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Famous Female Characters in Literature


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Randomizer Randomizer

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 01:03 PM #1 Famous Female Characters in Literature

In response to Student of Trinity I'm starting a list of famous females in literature.  I'm probably missing hundreds just because of my reading preferences.

Lysistrata - Lysistrata by Aristophanes - comedic farce about stopping the wars between Athens and Sparta.

Arthurian legends:
-- Morgan le Fey
-- Guinevere
-- Elaine the mother of Galahad

Grimm's fairy tales:
-- Snow White and her less memorable sister Briar Rose plus their wicked step mother
-- Cinderella
-- Little Red Riding Hood
-- Sleeping Beauty

Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales
-- the Little Mermaid

William Shakespeare
-- Portia - Merchant of Venice
-- Lady Macbeth - Macbeth - behind every successful man is a woman shoving him upward with a dagger  smile
-- Ophelia - Hamlet


Hester Pyrenne - The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Scarlett O'Hara - Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher - Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Dorothy Gale - Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum
Irene Adler - A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a Sherlock Holmes case
Eliza Doolittle - Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Cordelia Naismith mother of Miles Vorkosigan - Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold
Morgraine - Morgraine stories by C. J. Cherryh
Jirel of Joiry - stories by C. L. Moore
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Actaeon Actaeon

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 01:11 PM #2 Famous Female Characters in Literature

The status of your choices seem like a bit of a stretch in some cases, but I dig the project.

Is there a particular era you're looking for?

You seem to have confined yourself to relative classics, so I'd like to add in Maid Marion, the various protagonists of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte novels, and Anna Karenina. Depending on whether you accept modernists, there's also the works of Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, et al.
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Posted 27 April 2012 - 01:15 PM #3 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Merely naming every famous female literary character seems kind of insipid; there should be a reason we're naming them other than just for the sake of it.

If we may look back to the other thread (and get a little side-inspired by Dintiradan's latest thread) I suggest naming badass, or noteworthy characters (or leads, which Actaeon seems to think you meant).

Anyway, my first offering is Clytemnestra, who murdered her husband and his concubine in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter.

Triumph Triumph

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 02:05 PM #4 Famous Female Characters in Literature

I think Antigone is notable for her defiance to her father (from one of Sophocles's plays).

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 02:10 PM #5 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Originally Posted By: Triumph
I think Antigone is notable for her defiance to her father (from one of Sophocles's plays).

It's her uncle, Creon (her father is Oedipus (who is also her brother, of course)), but yeah, I think I was going to mention Antigone at some point.

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 02:10 PM #6 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Thanks for making the thread. Ideally I was looking for female characters who are famous (at least within some circles!) as characters, as opposed to just being characters in famous stories. In the best case I'd like to be reminded of female characters who can reasonably be mentioned in the same breath with Hamlet and Falstaff, or Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster, or Doctor Who and James Bond.

A lot of the ones listed so far suffer somewhat by clearly playing second fiddle to more major male characters in the same books, where 'more major' could be determined by the objective measure of getting many times as many lines of print, as well as by the subjective criterion of seeming cooler and more memorable.

The only one that I know that immediately strikes me as being clearly the biggest character in her books is Morgaine, though it's not clear that she is exactly the protagonist. In some ways Vanye is more the protagonist, and Morgaine is what happens to him.
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Posted 27 April 2012 - 02:22 PM #7 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Yeah, I think SoT's project is the more meaningful one.  Naming every female character in famous works will just produce a flood; naming every interesting female character will just produce a smaller flood, with the quirk that our judgments are often very different from the judgments those works have received for most of their existence.  I think Antigone is terrific, but for several thousand years Oedipus received a LOT more attention.  Actually, he still does.

Maybe the distinction is female characters who are "household names" on the same level as Hamlet, Holmes, or James Bond.
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Posted 27 April 2012 - 02:38 PM #8 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Bond became famous largely due to film adaptations (and, I suppose, the same goes for Holmes to some extent). Eowyn is a pretty household name after the film trilogy, and Hermione is hard to forget in the post-HP era. Lisbeth Salander's recognizable in at least two languages (I only saw the original). If you weren't confined to literature, you might include action-oriented chicks like Buffy Summers, Ellen Ripley, and Xena.

More classically, I'm a fan of Scheherazade, and let's not forget Alice.
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Posted 27 April 2012 - 03:00 PM #9 Famous Female Characters in Literature

There's also Miss Marple. She's certainly a household name.

I would argue that Holmes and Bond continue to be famous because of the film adaptations, but became famous because of the books/stories (especially in the case of Holmes, since there were no motion pictures at the time he was written).

There's also Emma Bovary, Lady Chatterly, Princess Leia (for a bit of cognitive dissonance).

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 03:03 PM #10 Famous Female Characters in Literature

But then you shift from written literature to films with novelizations so we can make some extra money.

The film version of Lord of the Rings gives Arwen a much greater role than the book version by merging her character with Glorfindel instead of her purely passive romantic interest.  Eowyn is a minor character whose major distinction is killing the Nazgul and even there she's helped out by a man or at least a halfling.

Scarlett O'Hara is the lead in the book version of Gone with the Wind but in the film version the emphasis was on Rhett Butler and her relationship with him.

Edit -

You could split the list into:

Damsels in distress
Women looking for a man to complete them
It could have been a man but the story called for women parts
Truly female characters
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Posted 27 April 2012 - 03:14 PM #11 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Arwen is not a purely passive character in the book.  It's true that she is the object of Aragorn's love, as well as the hopes of her people; but she also makes the Choice of Luthien, which is pretty much the least passive thing possible in Tolkien's world, and she chooses to let Frodo go to Valinor in her stead, without which the book would end rather differently.

Also, whoa, on that list-splitting.
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Posted 27 April 2012 - 03:23 PM #12 Famous Female Characters in Literature

The Arwen/Aragorn romance is in the book because it's based upon Tolkien's real life romance where he was kept apart from his girl friend until he was worthy.  There are only three romantic relationships in the books: Arwen/Aragorn, Eowyn/Faramir. and Rosie/Sam.  You could have dropped them from the books and not have changed it that much.  Only Aragorn was motivated by love and even then duty could have provided a reason.

On that list splitting, there are other ways to characterize the women, but it seemed to be a traditional split.  Most of the fairy tale women are in search of a husband or saved by a man.  The recent televison Once Upon a Time does recharacterize the women so they are more independent.  I really liked the take where Snow White is whistling to lure in blue birds so she could whack the little vermin.  smile
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Posted 27 April 2012 - 03:24 PM #13 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Hey Randomizer, I think there's another shovel down the hidden passage on the left of the Nephar fort, in case you need it to keep on digging. ;-)

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 03:28 PM #14 Famous Female Characters in Literature

I seriously disagree with your analysis of romantic relationships in LotR, your suggestion that the major themes and the picture of Arda in LotR would not be changed by the omission of romance, and particularly your reduction of the meaning of individual romances to factoids.

EDIT: I didn't even see the second paragraph.  Oh, geez.

Originally Posted By: Randomizer
Most of the fairy tale women are in search of a husband or saved by a man.

This is a ridiculous statement, unless you rely exclusively on Disney versions.  And to the degree that this is true, it is equally true of fairy tale men.
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Posted 27 April 2012 - 03:34 PM #15 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Romance is more significant in The Silmarillion than The Lord of the Rings in shaping history.  Melian staying to marry an elf starts the chain of love causing events to happen.  Her daughter Luthien love for Beren is the key to retrieving a Silmaril and forces the Sons of Feanor to declare war on the other elves because they are oath-bound.  Without those two romances the war against Morgoth just drags on without any real change.
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Posted 27 April 2012 - 03:48 PM #16 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Originally Posted By: Kreador
Hey Randomizer, I think there's another shovel down the hidden passage on the left of the Nephar fort, in case you need it to keep on digging. ;-)
You win this thread for today.

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 11:49 PM #17 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Tolkien is not going to be a really good source for what we're after, here. While it's true that Eowyn wins the only real fight scene in the entire War of the Ring, LotR is long, and she's a minor character. I'll grant that she's memorable, but not really in the league I wanted. Arwen is a significant plot device at a few points, but she's hardly ever even on stage.

