Tropes vs. Women: #3 The Smurfette Principle

April 21, 2011

This is the third of a six part series created for Bitch Magazine. Tropes vs. Women explores the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV shows.

The Smurfette Principle was named two decades ago by Katha Pollitt, when she noticed that there were a disproportionate amount of male characters in programming aimed at young people.  Even in adult programming, when women do appear in the primary cast of a television show or movie, they are usually alone in a group of men. Sadly, this trope has made its way into the 21st century.

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Transcript

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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42 Responses to “Tropes vs. Women: #3 The Smurfette Principle”

  1. I’m assuming you’ve seen this, but Gena Davis was talking to the Wall Street Journal about exactly this issue.
    Here’s the link:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704013604576247133240163732.html

  2. As far as the Muppets are concerned, there were a few other female muppets, like Janice in the band, all chickens, the other female pig who was Miss Piggy’s biggest fan, and other random characters. None of them were as big as Miss Piggy, but they certainly were there and had mostly decent parts. But regardless, still does not pass the bechdel test :( Or at least not very often.

    On the other hand, Fraggle Rock had two of five female characters in the main cast (and they talk, and not about men), so sometimes Jim Henson did get it right. :D

    I have been going through all your vids on youtube, and the one that really resonates with me is the gendered advertising one. I really liked the ad on the end with the switched audio.

    Thomas Gerlick Reply:

    I wasn’t saying that The Muppets is a bastion of a variety of female characters only that Miss Piggy is not the only one.

    Jacki Reply:

    I appreciate bringing up other females that have been used in the cast, but the chickens aren’t exactly on the same level of character as Miss Piggy or even Fozzie. Janice isn’t really developed, either, which is a shame.

  3. The Smurfette Principle also occurs in a cartoon feature film. All the major studios do animated films whose main character is male, whether it’s a toy, a bird or a monster! I can not think of any movie is Pixar’s Dreamwoks or Blue Sky which has a female protagonist for real!

    On the other hand, I can not mention the Disney films, whose protagonists are the princesses, because the stereotypes are so many and so damaging …

    I know only one exception: the feature films of Studio Ghibli from Japan, which usually has a female character as a protagonist. But more interesting is that they are usually very intelligent, courageous and capable, which puts them far from the model of a princess or ornament on the movie script.

    (Sorry for bad English, Portuguese is my first language!)

    Thomas Gerlick Reply:

    Actually, Dreamwork’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” has a female protagonist. Unfortunately she is also the only female character in the movie.

    Iocane Reply:

    Coraline, which as produced by Laika.

    Alyson Reply:

    The Smurfette Principle also occurs in a cartoon feature film. All the major studios do animated films whose main character is male, whether it’s a toy, a bird or a monster! I can not think of any movie is Pixar’s Dreamwoks or Blue Sky which has a female protagonist for real!

    You’re absolutely correct…the worst example of this would be Bee Movie, in my opinion…in order to make a movie where a male bee was the main character, they had to completely change around the way bees live. And supposedly the whole reason that movie was made was because of Jerry Seinfeld’s great fascination with bees. Guess he missed a few things…such as that male bees exist for reproductive purposes only, then they die. Same with Antz and A Bug’s Life…while there were female ants in both of those, the “hero” was still male.

    Gemma Reply:

    I boycotted Bee Movie for that exact reason – when a movie needs to completely change the gender characteristics of an entire species just so the boys don’t miss out on being the major characters it kind of makes me sick.

    Antz was another good example where even though the colony was nominally ruled by a Queen, it was really ruled by the evil General, and when he tried to take over it took another male character to stop him.

    But the one that really pissed me off was Barnyard… where the main character is a cow with an udder who happens to be male (as are many other cows).

    Steven Reply:

    Damn! Never thought about that. Guess it’s because I’m male. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    Jen Reply:

    One of the (many) things I love about Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli is that their female protagonists are so NOT stereotyped. Miyazaki specifically said that he wanted the lead character in Spirited Away to be an unattractive young girl. It’s her strength of character that leads her to success, not her looks. Take that, Disney princesses!

