though she gets somewhat better later.
- Lily is introduced as such in the Fatal Fury first OVA. In a subversion, it's not really by choice because not only she's a little girl, but Geese is forcing her to play the role to get his rival killed. And poor Lily never forgives herself for that.
- In Revolutionary Girl Utena, Anthy Himemiya turns out to be this. She was deliberately set by her brother, the Big Bad Akio Ohtori, in situations that would attract the attention of Utena Tenjou and lure her into the duels. She goes along with it partially because she is the "Rose Bride" and cannot fight back, partially due to Akio's influence (and her belief that she cannot escape), and partially because all the experiences she's had in her life have left her VERY angry at the world itself.
- At the end of Koryuu no Mimi, the Kanako seen in Unwilling Suspension from the wood rails of a shrine is actually an enemy of Natsume, Noriko. The real Kanako is inside the shrine itself.
- Ava Lord from the Sin City story "A Dame to Kill For".
- Elsa in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Albeit she's not the Big Bad. And she explains that she isn't really a Nazi, but just wants recognition for finding the Holy Grail and believes that the Nazis are the best equipped to help her do that.
- Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon.
- Meg in Disney's Hercules is genuinely in trouble the first time Hercules helps her out, but she later plays this role to lure Hercules to a rock slide and a hydra, with help from Pain and Panic as Decoy Kids. She's not happy about having to do it, and it isn't her idea, but she did make a Deal with the Devil so she cannot back off.
- In the book The Last Knight, the hero rescues a woman from captivity in a tower, only to discover that she was being held there as a murder suspect. The rest of the book is about him trying to recapture her and bring her to justice.
- Dilvish, the Damned is a collection of fantasy stories written by Roger Zelazny. In one of the stories, Dilvish hears a Distressed Damsel. His Genre Savvy sidekick, Black, a demon horse, warns him about this, stating that it is the oldest trick in the book.
- Older Than Radio: Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers.
- The Jack Reacher story Echo Burning plays with this - there's an on-again, off-again question about the leading lady's actual motives for recruiting Reacher.
- Senna from Everworld. Played With because she really is in trouble, but she has full intentions of becoming the Big Bad herself, and is manipulating the heroes to achieve that goal. Made worse because they know this but really have no choice but help her, since letting Loki or Ka Anor get her is potentially even worse.
- In Replica, the evil Annie Perraut was able to fool Andy just by Clark Kenting (as all characters are clones, she looks like the prisonners). Basically, just because he wanted once an helpless Amy who would see him as her savior, rather than the proud one who was his girlfriend once.
- C.L. Moore's 1934 story Shambleau - generally acknowledged as epoch-making in the history of Science Fiction - begins in what seems a classical Damsel in Distress situation: The protagonist, space adventurer Northwest Smith, sees a "sweetly-made girl" pursued by a lynch mob intent on killing her and intervenes to save her, but finds her not a girl nor a human being at all, but a disguised alien creature, predatory and highly dangerous. Soon, Smith himself needs rescuing and barely escapes with his life.
Live Action TV
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer famously pulled this off in its first scene, playing on a horror movie stereotype--a blonde, timid Catholic school girl sneaks into a scary place with a bad boy. The twist? She's a vampire (Darla, specifically), and the boy doesn't live long enough to see the opening credits.
- In Buffy's spinoff series, Angel, this trope is pretty much played straight. The Beast, in the guise of Cordelia, seduces Connor and uses him as a tool against the protagonists.
- In the Alias Smith and Jones episode "How to Rob a Bank in One Hard Lesson", Heyes and Curry are hired for protection by two women, who are actually luring them to an isolated spot so that they can hold Curry hostage while Heyes helps them rob a bank.
- In one episode of Psych, Shawn and Gus are hired by a woman who wants them to contact her dead husband from beyond the grave and find out where he hid the money from a robbery because she thinks his old partners are after her. It turns out the widow was the mastermind of the robbery.
- In the Legend of the Seeker episode "Bounty", Richard helps a young woman who claims her brother was captured by monsters, who actually wants to turn Richard in for the reward.
- Saffron from Firefly
- Fiona of Burn Notice has been known to pull a heroic version; also, Michael fell for one in the episode "False Flag". Atypically, it wasn't her he wanted to protect but the supposed son her supposed abusive husband (actually a mob witness she was out to kill) had supposedly kidnapped--a bit of a sore spot with him.
- Michael ended up the victim of one again in the season 5 episode "Dead To Rights". Larry's "hostage" Anson turned out to be the one behind everything that had happened to Michael in the entire series.
