The Smurfette principle ‘evolves’ into the Minority Feisty

This year, children will get to see Smurfs 2:


See that lone, blonde Smurfette surrounded by 5 male Smurfs?

This is a poster for just one of 21 children’s movie posters coming out in 2013. All but 4 movies for young kids feature male protagonists. Of the “female-centric” films, “Dorothy of Oz” lists 7 famous male actors at the top of its poster. “Epic” shows the female protagonist surrounded males. Only two movies with female protagonists are titled for the female while 10 of the 16 movies with male protagonists are titled for the male star. Please look at Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies in 2013. It looks like this year will be the worst one for female characters in movies for young kids since I started Reel Girl.

Back in 1991, feminist critic Katha Pollitt wrote about the ‘Smurfette principle‘ for the New York Times: the idea that kids’ narratives too often allow just one lone female character to exist in a group of males.

Here is the “progress” 22 year later: girls are half of  the kid population, but in movies for young children, females are presented as a minority. If you see an animated film today, it’s likely to include one or two strong female characters who reviewers will call “feisty.” In “How to Train Your Dragon,” Astrid; in “Toy Story,” Jessie; in “Ratatouille,” Colette. She’s supposed to make us feel like the movie is contemporary and feminist, unlike those sexist films of yesteryear. She is the Minority Feisty.


The problem is that because Pixar or Disney has so magnanimously thrown in this “feisty” female (who may even have some commentary about sexism or male domination) we’re no longer supposed to care that almost all of the other characters in the film are male, including the star who the movie is often titled for and usually his best buddy as well. The crowd scenes in the film are also made up of mostly males.

There can be 1, 2, or 3 Minority Feisty in a children’s film. (The term is like “fish,” it can be singular or plural.) Whatever the number, the gender ratio will heavily favor male characters.

Parents, the next time you watch a children’s movie, try not to let the “feminist” character(s) distract you. Except for the pink ghetto, in children’s films females are presented as a minority. This is the definition of marginalized. When your children go to the movies, they learn that boys are more important and get to do more things than girls.

On, a link to my blog described the Minority Feisty as “essentially a more modern take on the Smurfette Principle.” In response, someone protested: “the term Minority usually points to racial minority as opposed to gender.”

Exactly. Females are not a minority, yet they are presented as one in films for children. Why?

Here is an interesting correlation: 16% of protagonists in movies are female. All across America, in most professions, women at the top don’t make it past 16%. Children’s movies normalize an entire new generation to a world where females go missing.



See “Pixar’s female problem: Please stop asking ‘What about Jessie?,” a great post by Peggy Orenstein on the Minority Feisty issue



28 thoughts on “The Smurfette principle ‘evolves’ into the Minority Feisty

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  5. I wonder, is gender representation in children’s films equal, better, or worse than it used to be? I can’t imagine it’s much better. I mean, the lone lady in the group these days tends to be more of a badass than simply “a girl”, but she’s still the lone lady.

    And I’ve always thought it was weird/stupid that women get treated like minorities even though we make up half of the damn population. I mean, with such a large group, there’s a lot of potential for money and you’d think the industry would try to get in on that. When I was a kid, I enjoyed plenty of works about male characters but I still wanted to see stuff with female leads. But most of the stuff they made for girls was of the slice of life/high school drama stuff I thought was boring.

    I wanted action, and I went nuts over anything that gave me kickass female leads. I was OBSESSED with “The Powerpuff Girls” because it was cutesy and stuff, but they still kicked some serious ass. (a while back I watched the show for the first time in years, and it sure was a lot more violent than I remembered. And it was great, ha ha) And not to mention “Kim Possible”. She was always pretty cool.

    On that note, I think the lack of female representation is Western media is a big thing that made anime so popular in the 90’s and 2000’s. “Sailor Moon” got so massive because it allowed little girls to see themselves in the hero role. Same went for a lot of other magical girl anime. But that’s another thing I find interesting. Japan isn’t the most progressive country in the world when it comes to gender. Why, then, do Japanese entertainment industry executives recognize the existence (not to mention profitability) of the female audience when the American one fails to do so? My girl friends and I were all REALLY into Sailor Moon. Seems like we played Sailor Moon for every recess. And looking back, as a creative type right now, Sailor Moon influence me a LOT. A lot of the original stories and characters I came up with when I was younger shared a lot of similarities with Sailor Moon and that still seems to hold over a little today. I guess you could say it really inspired me. I loved Sailor Moon for what it offered and I wanted more of that.

    • “And I’ve always thought it was weird/stupid that women get treated like minorities even though we make up half of the damn population. I mean, with such a large group, there’s a lot of potential for money and you’d think the industry would try to get in on that. When I was a kid, I enjoyed plenty of works about male characters but I still wanted to see stuff with female leads. But most of the stuff they made for girls was of the slice of life/high school drama stuff I thought was boring.”

      My opinion on the matter is that they do market to women/girls but in a way that some/many female viewers might find unsatisfying. Most romantic comedies are “led” by the female character (Someone Like You, The Wedding Planner, etc.) We see from her perspective. We care about her desires. And she is the one with the character arc. Disney princess movies, Barbie movies, My Little Pony… Bridesmaids, The Heat, etc. It’s not that women aren’t being marketed to. It’s that they’re being marketed to in a very specific way that’s different from the way people market to general audiences. And I think it’s telling that a lot of the better content featuring women is produced by women.