  4. [...] Je kent haar wel. Die eenzame vroulijke hoofdrol tussen allemaal mannen in een film of televisieserie. Denk aan Prinses Leia bij StarWars. Luitenant Uhura als enige vrouw op de brug van de Enterprise. En recent, Inception, met Ellen Page als enige vrouw in een ensemble vol mannelijke hoofdrolspelers. Hoe dit femomeen heet? De Smurfin. Al die vrolijke blauwe kereltjes met één blonde stoot. Feminist Frequency maakte op basis van dit vertelcliché weer een mooie, confronterende video. De uitgeschreven tekst kun je hier vinden. Enjoy! [...]

  5. I have to tell you, there’s a LOT of female Transformers today than there were along time ago (the list surprised me when I looked through the fan wiki). But most of them don’t get good story time and-or are stuck in the toylines, so you’re right Arcee is the only recurring female in most of the series.

  6. Back when I was a young feminist, I was quite certain that this situation would have been mostly corrected by the time I reached middle age. So I made excuses in my head for the makers of movies, and I spent my money to see their movies. I tried not to pay too much attention to the inner voice saying, “Hey, this is crap!”

    I’m done with that now. Any media product that assumes that the stories and perspectives of women are uninteresting, or are interesting only as they relate to men, is deeply insulting to me. Also, boring. Why would I pay money to be insulted? Any programming that is not, at a minimum, Bechdel-positive, is not a valid entertainment offering, and I won’t even consider watching it. I just don’t need any more of those psychic toxins in my brain.

  7. [...] Frequency is running a six-part series called “Tropes vs Women” and the third installment is all about what is being called the Smurfette Principle. Basically, the issue at hand is the [...]

  8. [...] I’ll have to look through their other productions! While they don’t seem to have captions up (though they invite captions/translations), there is a transcript here. [...]

  9. [...] The Smurfette Principle by Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency. What it’s called when ensemble casts only have one woman: 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. [...]

  10. [...] to girls and boys. She recently began a series called Tropes vs. Women, my favorite so far being on The Smurfette Principle. She hasn’t made a video about Alien/Chosen One pregnancies in sci fi and fantasy, but she [...]

  11. Two of Inception’s three main characters are female (and, arguably, one of the two is even kind of two characters, as Mal is both the actual character and Cobb’s projections of her). Both are interesting, intelligent characters that the audience can relate to and both are critical to the story. I don’t understand why you completely discount both female characters in Inception (other than to get your audience’s attention by juxtaposing a “highbrow” blockbuster with the lowest of lowbrow blockbusters). Please explain?

    Anita Reply:

    Mal isn’t on the main cast, she is just a projection of Cobb’s mind, she’s the dead wife. The Smurfette Principle applies to the main cast and in Inception that is the members of the “dream team” so to speak.

    John Reply:

    That strikes me as a strangely narrow definition (although I’m sure it can be argued that you need to put limits somewhere) if you’d exclude a female character who has more influence on the plot and main characters than anyone else just because she isn’t a member of the requisite “dream team” in a heist movie. At least to me, Mal–the actual character and Cobb’s projection of her–and her relationship with Cobb was the most interesting part of the movie (and made it much more interesting than a simple heist movie with a sci-fi twist and beautiful visual effects).

    Anita Reply:

    Yes but just because she was more interesting doesn’t mean that she actually had a substantial role in the film. Plus, it’s really hard to get past the fact that both women in the film were only there to support the main character: Mal to be his adversary and problem, to explain why he is so tortured and to give him his motivation, and Ellen Page’s character who is there to ask questions and guide him out of his misery.

    Ranma Saotome Reply:

    Not to necessarily excuse Inception or anything, but I think it is important to understand what the influances for the story are. Ariadne is the helper of Thesius in Greek Myth, she gives him the thread so he can find his way out of the Labyrnth after defeating the Minotaur. (In Inception, this would be Mal.) So the roots of the Smurfette Principle here go back farther than the first heist movie to have a token female. In the myth, Thesius ends up abandoning Ariadne after a shipwreck, but things end up better fo her, she gets to become a goddess and Thesius gets thrown off a cliff.

    John Reply:

    Wow, thanks for that reply–I wasn’t familiar with any of that mythology and it’s really pretty cool (even just that short summary), especially as it relates to Inception.