- This kinda, sorta happens in Robin Hood in which Guy of Gisborne is threatening Robin and Marian whilst they're hiding in a tree. The two of them play on Guy's Unrequited Love for Marian and pretend that Robin is holding her hostage, allowing Guy to play the hero and "rescue" Marian whilst Robin makes his escape. It's not a totally straight version of this trope considering that they're not trying to "trap" Guy, but they do successfully trick him by using Marian as a decoy Distressed Damsel, and it is all her idea.
- In the Robin of Sherwood episode The Witch of Elsden, the outlaws find a distressed young woman in the forest who claims that she is fleeing Guy of Gisburne. Will is quite taken with her and seriously put out when it turns out that She is in fact married and has agreed to use her herb magic to help capture the outlaws in return for Gisburne not carrying out his threat to have her burnt as a witch and her husband killed. As she's pretty much a co-erced victim of Gisburne, along with them, the outlaws eventually forgive her deception and she helps them thwart Gisburne's plans in return for them rescuing her husband and getting them both to safety.
- This was a regular part of the stunts on Candid Camera. In one instance, a frail blond Distressed Damsel would be deposited on some street corner with two large suitcases. The suitcases looked identical, but one was empty and the other would be filled with concrete, weighing at least 200 pounds. When some big strong man approached, she would ask him to help with her suitcases ... then she would pick up the empty suitcase and walk away, while the hidden camera recorded the reaction of the poor schmo as he tried to pick up the other suitcase.
- Candorville has an accidental example in a flashback. Artemis Kenchu, self-proclaimed vampire hunter, slays several vampires in New Orleans and rescues the girl they tried to kill. As it turns out, she's a vampire too, but she's so evil they decided to kill her, and he's about to be her new servant.
- The twist at the end of the Interactive Fiction game Yes, Another Game with a Dragon!
- Subverted in Maximo. Princess Sophia turns out to be an evil demon queen controlling the supposed Big Bad, an outcome hinted at by her profile in the manual. After slaying her, it's revealed by the authority of none other than Death himself that the real Sophia is alive.
- Ace Attorney has Lance Amano, a rare male version. He engineered his own kidnapping to get the money he needed to pay off his debt.
- Ironically enough, Elizabeth Greene in Prototype. Obviously, a catatonic woman being held by a morally ambiguous research corporation in cooperation with the Government Conspiracy needs rescuing, right? As soon as Alex shows up to rescue her, she throws him around like a ragdoll and runs off to start the Zombie Apocalypse.
- Metal Gear Solid Mobile has you called into the facility by Victoria Reed, a scientist who's working on Metal Gears. After a while you discover she was actually a computer program designed to lure you into turning off the building's security so terrorists could take over. Then you find out the entire mission is a computer simulation created by the Patriots to study Snake.
- In Planescape: Torment, you can have a brief encounter with a woman identified by your NameDar as 'Damsel In Distress'. She will ask you to help rescue her sister, but if you are intelligent enough, you can get her to reveal that it's a trap to lure you into an alley and rob you.
- Done again in the plane of Baator, where the damsel in distress is a demon in disguise.
- You can find and fight a few of these in both Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Interestingly, the second game in the former series has a male version of this in the first dungeon.
- Done in Tales of Symphonia Dawn of the New World. Amusingly enough, the
girlpsychobitch's name is Alice.
- Eversion. Maybe.
- Though they aren't the masterminds, the captured toads in Super Mario Bros..
- In The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Blind tries to pull this on Link, disguising himself as one of the maidens he's supposed to be rescuing. Somehow Blind overlooks the fact that all the genuine maidens, including the one he's keeping from Link, are sealed in crystal, which kind of gives him away.
- Evil Princess Sara, of Eight Bit Theater. Who's... evil. To be fair with her, she was really kidnapped. Then she noticed how incompetent Garland was...
- Girl Genius: Zola
- The Pocalypse: the girl "captured" by vampires in scene 26 of chapter 2 "Damsel in Distress" is actually a vampire herself.
- Harley Quinn in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
- In the Batman the Brave And The Bold episode "Bold Beginnings," a free-wheeling heiress teams up with the villain Cavalier to pull this off for the ransom money her family would provide.
- Done in Samurai Jack, with Aku taking an alluring, yet unconvincing disguise. Jack, to his credit, isn't fooled for a second, and plays along until he has the opportunity to disassemble Aku's plan.
- The Knights of the Square Table in Blazing Dragons attempt to capture a Robin Hood analogue by dressing Sir Hotbreath(Perhaps the least lady-like knight) as a damsel in distress who has a lot of money to lure the fiend into the trap. It...doesn't work.
- In the animated Punky Brewster episode "Punky To The Rescue," the kids are trying to catch a supposed swamp monster they think has captured Punky's foster dad Henry. Margaux is used as bait with her foot caught in a snare (she's wearing a dress, so she's not hanging upside down). They wind up catching... Henry.