The Smurfette

Smurfette-Smiling

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.

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The Smurfette

Doug, Nickelodeon, and Diversity

DougIn the past several years, there has been a greater push for greater diversity of people of varying ethnic groups, sexual affiliations, gender identities, etc in popular media.  Hollywood has always been a monolith of white heterosexual patriarchy and have always been (well, for as long as my brief years alive anyway) risk-averse.  The voices screaming in your ear for more visibility of women, people of color, and people within the LGBT+ community are getting harder and harder to ignore these days.  At the same time, when you’ve raised generations of your audience on the same ol’ mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder Bread, throwing a little pepper into the mix could be upsetting to their palette.  What’s a Hollywood executive to do?  Ignore the protesting crowd and going with more of the same (and justify it using The Princess and the Frog’s respectable, but below expectations box office numbers vs. Frozen’s record-breaking commercial success)?  Or do you take that chance and risk a backlash from the audience you’ve already cultivated (i. e. the fallout over Michael B. Jordan being cast as the Human Torch)?

Nickelodeon found themselves in a very similar quandary in the early 1990s.  This little network that could started building up a steadily growing audience during its formative years in the mid to late 1980s.  It cultivated its audience as a television network that was dedicated to kid’s programming all the time.  As such, it was important that it spoke the language of kids, related to kids, and celebrated kids simply for being kids, unlike most children’s programming at the time which was mostly interested in patronizing their youthful audiences and making them want to buy toys.  As Nickelodeon was growing into a bigger cultural force in the early ’90s, some couldn’t help but notice that the kids the network seemed to speak to, relate to, and celebrate were exclusively white.  By then-studio executives’ own admission, they were totally cognizant of the fact that there were only featuring white kids on their programming, since the channel was only available on cable in the ’80s and the incomes that could where financially well-off enough to afford cable television at that time were typically white households.  But that’s not such a good excuse anymore for a rapidly growing network (not that it was a good excuse in the first place).

Continue reading “Doug, Nickelodeon, and Diversity”

Doug, Nickelodeon, and Diversity