    Also, I can’t seem to reply to Anita’s reply, above, so I hope you don’t mind if I try to reply, here, instead: it can’t be argued that Inception’s cast is overwhelmingly male, and if _that_ is the entire objection here, then we’re all in agreement. But, if you’re looking at the important characters, that cuts it down to, at most, 9 characters (see: the first nine listed on IMDb). Of those 9, 3 are businessmen who provide the “mission” and are ultimately expendable/secondary to everything else. Four of them are part of the team that supports Cobb on the mission, one (Mal) is the “minotaur” (in the most basic summary of her character), and then there’s Cobb, who is the main and most developed character of the story. Given our culture, I don’t think the story would work as well if Cobb had been a woman, if only because I (and probably most Americans? for better or worse) can’t see a mother ditching her two young children that readily to flee the police. In the support team for Cobb, sex genuinely doesn’t matter–they’re _all_ there just to support/help Cobb (and if the argument is that there should’ve been another female on the team, I’m fine with that, but a group of four or five people with only one female isn’t implausible, it’s just not perfectly representative of the entire world population [there's also only one non-white person in the team]). The most substantial/important member of the team DID happen to be the one female member, though (probably for the reason Ranma mentioned above). Finally, there’s Mal. Sure, Mal is his adversary and “problem” but she’s also the love of his (ridiculously long) life and, more importantly, I’m still left wondering if _she_ wasn’t right, in the end. That is, is Mal awake in the real world while Cobb sleeps and dreams the whole movie? Sure, Mal serves some basic plot and backstory purposes, but she also leaves open a completely different interpretation of the film. And if Mal’s right–if they were both still in a dream–then the story becomes pretty tragic, as Mal will have woken up sane and healthy and (probably seconds later) Cobb will have woken up having lived decades/centuries longer in his fake world all because he didn’t believe her.

    Okay. That was really long and ramble-y. But hopefully makes some sense and at least highlights why I really like Mal and consider her one of the most important characters of the film (and object to over-harsh criticism of the film for a lack of females [i.e., yes, it isn't ~50% women, but the ones who are in it are more important than everyone else (except the protagonist, Cobb)]).

  12. Shows that are aimed at girls and women often avoid the Smurfette principle (as noted in the video). What’s interesting to me is that men also seem to enjoy these shows, even though they’re clearly not the target audience. I’m thinking specifically of the new “My Little Pony” series. The show’s creator, Lauren Faust, wanted to avoid what she called “Token Girl Syndrome” (the Smurfette principle by another name) and showcase a group of girls who have different strengths, interests, talents, and goals. And the show has developed an almost cult-like following which includes a large number of men. If only other companies would learn from this!

    Anita Reply:

    Ya, it is kind of astounding how big of a male following My Little Pony has, but I do think that is quite rare when it comes to programming aimed at women and girls.

    cab Reply:

    The popularity of MLP:FIM amongst guys really is astounding. There’s a popular FIM fansite where they recently did a poll asking what your gender is. Roughly 95% responded male; only a handful admitted being women. Majority of those voters were in the college-age range.

    I…don’t know what to say about that.

  13. I really enjoyed this video. I have been reading an online conversation on this topic as it relates to television and I find it very interesting. Hard to believe that in this day and age that it is so easy to find this principle in action. What I hate is a TV show or movie that sets up an ensemble featuring the smart guy, the funny guy, the tough guy, the boss guy, the ethnic guy and the girl. Like women (or people of color) don’t need a personality trait, back story, motivations, or any of that. Because they are Smurfette. The Girl. (And, ew, did she have to, um, service all the Smurfs?)

    One thing that really bothers me is how little it bothers most people. I can’t really think of one person in my life who would notice this and agree its a problem. Even a friend of mine, when I pointed out the one token woman (way down on the list of stars) in a recent action movie said “I don’t have a problem with that” in relation to that particular movie. And my husband could care less about female tokenism, and thinks I am nutty to be bothered by it. His philosophy is basically ‘movies about guys appeal to everyone; movies that have lots of women are for chicks.’ It sucks to hear that, but luckily my son seems not to have internalized that and we don’t have daughters.

    Gemma Reply:

    I have to say that it didn’t really register with me until I had kids of my own. Now I am very aware that the overwhelming message my daughter is getting is that her stories aren’t interesting to anyone but members of her own sex. And that it is somehow shameful for my son to watch those shows… as if by doing so he may “catch the gay”.

