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The Smurfette principle is the practice in media, such as film, television series and television networks, to include only one woman in an otherwise entirely male ensemble. The term was coined by Katha Pollitt in 1991 in The New York Times:
It establishes a male-dominated narrative, where the woman is the exception and exists only in reference to the men. The woman character essentially represents “femininity” in these cases. She may or may not play a major role in the story, but typically is “everything female.” Some examples that Pollitt cites include the mother figure, a “glamour queen,” or a female sidekick of sorts. As a consequence, works employing this trope often fail the Bechdel test, an indicator of gender bias in fiction.
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... The message is clear. 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.
This term continues to be used in discourse to describe not only "preschool culture," but also popular media from the last 40 years.
Pollitt observed this as what she thought of in terms of a common media practice while shopping for her daughter's Christmas toys. The initial use of the term was in relation to “preschool culture,” that to Pollitt, would hinder a child's understanding of gender. She goes further to say, “The sexism in preschool culture deforms both boys and girls. Little girls learn to split their consciousness, filtering their dreams and ambitions through boy characters while admiring the clothes of the princess.”
In 2011 Pollitt discussed her term again in The Atlantic. She said that the issue is still highly prevalent in the current media. She specifically cited the then major blockbuster, Super 8, which had only one female main character (played by Elle Fanning). Also at this time, she extended the principle to include television networks. The only major anchor in the MSNBC lineup in 2011, according to Pollitt was Rachel Maddow. She said, "there's one Rachel Maddow, and then there's that whole male lineup. There's Ed [Schultz], there used to be Keith [Olbermann], and Lawrence O'Donnell, and now there's going to be Al Sharpton. It's quite remarkable that there's only this one woman, and it's never equal."
This term has not disappeared by any means, making many appearances in popular literature and discourse. Journalists complain that major blockbusters that will turn out millions of dollars, include only one female, and this trend is not fading anytime soon. This is visible in ensemble movie posters, like with Ocean's Eleven, The Matrix and Star Wars, among many others. Steve Rose looks at Eleven's situation in the TV show Stranger Things, where she is essentially replaced (while on her own adventures) by Max, another young girl, who is also teased, then “lusted after,” another common reaction to a lone female character. The “Smurfette,” or sole female cast member, has been understood to typically have a stereotypical role of a romantic partner, a “brooding badass,” or exists to deflate the tension of an all-male cast.
In an article and video for Bitch Magazine, Anita Sarkeesian asserts that the reoccurrence of this issue is that media from the 1980s and 1990s is continuously being remade, which still typically adhere to this principle, creating an ongoing cycle. She also called on the film industry to include more female characters, or even a female dominated cast, and pass the Bechdel test. After these are kept in mind and actually accomplished, meaningful diversity will be possible.
Uses in scholarship
Rickie Solinger, in a review of some of Pollitt's major works up to 1993, stated that the “Smurfette Principle” is applicable to preschoolers and adults alike.
Jan Susina, a scholar and researcher of child and adolescent literature, used the term in a 1995 edition of the journal, The Lion and the Unicorn, to back up his assertion that children's literature is being “dumbed down” as a larger symptom of cultural problems, particularly that entertainment is like “junk food,” or unrewarding to the audience. He uses Pollitt's term as evidence that a lack of women contributes to low quality media for children and also that the popular media has picked up on this issue in major publications.
- Miss Piggy in The Muppets and her equivalent in Muppet Babies
- Princess Leia in Star Wars
- Penny in The Big Bang Theory (in seasons 1–3)
- Elaine Benes in Seinfeld
- Kanga in Winnie-the-Pooh
- April in The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy
- Beverly Marsh in It
- Black Widow in The Avengers
- Eleven in Stranger Things
|Look up Smurfette principle in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
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