Smurfette Principle Essays

A long time ago I posted this image on my blog and Twitter as a response to what I feel is the rampant misuse of the Smurfette Principle:

It has come up a few times again in the past few days so for the sake of clarity I should probably expand on it by explaining properly what I mean with it.

The Sassette Principle
An Addendum to the Smurfette Principle

Katha Pollitt, a feminist poet, essayist and critic who apparently fell asleep during a showing of The Little Mermaid(1), coined the term Smurfette Principle in 1991 in an essay for the New York Times. She defines it as follows:

"Contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, like "Garfield", or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined." (2)

Further, here is how defines the Smurfette Principle.

"For any series not aimed solely at females, odds are high that only one female will be in the regular cast." (3)

There is certainly validity to the observation that shows not typically for female audiences tend to include very few female characters to contrast with the male ones. That by itself is not in question, thus the Smurfette Principle isn't necessarily an incorrect observation.

My issue however is that far too often this observation is used to generate outrage over an often false description of the particular setting or circumstances we are applying it to. In the context of the Smurfette Principle, its namesake Smurfette is naturally regularly brought up because "she's the only female in a town of 100 smurfs". The obvious inference people are supposed to take away is that the writer(s) of the Smurfs went through the trouble of defining 100 characters with only 1 of the little blue creatures being female and with her primary characteristic being the girl. Sounds pretty bad, right?

Well, the problems with that statement are the following:

  1. There aren't actually 100 Smurf characters despite over 50 years worth of stories, comics, cartoons and movies.
  2. Smurfette is often elevated to being the second-in-command after Papa Smurf rather than just being "the girl". Her importance is greater than that of most other smurfs.
  3. There are more female characters who are not smurfs.
  4. There are more female smurfs introduced other than just Smurfette, such as Grandma Smurf, Clockwork Smurfette and Sassette (and most recently in The Smurfs 2 movie, Vexy Smurf).

None of these things refute the premise that in Smurf media there are a minority of female characters to a majority of male characters. What it does show however is that the severity of this disparity is often unrealistically overstated to make the problem seem much more severe than it in actuality is. Going by male and female character lists on the Smurfs wikia (male) (female), for the moment not taking into consideration the creators and voice actors on said lists (making this a bit sloppy), the ratio becomes closer to 1 female for every 3-4 males instead of the extremely hyperbolic 1 female for every 100 males.

So it all boils down to how honest the piece is represented. Is the person commenting on this phenomenon actually representing the media as it is, or are they sweeping characters or events under the carpet to artificially inflate how dire the supposed problem with representation is?

This doesn't apply solely to the Smurfette Principle either, for example you could easily alter it to fit complaints about damsels in distress: is the critic actually representing a particular character the way she is presented, or are they reducing her entire role down to that moment she served as a damsel in distress and are they representing her accurately during that time?

I feel this is an issue in media criticism that is important to bring up.  It is so rare to actually be presented counterpoints or data that doesn't fit the speaker's specific narrative within the context of their criticism. A lot of critics arguing for better representation in media like to present their problems as if we essentially need to start from nothing, because the current media landscape is so outrageously offensive it would be a mercy to just tear the whole thing down.

Here's an example you won't see when media critics
complain how female characters are always big-breasted
and scantily clad. This character in question is
technically fully naked.

That is not a reasonable position to get behind when we have come to a conclusion based on a multitude of fallacies, one-sided arguments and false representations. This ignores a lot of awesome characters we already have (heck, sometimes even people when the achievements of women in game dev are being ignored). We have a ways to go in a lot of areas, but the goal should be inclusivety for all, not getting rid of everything someone personally doesn't like. That's not being inclusive or progressive at all, that's just kicking out the established hierarchy and redecorating the throne room for a different team (which of course sounds like an awesome deal for the people taking over).

In short: the Sassette Principle is not a refutation of the Smurfette Principle, we are unfortunately still in a situation where writers could stand to insert more female characters in their art (or other minority characters for that matter). However the Sassette Principle is a comment on overstating the problem when presenting things like the Smurfette Principle (which unfortunately started in the very article that coined it).

Or, the Smurfette Principle, wrongly applied, ignores the existence of Sassettes. 

The Burden of Default

As a further comment on the arguments of Hers; The Smurfette Principle, I would also like to add nuance to the following idea:

"Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys." (2)

There is another side to the coin here that goes unexplored in the article, namely that in a situation in which a pure Smurfette Principle is in play, a girl doesn't have to be anything other than a girl whereas a male character does need a defining trait to matter at all. The downside of being default is that you need other characteristics that lift you out of that state of defaultness. So the male characters in the Smurfs really need to be individuals to be at all noteworthy. After all, why would anyone care about you if you are just default? You aren't valuable since they already have plenty of you!

I would not dare state strongly what effect this has (if any at all) without studies to back it up, but if we're to assume the messages it instills I'd like to present the idea that a straight-up Smurfette Principle could also leave young girls with a sense of entitlement simply for being girls and young boys with feeling lesser valued for just being boys (If this statement is offensive to you, consider that it still makes the case that we need more female representation).

The Smurfs - The Smurflings (2013 reprint)

Notes & Sources

1) Somehow the author of the article notes that Ursula's words, despite villainous, are proven correct, even though I have no clue where she gets this idea as the reverse of the situation plays out since Prince Eric is obviously looking for a girl with a voice (which could metaphorically be considered as him valuing a woman for her thoughts rather than her looks). I go further into this in Out of the Sea. 

2) Katha Pollitt, Hers; The Smurfette Principle (1991)

3), The Smurfette Principle

Images from:
- Peyo's The Smurfs: The Smurflings (2013 reprint)
- The Lord of the Rings: War in the North (2011)

In 1991 writer and cultural critic Katha Pollitt coined the phrase “The Smurfette Principle” to draw attention to the tendency for movies, TV shows, and other cultural products to include one, and just one female (source). For the unfamiliar, The Smurfs was a children’s television show, airing from 1981 to 1989, populated by a whole world of little blue men and one (sexy) blue woman:

In her latest in the series Tropes vs. Women, Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian applies The Smurfette Principle to today’s movies and shows.  How far have we come?

What do Inception, the Transformers, and the Muppets all have in common?  They all suffer from a trope called the Smurfette Principle. As defined by TVTropes, “The Smurfette Principle is the tendency for works of fiction to have exactly one female amongst an ensemble of male characters, in spite of the fact that roughly half of the human race is female. Unless a show is purposefully aimed at a female viewing audience, the main characters will tend to be disproportionately male.”

In 1991 Katha Pollitt, a feminist essayist wrote an article for the NY Times because she was disturbed by the lack of substantive female characters for her young daughter to watch.  She found that most of the programming aimed at young people had a majority of male characters, with just one female included in the group, she called this The Smurfette Principle.

You’ve probably guessed by now that this trope was named after the only female smurf in all of Smurfville.
Once upon a time, the Smurfs were an hormonious  all-dude miniature civilization comprised entirely of kind good natured little blue dudes living out their cooperative-dude existence somewhere deep in their dude forest utopia.

We’ve got Lazy, Grouchy, Jokey, Brainy, Baby, and Papa Smurf and all their Smurf buddies living out their smurfy existence free from any of those meddling, divisive, controlling, manipulative, mean women folk.  But one day the evil wizard Gargamel decided on a devilish plan to sabotage smurfdom. And how will he do that? yes that’s right, by creating a female smurf!

CLIP Smurfs – The Smurfette

Gargamel: That’s it, I’ll get them through their hearts, I will send them a Smurfette

So Gargamel sent in Smurfette to cause divisions between the lovable blue creatures so he can capture and eat their tender blue flesh in a nice honey lemon sauce.  Long story short, love and understanding won out when Papa Smurf worked some smurf magic and transformed Gargamel’s impostor into a real live smurf girl, “sexy” blond hair, high heels and all!