Hermione Granger is certainly famous right now, and is a well-developed character who does a lot in the books. I guess she has to count. Though it's again a little disconcerting that she's so definitely a second banana to Harry.

Alice in Wonderland also probably counts, although it's hard to say much about her as a character since the focus of the book is entirely on Wonderland, and not on Alice.

Miss Marple should count, maybe even as the best example so far. Funnily, though, I have never read any Miss Marple novels. I'm not a big fan of the classic Agatha Christie hoodunnit.

Cordelia Naismith is a major character in one novel, but only a minor one in the rest of the Vorkosigan series. Most of the other characters express respect for her, and are often described as having been influenced by her very significantly, to the point where you can kind of infer her as a giant personality; but she's hardly ever on stage.


Spoiler


I dunno, folks. We're getting some entries in the list, but it's not getting long fast, and most of the entries we have are also in some way a bit awkward. Maybe we do need to head for that Nephar fort.

Edited by Actacus Finch, 07 April 2014 - 03:29 PM.
fixed spoiler tags

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 12:53 AM #18 Famous Female Characters in Literature

I think TV and film might indeed give better material, as Actaeon says. From familiarity, I'm also pulling up the sci-fi names, but you can do worse. I'll also put in a vote for Battlestar Galactica: the cast has plenty of women, and among Sharon Valerii, Starbuck, and especially Laura Roslin you get an interesting spectrum of women who are strong, flawed, and compelling.

For mainstream TV? I'm just not familiar enough, but my limited experience isn't turning up anyone obvious. Literature is, oddly, similarly grim. There are decidedly non-central options from great literature (Dunya Raskolnikov!) and central options in decidedly non-central literature (the fans will swear by Tamora Pierce; Lyra Belacqua at least made it to the big screen).

Maybe Dangerous Liaisons? The women aren't exactly role models, but they're something. Fermina Daza in Love in the Time of Cholera? Do Austen's characters fit the bill? How about Jane Eyre?

—Alorael, who isn't truly compelled by any of his options. For one thing, none can match the pop culture stature of the men. He thinks that standard might just be impossible. But there are other flaws, too, not just of character but of characterization.

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 01:48 AM #19 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Yeah, staving off the conclusion that hardly any great fictional characters are female is looking more and more like an exercise in clutching at straws.

One card that could be played, of course, is to say that the whole notion of a 'great' fictional character is somehow masculine, and that the equally legitimate feminine alternative is characters who don't grandstand so much. To some extent this may even be right.

Male mammals have a high biological incentive to stand out from the crowd of their rivals, because their ability to pass on their genes is limited only by how much attention they can attract from mates. Female mammals hit an offspring ceiling, especially if they have small litters and long gestation like humans, so biological instincts should favor selectivity and security; and their female peers are not necessarily competitors, because the most attractive males have plenty to go around. So it's in the interests of everybody's genes for the males to strive hard and take risks to stand out, while the females maintain the group solidarity that keeps everyone safer.

Maybe I'm just getting old and discouraged, but I'm starting to think there's something to all that. It's a real factor, not only in the fictional norms we accept, but also in the real world, of course. It's got zillions of years of evolution behind it, and it won't go away just by frowning at it.

It absolutely doesn't have to be the bottom line, though. Today, thank God, human life is not just hiding from the tigers. A modern human has an enormously complex life, with very many roles to play. Even if ancient instincts remain strong in us, there is plenty of room for humans of either sex to play some of our roles against type.

At least for the sake of argument, suppose a man does have an instinct to beat out the competition in every single thing he does, and a woman's instinct instead is always to blend into the group. Even if that's so, it's perfectly possible today for a man to rein it in a bit, in some of his endeavors, for the sake of larger goals that our primitive ancestors never had. It doesn't kill you to go against some of your stronger instincts some of the time.

Conversely, on the same hypothesis about instincts, a woman can define a few contexts in her life, at least, in which she goes for the gusto. That ought to be all she needs in order to pull off some big things, if she picks the fields in which she has the most gifts. Even the most stereotypically driven man is normally not particularly talented in more than a few things, and so most of his competitiveness yields nothing of value.

