Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Charles Maland

Committee Members

Amy Billone, Chris Holmlund, Mary Papke


Over the first seventy years of American cinema, big budget Hollywood films rarely told heroic stories about teen female protagonists as they did for young male protagonists. Until the civil rights era, young female protagonists most often found identity and sought economic security by winning the affection of a young man by the end of the film. I call this character type the “pre-bride” because she is a teenager, and while there is no “marriage” by the end of the film, she has successfully trained for the marriage plot ending in her future. Since then, some films have challenged this long-standing paradigm, leading to the emergence of a new conceptual model for teen girls—the independent heroine—who is defined by agency instead of the marriage plot.Drawing on the work of cultural historians and employing both ideological and formalist film analysis, this dissertation explores the emergence of the independent heroine and the persistence and updating of the pre-bride by analyzing the teen female protagonists in six representative, popular American films: two from the 1980s, two from the 1990s, and two from the past decade. By examining the teen protagonists of Sixteen Candles (1984), Clueless (1995), and Twilight (2008), I show that the pre-brides here were not seamless replicants of traditional femininity but rather altered old paradigms. At the same time, I analyze how the independent heroines develop considerable agency in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Titanic (1997), and The Hunger Games (2012) by diverging from marriage plot conventions, although they are not always radically disruptive characters. The arc over the past thirty-plus years suggests that although the pre-bride remains as one persistent character prototype for female teen protagonists, independent heroines are beginning to appear in traditionally heroic roles as the culture adjusts to the idea that women may be as capable as men in pursuing authentic identity separate, but not necessarily apart, from seeking a mate.

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