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I’m going to go with the opinion that this is such a poorly defined exercise that you’re going to have a tough time finding any protagonist who qualifies.

I think for this to be a meaningful exercise, you need to define your thesis statement, establish clear boundaries(at what point do we draw the line between conflict inside a story and conflict the character starts with? If a movie is explicitly about an adult woman’s relationship with her father, does that count or not, given that the movie probably doesn’t start with her birth).

As far as I can tell, the only characters that qualify are those who have no backstory whatsoever or those who had no problems in their lives up to the start of the film, which there aren’t a lot of male characters like that either.

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… So, nearly all the examples given here are film or TV, but when you say “fiction,” are we counting novels and the like? Because in that case there’s plenty of quite a few examples, although less than I would have thought.

The first that sprung to mind was Cordelia Naismith. Now, when introduced, she is reacting to suffering (that happened about 10 minutes before you meet her), but I’d argue that she is by no means defined by it.

A quick scan of my bookshelf reveals more than a few others. Telzey Amberdon, for example, or Vosill in Inversions. A goodly number of Robin McKinley’s protagonists (including Disney’s Beauty, dammit – you can’t tell me that wasn’t ripped off). Both of Janet Kagan’s non-Trek novels. Quite a lot of YA stuff. (Even, much I am blush to admit it, Honor Harrington.) And that’s being strict about the definition of “protagonist”.
I mean, what about, e.g., Hermione? Does she count?

And how about the definition of “suffering or hardship” – does, say, being a woman in a highly patriarchal society count?

It’s a decent point, though. I was mildly surprised as to just how low the percentage was of female protagonists in my quick straw poll, and of those, many do have some pre-story defining element of suffering or hardship.

On the gripping hand, those same strictures knock out a fairly large chunk of male protagonists. I think the problem is more to do with the dearth of female leading roles, in all forms of storytelling.
It’s something I think I’ll try to be a bit more aware of when expanding my collection from now on…

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Fred Davis said on December 5th, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Slight correction:

Tank Girl is valid beeeecaaaaaause, *puts on giant cokebottle nerd glasses and pocket protector*

In the VERY FIRST tankgirl story, she has NOT YET been kicked out of whatever thing she got the tank from, as her mission is to get a colestomy bag to the president before he cacks his pants, BUT she is stopped in her journey by a kangaroo mutant who tries to steal the colestomy bag, which ultimately causes her to fail in her mission to stop the president cacking his pants and THEREBY getting kicked out of whatever service she was involved with.

It is only from the second story onwards that Tankgirl is on the run. (and to be fair the third story is I think the one where it’s tankgirl vs. ninjas vs. time travellers vs. satan over the ownership of God’s dressing gown that… in hindsight is actually funnier because it ends with satan becoming jimmy saville)

As to the other question let me drop the doozy:

Bella Swann from Twilight.

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I’d argue that “feeling constrained by her life and having a desire to get out and see the world”, a la various Disney heroines, isn’t hardship or suffering. It’s something that keeps them from total happiness, sure, but what actual human is totally happy? I think characters who start their story totally content, of either gender, are pretty rare.

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candidgamera said on December 5th, 2013 at 5:43 pm

The more I think on it, the more I gotta push back on the Buffy thing, dude. Buffy’s superpowers are not a hardship. And you can’t argue that her separation from the ‘normal’ kids is a hardship because she chooses to do that. She has a chance to go along with the normal crowd and elects not to, due to her strong moral compass. Similarly, she could keep her powers, sit on her ass, and let people die by vampire attacks – but again, she doesn’t – not because Giles makes her be a hero, because she quickly proves she won’t be controlled by him or anyone else – but because she’s too good a person.

So unless ‘being a good person’ is a hardship under your definition, I have to staunchly contradict the claim that Buffy is some kind of iconic example of afflicted female protagonists. Yes, her desire to be normal is there – but she wants to help people more than she wants to be a normal person. I mean, that’s the entire point of ‘Anne’.

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Fred Davis said on December 5th, 2013 at 5:51 pm

@candidgamera: “She has a chance to go along with the normal crowd”

Not really, when she reaches sunnydale she’s isolated because she’s the weirdo who had to move to sunnydale because she “burned her last school gymnasium down”. And cordelia doesn’t like her and keeps her outcast.

