Who is Smurfette? As most people know, Smurfette is the lone female Smurf in Smurfville originally created by the evil Gargamel in order to sow discord and jealousy among the other Smurfs.
In 1991, writer and cultural critic Katha Pollitt coined the term “Smurfette principle” to describe the trend of narratives in media overwhelmingly male focused but with one female character. As she describes it,
“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.”
The Smurfette principle is based on the main theory of Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of women’s subservient role in society in her seminal work The Second Sex, but applied to our media. The two videos below provide an even more comprehensive analysis of how this has played out.
In the two and a half decades since Pollitt coined this term, I’m pretty sure most people with a least a minor understanding of media theory are aware of this trope and why it’s an issue. But I bring up the Smurfette principle in order to bring up a similar issue that I think a large chunk of our current-day #staywoke political landscape still has a blind spot to.
In the Feminist Frequency video, Anita Sarkeesian briefly mentioned the practice of inserting a token minority character in an overwhelmingly white cast. This trope plays out much like the Smurfette principle; this character often serves as the stand-in for cultural diversity and provides and extremely reductive view of not just a minority being represented, but all minorities in general.
How would most people react if I or a group of people vocally demanded that Disney puts out a film with a black protagonist? Most would get angry and before shooting the messenger would point to Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, right? What would be the reaction if I or this same group demanded Disney creates a film with an Asian, Native American, or Polynesian protagonist? Same thing, except insert Mulan, Pocahontas, or Moana instead, correct?
Now, how would most people react if Disney decided that they would never put a film starring a white protagonist again? They would find that outrageous, right?
And that’s my point. A good chunk of the population of get quite angry if Disney stated they would never have a white protagonist in any of their movies again. Even if Disney went through with this, they would still have Snow White and the seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Cinderella and her step-family, Alice, Peter Pan and the Darlings, Princess Aurora and her fairy godmothers, Roger and Anita Radcliffe, Arthur, Penny from The Rescuers, Taran, Ariel, Cody from The Rescuers Down Under, Belle, Quasimodo, Hercules, Tarzan, Milo, Jim Hawkins, Lewis and the Robinsons, Rapunzel, Flynn and Mother Gothel, and Anna and Elsa to fall back on (this doesn’t even include their live-action movies or the Pixar films). So why is it that people of color are expected to just shut up and smile over just one Tiana, Mulan, Pocahontas, or Moana? It’s been almost ten years since The Princess and the Frog and there hasn’t even been a black character in any of their movies except for that one supporting character in Big Hero 6, let alone a black protagonist. The only Asian protagonist in a Disney film in the almost twenty years since Mulan has been Hiro from Big Hero 6. Native Americans have all but disappeared from Disney in the 20+ years since Pocahontas. Moana is the most recent Disney film, but I’m betting that film will be Disney’s singular way of telling the Polynesian indiginous population…well, y’know…
That patronizing attitude is very much indicative of not just Disney’s application of minority characters, but also the attitude of a lot of liberal-minded websites, bloggers, and activists, many of which fight for greater representation of people of color. When there is a minor step taken in more diverse representation, like a Polynesian Disney princess, a little black girl starring in one of DreamWorks’ films Home (there is George Beard in the upcoming Captain Underpants film, but that only brings the grand total up to two out of 35 films from that studio), or a multicultural retcon of a previously white Marvel superhero, it’s accompanied with a congratulatory, “mission accomplished” attitude that basks heavily (and unhealthily in my opinion) in the praise it gets. Most recently, Disney has made a big deal about declaring the Gaston crony Le Fou gay in their live-action Beauty and the Beast remake. My critiques here are in no way saying that it would be better for Disney or anybody else to not even try to diversify their media. What I am saying is that one gay Le Fou is only a start. One Polynesian princess is only a start. One Pakistani Ms. Marvel is only a start. Stopping with those token gestures is just the Smurfette principle with a different hat on. It’s particularly offensive when token gestures like these are used as a masturbatory status symbol of one’s own #wokeness, as fuel to engage in menial online “more #woker than thou” pissing contests with other white liberals, or to reduce a rich culture to consumable commodity for your own profit.
In short, it’s this:
Our society conditions all of us to see whiteness or maleness or heterosexuality as the standard and anything outside of that as deviant. It gets ingrained in our minds and gives us assumptions that we don’t question unless we force ourselves to. I admit that when Nostalgia Chick talked about how the Smurfette principle applied to the Nicktoons, my knee-jerk thought was “But, but Rugrats has more than two major female characters and so does Doug!” Those two shows don’t exist divorced from a Nicktoon landscape that viewed gender-neutral marketed shows with almost entirely dudes except maybe one or two female characters, one of which serves as some love interest or something. The attitude behind the scenes of Rocko’s Modern Life when asked to add a character that was “a professional woman, someone with a good hook” was to snidely give their new female character a literal hook. Considering that the only female protagonists in the long list of Nicktoons are Eliza Thornberry, Ginger Foutley, “Jenny” XJ-9, Bessie Higgenbottom, and Korra, there hasn’t been a lot of change in 25 years. Heck, the only protagonists of color in any of the Nicktoons are Aang, Korra, Sanjay, Tak, Manny Rivera, and Jimmy Neutron’s Sheen in his short-lived spinoff.
Nobody from no gender, ethnic group, sexual affiliation, economic status, or anything can be reduced to a Smurfette. And if anyone expects you to be satisfied with your Smurfette, you’re never out of line to demand this: