The idea of a woman as trophy continues to engage me, and I have a few thoughts.
What is a trophy? A trophy is an object commemorating a success or victory. In terms of a story, it’s the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, that little extra that adds to the euphoric feeling, an acknowledgement by others. Without the trophy, the victory would still be a victory.
What is a MacGuffin? A MacGuffin is a [Person/Place/Thing/Idea] that a story revolves around. Essentially, while a MacGuffin usually does nothing on its own, it’s the catalyst for everything that happens. Without a MacGuffin, the story makes no sense.
So when we look at a story where a woman appears to be a trophy, we need to ask, “Is she a trophy or a MacGuffin?” Where one is extra and extraneous, the other is the very gravitation center of a story.
When a man goes out, defeats the bad guy, and then the woman throws herself at the man, that woman is acting as a trophy. She’s the little extra acknowledging the victory. She is acting as a trophy. If you remove her from the story, the story still ends as expected.
When a woman is kidnapped and a man rescues her, the woman is acting as a MacGuffin. I you remove the woman from the story, the conflict in the story becomes meaningless. The woman here is acting as a MacGuffin, as the catalyst to a story.
The thing about a MacGuffin is that the MacGuffin doesn’t need to be a woman. The man could be rescuing his dog or his reputation. What matters is that the protagonist has something at stake, some unhappy result for failing. In contrast, a trophy woman needs to be a woman or a trophy. A trophy woman can’t be substituted with just anything, she can only be substituted with something that feels like a trophy. If a protagonist succeeds and gets a brick, that wouldn’t feel like a trophy, making the brick feel rather random in the story. On the other hand, you can make anything into a MacGuffin as long as you develop the context.
In the trope filled “man rescues woman” scenario, the woman is acting as a MacGuffin. She is acting as the catalyst to the story even when not present. Her affection, kisses, or love may act as a trophy at the end, but that doesn’t nullify her as a MacGuffin.
I think that there is a substantial difference between getting a woman and getting a woman’s affections. In almost all cases, getting a woman means getting her affections, not merely possessing her person. The villain possesses her person, that’s why he’s a villain. The whole point of a rescue is to remove a woman from a place where her affections are forced.
So, to reiterate, trophies are given for victories, even if they are affections, but MacGuffins are the gravitational center of stories.