It’s only by the end of high school that she started to be accepted as a benevolent force rather than just a weirdo.

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Samus Aran (given that like most NES characters, she’s introduced with no background.)

The Powerpuff Girls.

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To go back to the beginning of the comments, Buffy in the movie. She is a normal girl, from an upper-class family, and very popular cheerleader. If you count that, and not Welcome to the Hellmouth, as the start of her story, she clearly qualifies.

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Two I’d question from among those mentioned:

Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz stories. As introduced, she is living on a failing Kansas farm — that is, in poverty, as Uncle Henry is unable to consistently make his mortgage payments. Especially in contrast to life in Oz, this looks to me like hardship; it’s just that Dorothy endures said hardship relatively cheerfully.

Honor Harrington is also the explicit product of suffering; we learn quite early in her adventures that her interaction with Pavel Young at Saganami Island — revealed in flashback — was a keynote and turning point in her training. (OTOH, Stephanie Harrington, Honor’s distant ancestor, almost certainly does count; prior to the events of either the original or book-length version of A Beautiful Friendship, she is clearly shown to have had a remarkably happy and well-adjusted childhood.)

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The Crazed Spruce said on December 5th, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Leslie Knope.
Captain (formerly Ms.) Marvel.
She-Hulk.
Most of the female members of the Legion of Super-Heroes (specifically, Saturn Girl).
Sif.
And I can’t think of anything particularly tragic about Lois Lane’s back story.

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And I can’t think of anything particularly tragic about Lois Lane’s back story.

Silver Age Lois Lane falls under the romcom clause. Other versions of Lois Lane tend to be supporting characters rather than protagonists.

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If you’re counting the Powerpuff girls, then the My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crew qualify as well.

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The Crazed Spruce said on December 5th, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Maybe so, Thok, but from the Bronze Age on, especially after Byrne’s reboot, when Lois took center stage, she held her own.

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As far as Friendship is Magic goes, Twilight Sparkle (the central protagonist) is introduced as a social recluse and only then overcomes her isolation. It’s later revealed she still remembers quite vividly being bullied in “Magic Kindergarten” and has most of her self-validation invested in excelling academically and gaining her mentor Celestia’s praise.

While Applejack is all but implied to have been an orphan long before the pilot episode, Pinkie Pie had a joyless childhood and Fluttershy was bullied and mocked for her lack of flying skills to the point that it still affects her as an adult, these details of their backstory are only revealed later on. That leaves Rarity and Rainbow Dash with past lives appearing to have been fairly complication-free.

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Canukistani John said on December 5th, 2013 at 8:18 pm

I’d echo Paksenarrion.

Most of the Female Co-protagonists in the Wheel Of Time series are introduced and exist prior to the story without hardship as a defining trait-specifically Egwene, Nynaeve, Min Farshaw, and Elayne. Now that I think about it *possibly* Aveindha, if you don’t count “comes from a warrior culture that adapted to a death zone” as hardship.

Molly Carpenter of the Dresden files, but she’s BG until she moves up into the co-protag team, and by that point it can be argued.

Jane Watson from Elementary.

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The Unstoppable Gravy Express: Wonder Woman left her home voluntarily and eagerly, with permission from her mother and her gods and the ability to return at will

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Any of the female characters from Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards books would probably qualify here. Yeah, some of them have tough lives, but none of them have a particular trauma that completely defines them, as they are three-dimensional portrayals of women with agency.

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I guess Kitty Pryde wouldn’t count since she was introduced into an ensemble.

What about Pre-Crisis Barbara Gordon as Batgirl?

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Hmmm…I’m thinking some people are letting admiration for badass protagonists lead to overlooking key parts of the story.

I would say Paksenarrion is pretty much the definition of a suffering protagonist, usually because of her gender. That’s the entire story arc of the series, and it’s not like Moon is terribly subtle about it.

Molly Carpenter turns into a protagonist after going through some serious stuff, including black magic and near beheadings, and then all the subsequent nonsense that Harry/Butcher puts her through.

Jane Watson in Elementary starts the series wracked with guilt about the patient she killed on the operating table.

So I’m going to say…no, you’ve got “suffering heroine” trope all over the place here.

As for Princess Leia — she’s literally the princess in the tower that the heroes go rescue. In fact, more than once during the course of the original trilogy.

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Candlejack said on December 5th, 2013 at 10:53 pm

As I recall it, Fred Davis, Buffy had a chance in the first episode to join Cordelia’s clique, but stood up for Willow instead. I could be wrong, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched.

As for Jane Watson from Elementary, Canukistani John, she accidentally killed a patient and was barred from practicing medicine for a while; she was traumatized enough by her error to still not be practicing when we meet her. [Edit: Fab O beat me to it.]

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Molly Carpenter grows up in Dresdenverse Chicago, with wizards, dueling fairies, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, etc. Babs Gordon grows up in Gotham City, where supervillains run the place whenever a masked vigilante isn’t terrifying the populace.

Hardship by setting.

Of course, almost all heroes of whatever gender are born of hardship. That is the default.

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Samus Aran. The first Metroid game does not reference her tragic past, or even reveal that she’s a woman until you beat the game.

The Boss from MGS3.

Technically also Commander Shepard if you choose the female variant.

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In kids literature one shining modern example is Polly from the Mr Gum books by British author Andy Stanton – clever, astute, loyal, and no traumatic back-story in sight – she just is what she is (and if anyone doesn’t know the Mr Gum books they are hugely recommended – 21stC Roald Dahl, perfect for kids from 7-11 years old).

Oh, and maybe Arrietty from the Borrowers – she’s experienced no trauma at the start of the books?

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Flimflammery said on December 6th, 2013 at 5:23 am

If we’re talking fiction in general, Thomasina Coverley and Hannah Jarvis from Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play Arcadia are both exceptions to the rule.

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Dougal Cochrane said on December 6th, 2013 at 6:10 am

Jean Louise “Scout” Finch

Mary Poppins.

Wendy Moira Angela Darling

Eglantine Price

Anne and George of the Famous Five

Irene Adler

Princess Eilonwy

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candidgamera said on December 6th, 2013 at 8:27 am

I finally put my finger on the problem with labelling Buffy as one of the afflicted – she doesn’t have hardship, she has an internal conflict. Hardship should be something that the protagonist had/has no choice in, something external. Buffy can choose a normal life; she elects, instead, to help people.

If internal conflict is hardship, then we might as well just skip this exercise.

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John Myers said on December 6th, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I’d argue Kima Griggs from The Wire qualifies.

Being a detective messes up her life (like it does to nearly every character on the show) but she starts out relatively healthy and happy despite being one of the only women in what is clearly a macho douchebag factory.

Ellen Ripley in Alien is a really a great example for the same reason that makes Alien great in general, like all the characters in the movie her motivations are:

1. not die
2. do her job
3. get paid for her job

What separates her from the rest of the crew is that she prioritizes number one over saving Cain. Because Cain is an idiot.

I could be wrong but I thought Amelie’s entire character arc was overcoming her father’s inability to show affection toward her?

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NotTheBuddha said on December 6th, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Paksenarion’s story begins with her fleeing an arranged marriage.
She-Hulk’s origin was getting a life-saving blood transfusion from her cousin Bruce Banner.
Kitty Pryde suffered migraines from her emerging mutant power.

Non-suffering: Tea Leoni in DEEP IMPACT

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The Unstoppable Gravy Express said on December 6th, 2013 at 1:22 pm

The Unstoppable Gravy Express: Wonder Woman left her home voluntarily and eagerly, with permission from her mother and her gods and the ability to return at will

Well, all right then. On the list she goes!

Other candidates:
Mrs. Marple
China O’Brien
Jessica Fletcher
Kara “Starbuck” Thrace
Allison DuBois (Medium) (unless you count being stuck with a douchey husband)

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DistantFred said on December 6th, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Not the Buddha- Compared to most of the male X-Men Kitty Pryde’s “gets migraines” were pretty minor. Wolverine is Wolverine. Cyclops is an orphan who involuntarily destroys anything he looks at and who was recruited into crime as a weapon. Iceman and Nightcrawler both had to deal with lynch mobs. Colossus is Russian. Beast found his emerging mutancy to be so traumatic that he had himself erased from the memories of anyone who ever knew him. Banshee has a dead wife and brother out to destroy him for it.

