Few people – adults and children alike – would need an introduction to The Smurfs. The Belgian comic/cartoon series which featured small blue ‘humanoid’ characters, who wore white bottoms and Phrygian caps and lived in a fictional colony, in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest was first created and introduced as a series of comic characters [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Being a “Smurfette”…


Few people – adults and children alike – would need an introduction to The Smurfs. The Belgian comic/cartoon series which featured small blue ‘humanoid’ characters, who wore white bottoms and Phrygian caps and lived in a fictional colony, in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest was first created and introduced as a series of comic characters by the Belgian comics artist Peyo in 1958. Their descriptive names were based on adjectives that emphasised their characteristics, such as Lazy, Tailor, or Jokey Smurf. Papa Smurf was the revered elder and obvious village ‘Chieftain’ and for most of the series, amongst more than one hundred boy Smurf characters, there was only one significant girl Smurf in the Village – “Smurfette”.

Along with her, she brought into being “The Smurfette Principle”. This was a term coined by Katha Pollitt in 1991 in an article for The New York Times. With it, she refers to a trope which is found – even today – in many movies, TV sitcoms and series, where there is only one female in an all male ensemble. In Pollitt’s words, “Contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, like ‘Garfield,’ or are organised 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.”.”

According to ‘allthetropes.wikia.com’, “For any series not aimed solely at females, odds are high that only one female will be in the regular cast.The Smurfette Principle is the tendency for works of fiction to have exactly one female amongst an ensemble of male characters, in spite of the fact that roughly half of the human race is female. Unless a show is purposefully aimed at a female viewing audience, the main characters will tend to be disproportionately male. In many series, men will have various different personalities, but women will always be “The Chick”. Thus, by the Law of Conservation of Detail, you only need one.In other cases, the women are feminized versions of existing male characters…”.

With a sense of incredulity and disbelief, and with the aid of Wikipedia, I actually looked at, and objectively analysed some of the most popular comics, books, films, TV shows, cartoons and comedies, and found the result extremely disturbing:

“When the Fantastic Four started in 1961, the Invisible Girl was the only female member, and she was the weakest of the four (her force fields weren’t invented till later)…When the X-Men started in 1963, Jean Grey was the only female member, and the weakest (it was a decade before she got Phoenix powers)…In Hergé’s Tintin comics, just about the only recurring female character is Bianca Castafiore, who’s an impossible diva…When The Avengers started in 1963, The Wasp was the only female member, and the weakest. Then all the original members left in 1965, but there was still only one female, the Scarlet Witch, who was the weakest at the time…When The Justice League of America started in 1960, Wonder Woman was the only female member, and though not necessarily the weakest, was certainly the most resembling…In Fight Club, Marla Singer is the only major female character -Fight Club itself is entirely male…In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (both the film and the graphic novel), Mina Harker/Murray was the Smurfette in the otherwise all-male League…In The Film of the Book as with the book, The Lord of the Rings has very few female characters…In Star Wars, Leia is the only major female character in the original series, and Padmé is the only major female character in the prequels..In Wanted (2008), the sociopathic female killer-for-hire Fox (played by Angelina Jolie) is the only female member of an ancient fraternity of assassins…Oceans Eleven and, for that matter, essentially every crime movie with an ensemble cast has only one female at best…Salt was the only known female CIA agent and Russian spy…Sif is the only Action Girl in Thor’s gang of warriors….The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy series contained only one major female character for the first three books…Almost all Panel Games contain one, or no, women….The only major female Muppet is Miss Piggy, a glamorous diva…For a world with supposed complete gender equality, this Principle applies to most of the Star Trek series…Both the U.K and U.S versions of Whose Line Is It Anyway feature four players, all of whom are almost always male…Men in Black: The Series had Agent L. Few other female agents were seen, fewer still had any dialogue….The Big Bang Theory started with five main characters: the four male nerds, and Penny The Chick who lives across the hall…On Law and Order Special Victims Unit, Olivia Benson is very noticeably the only female detective….and on The X Files: for five seasons, Scully is the only female FBI agent ever seen…”

And the list goes on…

As allthetropes.wikia.com points out, “This trope has lessened over time, but even now it often applies to animated fare aimed at boys or a general audience. This is especially serious when the regular cast is full of synthetic entities or other species which have a voice or are sufficiently humanoid; these will always be more masculine than feminine, with any feminine examples receiving special attention, suggesting that women are merely an unusual subtype of men…Why does this trope happen? Often, the problem lies with the source material – the work’s an adaptation of something written or created decades before equal recognition for women started to gain momentum. Sometimes, however, writers will try to correct this problem by inserting a few more female characters or at least an Affirmative Action Girl”.

Whilst it is true that the status quo is changing, there is still a long way to go. Progressive script and story writers, producers, directors and a demanding female audience base amongst others, has resulted in more strong female lead characters, being added to the overall mix. The statistics in relation to some of my personal favourites listed above, was indeed an eye opener. However, as long as there is an awareness and positive affirmative action to address it, it leaves me feeling hopeful that even in the world of fiction, we will witness more and more capable and strong female characters.

At the very worst however, should circumstances demand it and it is necessary to pander to The Smurfette Principle, perhaps the writers will choose to follow the example of the old favourite board game of Chess: For amongst powerful Kings, Rooks, Bishops, Knights, and Pawns, there is only one female -The Queen, and she is the most powerful character of all.

All comments, suggestions and contributions are most welcome. Confidentiality guaranteed.

Please email: KJWVoiceforWomen@gmail.com

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