So if everyone acted this way, then both men and women would be striving to excel in those fields where they actually can excel, and to co-operate in those fields where co-operation was really important, and otherwise just acting naturally and vive-ing la difference.

On this kind of hypothesis about gender-linked instincts, the key to getting the full benefit from the whole human talent pool would be to enable everyone to be more flexible in acting differently in different areas of their lives, and to encourage them to act against some instincts where it helps, without insisting that they go against nature in every way.

But that kind of complex life strategy may actually be harder for fictional characters than for real people, because a novel only holds so much information, and even well-rounded characters can only do so many things. Maybe if you make a female character conspicuously 'great' even in just a few ways, then in the novel you've pretty much made her an 'alpha female' across the board, because characters in novels really only do a few things. And maybe that makes her a disturbingly counter-instinctual female.

So if all that is so then there may never be many 'great' female characters, though there may well be great stories involving women.

Okay, this might be something bigger than a straw that I've clutched, here. But I'm mainly playing devil's advocate. I'd like to see more good attempts at confounding the argument by writing great female characters. I'm not really at all convinced that it can't be done.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 04:54 AM #20 Famous Female Characters in Literature

I'm interested to see what names we can come up with if we use the most restrictive criteria possible, but criteria which would still allow plenty of male characters to squeeze through.  I'm going to try:

"Household name and not second banana in terms of importance or name recognition to any other character"

This eliminates Hermione because she's neither the protagonist nor the title character.  This also eliminates most characters from myth and legend.  Athena would have been a great example, but even in Athens, Zeus had the Nous.  Classic literature is problematic.  It's hard to think of many examples.  Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre.

Children's literature improves the picture substantially, with many answers that come around long before feminism: Mary Poppins, Pippi Longstocking, the various female protagonists of Ford Madox Ford's novels, Amelia Bedelia, Harriet the Spy... the names actually flow in this category.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 05:42 AM #21 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Young adult and children's fiction do provide a number of choices: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Nancy Drew, Heidi, in addition to those you mentioned.

Also, mystery fiction provides a good few: In addition to Miss Marples you have currently very popular Temperance Brennan (aka Bones), V.I. Warshawski, and television perennial Jessica Fletcher to name just a few.

A less presumptuous name. A less presumptuous name.

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 06:17 AM #22 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Jane Austen had some pretty good female characters. Elizabeth Bennet, maybe?

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 06:25 AM #23 Famous Female Characters in Literature

In fantasy, the only one that comes to mind is Paksenarrion. I don't know how successful the books actually were as far as "household name" status, but they were good and sold well.

People dismiss Dragonlance as pulp, but maybe Usha from Dragons of Summer Flame? I feel as though Laurana, Kit, Crysania, etc. were all "second banana" in the earlier books, but Usha was as central to Dragons of Summer Flame as, say, Palin or Steel. And it was a bestseller. (The War of Souls trilogy also had Mina, but eh.

Neither of these are exactly Nancy Drew, in terms of names that anyone would recognize, though. This is a little strange because there are a fair number of very great fantasy authors who are women.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 06:25 AM #24 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Yes, mystery fiction is doing well. Female writers have also been very successful in the mystery genre for a long time, and some of the most popular male characters in the genre have been created by women. Dorothy L. Sayers, for instance, is one of my heroes; she was really brilliant, and interested in some very deep things. She translated Dante, wrote some very insightful literary criticism and theology, and got rich writing crime novels. Her popular writing was unabashedly escapist, but a Petrarchan sonnet that she tossed into one of the Wimsey stories made it into the Norton Anthology as a poem.

Her famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, was at first created as a purely cynical marketing plan: everyone would love to read about an idle rich lord who solved crimes. In keeping with this plan he was a thorough Mary Sue, good at practically everything. Once it was clear that he would pay the bills, though, Sayers couldn't help gradually deepening him into a plausibly real person, who just happened to have been lucky at birth, but whose difficulties thereafter were by no means trivial.

