The Smurfette principle is the practice in media, such as film and television, to include only one woman in an otherwise entirely male ensemble. It establishes a male-dominated narrative, where the woman is the exception and exists only in reference to the men.
Description by Katha Pollitt
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.
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 wrote: "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."
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.
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 feature film, Super 8 (popular at that time), 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 female anchor in the MSNBC lineup in 2011, according to Pollitt, was Rachel Maddow. She commented, "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 often 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.
As a result of the discontent about the lack of women, a new pattern has emerged, of “gender-inversion,” resulting in versions of existing media franchises with lead casts of exclusively female actresses, like Ocean's 8 and Ghostbusters.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that only “10% of all films have a gender balanced cast,” thus reinforcing the existence of the lack of fair female representation, i.e. the Smurfette Principle.
In an article and video for Bitch Magazine, Anita Sarkeesian asserts that the tendency of media from the 1980s and 1990s—which typically adhere to this principle—continuously being remade results in the recurrence of this issue, 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, stating that 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, wrote that the Smurfette principle applies 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
- Black Widow in The Avengers
- Eleven in Stranger Things
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- Lori Day; Charlotte Kugler (1 May 2014). Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More. Chicago Review Press. pp. 203–. ISBN 978-1-61374-859-6.
- Richards, Jason (28 July 2011). "The Problem With Smurfette". The Atlantic. Retrieved 23 July 2018.
- Chemaly, Soraya (19 October 2011). "Is Smurfette Giving It Away? What the Smurfette Principle Teaches Your Kids About Girls".
- Sharon Gmelch; Marcie Heffernan Stoffer; Jody Lynn Yetzer (1998). Gender on Campus: Issues for College Women. Rutgers University Press. pp. 224–. ISBN 978-0-8135-2522-8.
- Hers; The Smurfette Principle. The New York Times, 7 April 1991
- "The Smurfette Principle: why can't Hollywood accept gender equality?". MSN.com. Retrieved 23 July 2018.
- "This Is the Disturbing Movie Poster 'Smurfette Principle'". Time. Retrieved 23 July 2018.
- "The Smurfette Principle". TN2 Magazine. Trinity College. 25 August 2017. Retrieved 23 July 2018 – via tn2magazine.ie.
- "Gender Bias Without Borders". SeeJane.org. Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Retrieved 23 July 2018.
- "Tropes vs. Women: #3 The Smurfette Principle". Feminist Frequency. 21 April 2011. Retrieved 23 July 2018.
- Solinger, Rickie (1995). Pollitt, Katha (ed.). "First-Class Citizen". The Women's Review of Books. 12 (7): 1–3. doi:10.2307/4022132. JSTOR 4022132.
- Susina, Jan (1993). "Editor's Note: Kiddie Lit(e): The Dumbing Down of Children's Literature". The Lion and the Unicorn. 17 (1): v–ix. doi:10.1353/uni.0.0256. ISSN 1080-6563. S2CID 144833564.
- Cultural Hegemony in the United States. SAGE Publications. 2000. p. 210. ISBN 9781452221960.
seinfeld smurfette principle.
- "Marvel To Include More Female Representation In Upcoming Films". Odysseyonline.com. 13 October 2015. Retrieved 30 January 2016.
- Miller, Liz Shannon (31 October 2017). "'Stranger Things 2' Reinforced a Sexist and Ubiquitous Trope, But Season 3 Could Fix That".