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The Unstoppable Gravy Express said on December 6th, 2013 at 2:18 pm

I gotta agree with DistantFred, it’s hard for me to see Kitty Pryde as being initially defined by hardship and suffering. My memory is that she started out as “quirky teenager”.

New candidate: V.I. Warshawski

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quirkygeekgirl said on December 6th, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Juno – Juno – not suffering until the movie starts and shows how she deals with the hardship of teen pregnancy on her own terms

Jadzia Dax – DS9 – I’m not sold that her having to go through the initiate program twice is really a hardship compared to Kira having her home invaded by Cardassians for 60 years

Edwina McDunnough – Raising Arizona – come on she’s a cop

Jordan O’Neil – G.I. Jane – no hardship until the movie begins (even if it is a terriblish movie)

Elizabeth Bennet – Pride and Prejudice – not sure if she counts but really why not?

Janet Colgate – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – she’s the target of a bet and she’s awesome!

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Enlight_Bystand said on December 6th, 2013 at 4:13 pm

UGE: Kara ‘I got my boyfriend killed by passing him from flight school when he wasn’t ready and it drove a wedge between his Brother who I loved and their father who I see as my father and I’m not telling the father about it and I’m constantly acting out and almost actively trying to get myself thrown out of the fleet/put in jail’ Thrace?

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lance lunchmeat said on December 6th, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Iji? Ursula from Sword and Sworcery?

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John Myers said on December 6th, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Nearly every character in Mass Effect has a tragic back story, including Shepard, except Tali. Her arc is tied to species tragedy but not her own personal experiences. When you met her, her goal is to complete the same rite of passage all Quarians undergo.

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NotTheBuddha said on December 6th, 2013 at 7:16 pm

It’s not suffering relative to guys in the story, it’s suffering relative to people. Lots of the X-Men are introduced as suffering because that’s primarily what Prof X seeks out, mutants that need help.

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Walter Kovacs said on December 6th, 2013 at 7:37 pm

One thing that some people seem to be avoiding here … there is a difference between having a backstory that contains hardship or suffering, and being defined by that.

Just as an example: Batman, in most incarnations can be defined by his tragic backstory (at least at first). The Adam West Batman even drops a nod to it in it’s first episode, although that show could definitely be seen as one where Batman isn’t really defined by, or trying to overcome, his tragic past. It’s something that happened, but by this point, he’s already overcome it to some extent. Contrast that with Superman. You do have some stories where he’s ‘defined’ by being the Last Son of Krypton, but in stuff like the Reeves movie, it’s just sort of a thing from his past. He doesn’t dwell on it, especially once he reaches adulthood, etc.

Being “THE cop that lost their partner” is different from being “a cop that lost their partner”. If it’s presented as an explanation for the characters behaviour, or parallels the conflict going on, sure.

For Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, her story is presented as wanderlust and the grass being greener on the other side, more so than trying to escape the harsh tragedy of growing up in poverty. If there is suffering or hardship, it’s not something she’s defined by.

Someone pointed out Korra from Legend of Korra. She’s a great example. While lots of character’s around her (and in the previous series) have tragedy in their past that define them on some level, she’s just very competent and is training to be the ‘chosen one’. Her hardships and struggles in the series come in part because of her not having really faced hardships in the past, as she is easily frustrated, being someone to which everything came easy before. Even with later revelations about stories about her parents, all of it was things she never would have known about.

For another example, Kaitnyss from the Hunger Games. While the set up basically means just about any protagonist is going to have a tragic backstory, it being a dystopia and all, she has the extra layer of basically having to replace her father because of the 1-2 punch of her father dying and her mother shutting down as a result. So she’s very much defined by her hardship, as she’s basically someone that ‘grew up too fast’ to fill in for missing parents, on top of the horrible conditions the average district 12-er would go through. So that is someone that fits the trope well, compared to some borderline examples where “well, something bad happened to them in the past”, that doesn’t really come up until later on in their story.

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Tim O'Neil said on December 6th, 2013 at 8:33 pm

Kara “Starbuck” Thrace – Hell, no. Her tragic past and formative traumas are one of the engines that powers the story for the entirety of the series.

