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For Immediate Release
April 9, 2014

For more information, contact
Valerie Dimino
(585) 395-5163

Breaking the Mold: The Transformation of the Female Protagonist

Scholars Day presentations examine beloved heroines

The books that speak to us most as young adults are those with powerful protagonists — characters we can relate to or be inspired by. The possibilities of female protagonists have undergone significant shifts and struggles in the last 150 years. As heroines learn, love, laugh and cry, we venture alongside them and hope to end up somehow stronger from the journey. But what makes heroines realistic, and what allows them to resonate with readers?

As part of Scholars Day 2014, graduate students Erin Brewer, Jules Oyer and Julie Dyrda presented their final research papers from a fall 2013 session of Young Adult Literature, under the guidance of Assistant Professor Kristen Proehl. The course, Proehl said, “focused especially upon the experiences of coming-of-age for young girls and boys across differences in race, gender, sexuality, class, historical time period and national identity.” Each of the three presenters focused on different facets of these themes.

For her project, “Growing up Graphic: The Iconic Coming-of-age Experience in Persepolis,” Erin explored the concept of heroine as self-portrait in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir, Persepolis. She felt the format made the reader a more active participant in the narrative and, thus, more empathetic. Empathy, she argued, is what makes us value stories and want to share them. Literary theory regarding design techniques informed Erin’s research as she analyzed the impact of Satrapi’s artistic choices on the reader’s experience. She felt that the book successfully transcended autobiography and could serve as a “universal coming-of-age experience for young adult readers,” representing a widely understood struggle for identity in youth.

In “Arrested Development: The Myth of Evolution in Alcott’s Little Women,” Jules argued against the common perception of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as a game-changer for feminism in 19th-century literature. Though Alcott successfully represented the “tension between self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment” and made some strides toward change, they were quelled by her ultimate conformity to the expectations of the times, as her characters settled into marriage and motherhood. Even Jo, known for her tomboyish ways and rebellious spirit, could only break the mold to a point, simply moving from one domestic space to another, her voice still contained. Jules described the novel as “merely dabbling in the progressive stages of transformation for a new model of womanhood.”

Julie’s presentation, “The Evolving Heroine: Female Protagonists in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Golden Compass, and The Hunger Games,” examined the evolution of female characters in fantasy novels — “how far we’ve come,” she said, “and how far we still have to go.” Focusing on C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, she explored the capabilities attributed to women and the extent to which they had to depend on other (male) characters to carry them through. The transformation is clear when comparing Narnia’s Pevensie girls — who, at best, were given tools to defend themselves — to modern-day heroines like Katniss in The Hunger Games, whose bravery and independence were crucial to her survival. The combination of those traditionally male qualities with her natural female beauty was what made Katniss so widely successful and respected — and made her the face of a revolution — simultaneously honoring and breaking gender norms.

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