Smurfette Principle


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.

The term was coined by American poet and critic Katha Pollitt in 1991 in ‘The New York Times’: ‘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 which asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Journalists complain that major blockbusters that will turn out millions of dollars include only one female. 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 casts of exclusively female actresses, like ‘Ocean’s 8’ and ‘Ghostbusters.’ The Geena Davis Institute found that only ‘10% of all films have a gender balanced cast.’

In addition to Smurfette, the only female among the ‘Smurfs’ (a group of comic book creatures), the principle has been observed in Miss Piggy in ‘The Muppets,’ Princess Leia in ‘Star Wars,’ Elaine Benes in ‘Seinfeld,’ and Black Widow in ‘The Avengers.’

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