    • Hi SarahJessness,

      I think it’s worse, in spite of the Smurfette principle evolving into the Minority Feisty. Once a movie is made, it gets mass produced in apps, games, clothing, toys as never before. So its not just he movie where girls go missing and stereotyped, its everywhere. I don’t think gender segregation in little kids has ever been this extreme. Geena Davis Institute has stats you can look up, but one is if things keep going at this rate, girls won’t get equality for 700 years.


    • Please enter! I did see a link to someone who did and then the discussion was “but females aren’t a minority.” That’s the point!!! In children’s media (not to mention grown-up) females, half of the kid population are PRESENTED as a minority. I tried to make this comment but couldn’t figure out how.


  6. Do you really think it’s getting worse, or is as bad as ever?

    Possibly it is just by the numbers. And I love the term “minority feisty” and how it has the veneer of feminism but isn’t progressive at all. But I have to say that it’s still better than the 80’s when the lone female character was oversexualized.

    Smurfette was a prime example. All the smurfs wanted her, they all got goofy around her and her main action when on screen was to flirt. Every smurf had basically one attribute, and hers was being female. Female = flirt with boys and make them feel funny.

    At least the single females nowadays have to have this sheen of equality on them. The token female character doesn’t HAVE to have a crush on the main character, or cause a crush in the main character. Before, it seemed that this was the only reason to make a female character at all. Now at least they can be part of the adventure in a legitimate way without being reduced solely to a romance subplot.

    It’s still not good, but it’s better than before. Before, the only message at all was that girls are desireable and can either manipulate others or act as some sort of judge to bestow themselvse upon the most worthy boy.

    • Hi Lisa,

      Sometimes I do think its getting worse, when I think about Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy of Oz, Lucy of Narnia. Sometimes I think its better that we have the Minority Feisty b/c she is better than the helpless princess, but then its all problematic that sexism is so prevalent but difficult to point out. You make good points.


      • Could you explain those three examples, Margot? I’ve never heard anyone complain about them before. Not that I’ve had discussions on those characters, so that could be the reason why. 🙂

        • Hi Cat,

          I was saying Dorothy, Alice, and Lucy are GREAT, My point is they are not recent, so are things getting worse?


          • Hmn. I’m not sure if things are getting any better or worse since those are three literary examples and a lot of female protagonists are still being drawn from literature… Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hunger Games, Twilight, Beautiful Creatures, etc.

            Actually, that might be something interesting to investigate.

  7. Have u seen Monsters vs Aliens? It has an adult female as protagonist, but she’s surrounded by males on her team. I guess it qualifies as Minority Feisty?

    • Hi Osakadaioh,

      I have seen Monsters and Aliens and I liked it. You are correct, it would not past the test. Most female protagonists are surrounded by males. Kids don’t get to see females working together. That is a pattern I desperately hope breaks. Now think about how many movies for males past my test.


    • Hi osakadaloh,

      Sorry, thought you were commenting on another post as I respond to the comment thread. Yes, a female protagonist can also be a Minority Feisty, and Monsters and Aliens is an example of that.


      • Have u seen Despicable Me? The main character is a guy and he adopts 3 little girls, all them seen like minority feisty even being 3 girls.

          • I have seen the movie and I wouldn’t call the girls the minority feisty because I don’t think their gender is as much a part of the dynamic as their age. You could tell the same story with the main character adopting three boys. The fact that they are girls just emphasizes his inability to relate to them but really they are only “feisty” in the way that children are. They don’t seem randomly thrown into the movie just to make a point about feminism.

          • Hi cat,

            I think they made them 3 girls b/c they needed to put females in the movie, so they give them parts, though not the protag.


          • I can see your perspective not having seen the film, but I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think the movie makes purposeful choices. They didn’t need to put females into the movie. It was a conscious choice driven by the plot.

    • Hi Tim,

      Commenters ask me a lot about the Bechdel Test created by Alison Bechdel in 1985 to check for sexism in movies. It names the following three criteria for a movie: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

      I love Bechdel’s test. Here’s my version, inspired for Bechdel and adapted for children’s movies: The criteria is the movie has to have (1) at least two females who are friends (2) go on an adventure (3) and don’t wear revealing clothing.


  8. I’m reposting this from the Dreamworks “female driven studio” comment section.

    Though I will say that this list has made me realize that Dreamworks films definitely have a type when it comes to a lot of their female characters. They are very feisty, sassy, stubborn, strong-willed, hostile… They almost overcompensate and in that way they begin to fall flat by approaching caricature.

    Examples: Chel (The Road to El Dorado), Fiona (Shrek), Roxanne (Megamind), Ginger (Chicken Run), Kitty Softpaws… I’m assuming (Puss in Boots), Tigress (Kung Fu Panda), Hippo character (Madagascar), Marina (Sinbad Legend of the Seven Seas)
    In many of those cases, these characters are the lone female, or the lone female of importance (not counting random characters in the background or who don’t play a major part in the plot). Say what you will about the princesses, but they used to give female characters more screen time. The Princess and the Frog had Tiana, Charlotte, and Mama Odie. Tangled (which I dislike immensely) had Rapunzel and Mother Gothel but for much of the movie, Rapunzel runs around in a world of men, except for when she goes to the kingdom and there’s a crowd of people but I don’t remember them really talking or interacting with her that much.

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