Down in the 100 acre woods, we follow the adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Rabbit, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl and Tigger – all dudes of course… in fact there’s only one female character, Kanga, who shows up occasionally as the mother of little roo.

Even Jim Hensen didn’t seem too keen on the women, along side Kermit, Gonzo, and Fozzie the Bear, Miss Piggy was the only female muppet.

We can even see the Smurfette Principle outside of programming aimed at young people. So for example you have George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy where Princess Leia is the only principle female character in the entire galactic empire.

If you’re like me then you are probably thinking there’s got to be something wrong, I mean, Star Trek has had a female captain, Buffy has saved the world from a demon apocalypse at least half dozen times, this trope has gotta be a thing of the past right?

Ellen Page gets Smurfette’d in Inception as her character is the only female dream team member.
Big Bang Theory has a primary main cast of brainy men plus the smurfette that lives across the hall

While there’ve been a small handful of female autobots in the Transformers universe, Arcee is the only regularly reoccurring female cast member and she only appeared in 8 episodes out of the original series. She was set to appear in the 1st Transformers live action film but she was dropped and replaced with Ironhide.  She did however appear in the second film Revenge of the Fallen, which also happens to be one of the most sexist and racist films I’ve ever seen.  This version of Arcee is either a hivemind with 3 different motorcycle components or the other two bikes are her sisters, it’s not exactly clear.  But it doesn’t really matter anyway because they all get blown up at the end. Plus they only appear on screen for a grand total of exactly…

Clip: Transformers Revenge of the Fallen
Female Autobot: Follow us to the pillars — AHHH!

39 seconds.

Even in most seasons of Jon Stewart’s the Daily Show there has been only one female correspondent at a time.

The Smurfette principle is especially important to remember now because Hollywood is currently trying to  remake everything and anything that we even vaguely remembers from the 80′s and 90′s in an attempt to cash in on our collective nostalgia, you know, instead of maybe taking a risk on things that are new and exciting.

We even have a live action Smurfs movie coming out.
We’ve had 2 big blockbuster movies based on the Transformers, and sadly there’s another one on its way.
The 2009 Star Trek reboot by JJ Abrams had Uhura as the only female character in the main bridge crew.

And just like Star Trek we can be sure that hollywood is not going to try to bring gender equality into these reboots but rather just stick with their Smurfettes.

The problem with narratives infused with the Smurfette Principle is not only the lack of women but as Katha Pollitt points out in her New York Times article, “Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.”  Basically this means that men are the default and women get to be sidekicks or sexy decorations.

Even when there’s only one female primary cast member, as videoblogger Nostalgia Chick points out in her Smurfette Principle video, they are usually just “sexy” female duplicates of their male counterparts.

Clip Nostalgia Chick – The Smurfette Principle
Nostalgia Chick – Disney was the one that kinda really started this interest in the whole default and deviation from default complex, basically this idea that men seem to want a bagina’d version of themselves.

That’s an excellent point, thank you Nostalgia Chick.

The Smurfette Principle is an alternative name for Tokenism or the Token Minority which is the inclusion of one cast member from a marginalized group in an otherwise, white, straight male ensemble.  We see this most often when writers include one person of colour and that characters is usually painfully stereotyped.  This is a little trick used by movie studios to pretend to appear “multicultural” and “diverse” when really they’re just upholding the status quo and not changing anything substantially.

So here’s a tip for all you Hollywood writers out there, it is in fact possible to have more than one woman in your script.  Really, I swear it is.  You could even have 2 or 3 women or even the majority of your cast be women.

Here’s a simple test you can ask yourself when you’re writing your scripts: “Does my movie have more than one woman on the primary cast?”

That’s it, that’s the whole test.

If you answered “NO” then you need to go back to the drawing board.  If you answered “YES” then we can proceed to the Bechdel Test.  Once you’ve got two female characters who are talking to each other about things other then men, then we can talk about fully developed female characters.

Song – “la, la, la, la, sing a happy song, la, la, la, la, smurf the whole day long”

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