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Audrey Parker from Haven?

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Thinking about this brought I came up with Nimue in the Warlord Chronicles, who is introduced with absolutely no trauma or issues, just a clear goal (to become the first female Druid).

And then she spends the first book being raped, mutilated, and driven insane, and these traumas (inevitably) define her character for the remaining two books.

One of the more interesting details is that she was expecting — and even hoping — for something like this to happen to her, as it was necessary for her to suffer the “three wounds” to become a Druid (and, by extension, it’s pretty much stated that Merlin has also been raped, maimed, and driven insane in his backstory, although he shows no sign of it).

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Cespinarve said on December 7th, 2013 at 8:24 am

Lucy and Susan Pevensie in the Narnia books. Yes, there’s a war on, but that’s more an explanation as to why they’re in the country than any particular hardship, although the films make it more of an issue tahn the books do.

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Stephen McNeil said on December 7th, 2013 at 10:57 am

My first thought at the list of Disney protagonists early in the list was to go Ghibli, and then somebody mentioned San from Princess Mononoke, but that’s nowhere near the best choice because: orphan wildling raised by a wolf goddess has gotta mess you up a little.

But plenty of other Ghibli choices.

– Nausicaä of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
– Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle.
– Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service, unless you define “you are young and you need to grow up because this is a coming of age story” to be a defining hardship
– Chihiro Ogino of Spirited Away. (I don’t want to move to a new town could be a great suffering and hardship for a tween, but it’s not the defining burden she must overcome as the core element of the narrative.)
– Satsuki and Mei from My Neighbor Totoro, although depending on what symbolic significance you want to ascribe to Totoro and the sprites, I suppose you could argue that the whole movie is just about the girls coming to terms with their mother’s illness.

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Hermione Granger, assuming she counts as a protagonist, definitely fits. (She is somewhat less than perfect socially, but she’s got supportive parents, and is generally pretty amazing. Her desires are “to do keep doing well in school”.)

Robin from How I Met Your Mother has an interesting claim — while the series is a romcom, while introduced, she’s a series protagonist, but not looking for romance. The question, really, comes down to whether or not, when introduced, she’s a protagonist or just a love object for Ted.

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Tom Galloway said on December 9th, 2013 at 1:04 am

Let’s go a bit further back. I don’t recall Juliet being said to have any particular hardship until she fell for Romeo (I believe this is out of the rom-com requirement section as she was not particularly looking for a romantic partner or suffering from lack of same).

And how about Lady Macbeth? Or is there a backstory I’m not recalling on her?

Neither the original nor Silver Age Hawkgirls were from a suffering background (I think something might have been retconned in for Shayera, but only decades after she was introed).

Capt/Ms Marvel was introduced as having to prove her skills and competence as a woman in male dominated fields, and when we met her family, her father was a classic “you’re only a girl” type.

Jean Grey’s trauma was retconned in close to 20 years after her introduction.

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kingderella said on December 9th, 2013 at 7:53 am

I’d say Buffy doesn’t count if you count the movie as canon, but does if you don’t.

While on the subject: What about Cordelia?

Sidney Bristow (Alias)? She has bad stuff happen to her right out of the gate, and she has more bad stuff retconned into her childhood as the series goes on… but she does start as a kick-ass special agent who mostly has her shit together, despite her estrangement from her father.

Gemma Simmons from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

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The Unstoppable Gravy Express said on December 9th, 2013 at 11:54 am

Gemma Simmons has been too much of a reactionary background character to count, I think. And the one story where she might count as a protagonist, it was because she got infected with a deadly virus-thing about to make her explode.

See, the reason I mentioned Kara Thrace was that she was introduced as a cool, no-nonsense bad-ass fighter pilot. Later on we found out her backstory is chock-full-o’ tragedy, of course.

But again, I thought the idea of the exercise was thinking of female protagonists who aren’t introduced in terms of “here, meet this long-suffering soul drowning in hardship”. Because plenty of them ARE introduced in such Fontine-like terms.

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captain benjamin yolo said on December 12th, 2013 at 11:32 pm

. Every female romantic comedy protagonist ever, for example, is defined by their lack of a partner

Presumably the antithesis of this would be Sex in the City.

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