On the whole I see no evidence at all that women don't make good authors. The only problem seems to be with women as fictional characters. But both mystery and young adult genres may well be exceptions.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 07:26 AM #25 Famous Female Characters in Literature

I have to wonder if this isn't so much an issue of "exceptions" as of different standards for different genres.  The historically higher status genres of classical literature and poetry are completely dominated by male characters, while genres which were not taken seriously for a long time have much more even representation.  I'm willing to be that the less mainstream and lower status we go, the more representation women will get.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 07:32 AM #26 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Originally Posted By: HOUSE of S
I'm willing to be that the less mainstream and lower status we go, the more representation women will get.


I can see calling mysteries and children's books "lower status" in the hierarchy of literature types, but I'm not sure what you mean by suggesting they are "less mainstream."  I'd think they are actually MORE mainstream (in terms of number of people who read them) than the poetry and the sort of novels that English faculty might exalt.

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 07:44 AM #27 Famous Female Characters in Literature

P.D. James, author and life peer baroness, is female. Compare her characters Cordelia Gray and Adam Dalgleish. As a private detective, Gray undertakes An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and appears in only one sequel. As a high-ranking officer in Scotland Yard, the suitability of Dalgleish's job is never in doubt, and he has featured in fourteen best-sellers.

James started writing in the 1960s, and I guess that was just too soon. Her Dalgleish stories are individually well written, I suppose, but the momentum of the series has largely come from the contrast between Dalgleish's job as a detective and his private life as a poet and widower. Even though his private life doesn't actually feature much in the novels, it's an intriguing thread that has kept James writing more about him in book after book, instead of inventing a new figure for another police procedural. Gray couldn't have such a contrast, because her job wasn't a default that could be accepted and played against. It was too big a thing about her to leave room in a novel for much else, and this doomed her to be a thinner character.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 07:56 AM #28 Famous Female Characters in Literature

I don't think that holds, Slarty. In classical literature you have great characters like Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Hester Prynne.

In the "lowliest" of genres, SF, Fantasy, and Horror, you see a lot more women in the role either as victim or as total bad-ass evil. Much fewer balanced portrayals. The popularity of "urban fantasy" is balancing that a bit, which goes back to the Blood Ties books by Tanya Huff.

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 08:07 AM #29 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Scheherazade IS the title character. Ditto for Odette and arguably Carmen. Don't overlook ballet.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 08:27 AM #30 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Scheherazade is the protagonist.  There is not a character in the title.  She is a terrific counterexample, though.  Her story is also all about the exploitation of women by men.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 08:29 AM #31 Famous Female Characters in Literature

You forgot Isabella Swan from twilight! She has to be like, the most famous ever! (Twilight F.T.W. <3)
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 08:30 AM #32 Famous Female Characters in Literature

The original tale is called "One Thousand and One Nights", but Rimsky-Korsakov's suite, and corresponding ballet, is titled "Sheherazade".
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 08:37 AM #33 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Well, being in a story about women being badly treated is in principle a separate issue, here. Robin Hood was in a story about outlaws being treated badly, and he's okay as a famous protagonist. I think Scheherezade as an okay example, at least up to a point. She is a character in the frame story, as well as the narrator of all the others. It's just that the frame is a little thin.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 08:44 AM #34 Famous Female Characters in Literature

RE: Scheherezade: One of my favourite characters, too. Also, I was thinking yesterday about how female characters reach parity in some roles and areas (children's literature, etc.), but are completely absent in others. I think Scheherezade is the closest thing we have to a female Trickster. I'm not aware of any female equivalents of Loki or Anansi or Br'er Rabbit.

Also, regarding television and cinema: 'Conventional wisdom' says that women are more willing to relate to a male protagonist than men are to a female protagonist. I don't know if there are any studies to back this up, but even if not, enough producers think this is the case, especially in children's television and movies. When I think back to female leads in the shows I watched, they were either acting in a host role (Polka Dot Door, Under the Umbrella Tree) or the show was specifically targeted to girls. And then there's cases like Inspector Gadget, where Penny (and Brain) did all the work, but the titular character was the comic relief. Not that I have a problem with that show in particular, but it's part of a bigger trend.

There seem to be more children shows with ensemble casts than I remember, which is probably a step in the right direction.
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Posted 28 April 2012 - 09:08 AM #35 Famous Female Characters in Literature

Do we want to compile what we have so far so we don't start repeating ourselves? Perhaps a Google Doc?
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