    Now I find that almost every movie (for children or adults) I was is spoiled by my awareness of the gender disparity. It makes me angry…

  14. The Transformers are a curious example because they are ostensibly not gendered; their character bios (“tech specs”) paint them as characters mostly devoid of gender. Given that the Transformers cannot reproduce (they were created by Primus and need the Creation Matrix to be imbued with life (“Spark”), its odd to gender them.
    The character bios are insanely diverse, and arguably many of the Transformers are very “gender ambiguous” indeed, Shockwave could be interpreted as male or female. Is Hound male or female? What about Prowl? Thundercracker?
    The real issue is that male is assumed to be the default, so where there is no gender we assume them to be male. But, really, they could have hired female voice actors to voice at least half of the Transformers.
    Cullen, Welker, and especially Chris Latta, nailed their character’s voices. Simon Furman (who has written many of the Transformers comics and graphic novels, such as The War Within) describes the Transformers as “everymen” (something which Michael Bay completely misses). Why not have Hound, Thundercracker, Prowl, etc speak with a female voice? Could have been really interesting and original.
    Of course, there was no way something that original was going to happen under Bay.

    Leonie Reply:

    You pretty much said what i was thinking about the Transformers. Their genderless robots who are given ‘male’ as a default gender by humans whose cultural ideas of gender are confusing and alien to the Transformers.

    If i recall correctly Arcee was meant to have been created by the autobots to appease some random straw feminist who showed up once to critisized them for being a men only race of robots. Only the autobots, not having gender and therefore failing to properly comprehend human definitions of gender, programed Arcee’s personality and mannerisms and designed her appearance based upon how they saw human women being portrayed in the mass media. I think that origin was only in the comics though.

  15. [...] problem to me is that they are all white dudes and the token (white) chick. So we already have the Smurfette Principle going on. Clearly, this is some Bendis-ian shout-out the Monster Hunters or to invalidate the [...]

  16. It’s odd how when someone points something like this out, it seems so obvious, and you wonder why you spent so much time never talking about it.

    I think a good follow up to this video would be the ‘harem’ trope, more common in various Japanese animes. It features one male character who is ‘normal’ (or, more frequently, considers himself to be below average) who, through a strange set of circumstances, ends up surrounded by a harem of beautiful women.

    Examples include Tenchi, Love Hina, Ah! My Goddess, Vandread, etc.

    The male lead will only fall in love with one of the women–usually the one who demonstrates that she’s willing to put his happiness before hers in some way–but all of the women in the ‘harem’ have some kind of semi-romantic interaction with him. Plus, these aren’t rounded out characters. There’s a place for every woman, and every woman is in her place. You have the stereotypical ‘smart’ girl, the ‘tomboy’, the ‘moe’, the ‘brooder’, the ‘bitch’, etc.

    It’s really fascinating, because so many of these Harem Animes are aimed at women.

  17. Oh, and don’t forget superheroes! Fantastic Four has one female, and the Justice League has two – all three woman are used to “show that woman rock, too,” but really, they’re only used to showcase sexuality.

  18. I’ve often thought about this. Especially in prime time series that often revolves around a team of police/agents etc. The team usually has one token woman who, if she’s allowed to stick around, most certainly will be scripted to have a relationship with one (or two, or three) of the male characters. Possibly because the writers don’t know how to write for a female character without exploiting the classic love- and/or sex-tropes.

    Leonie Reply:

    Try watching Criminal Minds about the behavioural analysis unit of the FBI. Out of the 7 main characters 3 are female and none of them have relations with any of their male colleagues. The series is into its 7th season and so far the female characters are just as 3 dimensional as the men.

  19. Thank you so much for posting this!

  20. [...] For a full transcript visit: http://www.feministfrequency.com/2011/04/tropes-vs-women-3-the-smurfette-principle/ [...]

  21. [...] For a full transcript visit: http://www.feministfrequency.com/2011/04/tropes-vs-women-3-the-smurfette-principle/ [...]

  22. [...] I always did think it was weird that there was only one ‘Smurfette’, and that’s even before I worked out how babies are [...]

  23. It’s interesting you included the Hundred Acre Woods as an example here. When I was younger, I always thought piglet and rabbit (why? no clue) were females.

  24. While the early seasons of “The Big Bang Theory” did Smurfette, there are now three female leads, two of which are geeks on par with the boys (Bernadette and Amy). Granted, some of the storylines focus on their boyfriends, but I think the women’s stories are fun to watch develop. I’m looking forward to the next season, and encourage you to give the recent season another look.