In 1991, when I was still in college, 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. Twenty years later, when I have three young daughters, Hollywood’s major studios are releasing two movies this July: ‘Winnie the Pooh‘ and ‘The Smurfs.’ Both potential summer blockbusters are based on the same sexist casting Pollitt pointed out in her ’91 piece, showing Smurfville and Pooh Corner are just as resistant to the ERA as Washington DC.
Here’s Pollitt in ’91:
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. In the worst cartoons — the ones that blend seamlessly into the animated cereal commercials — the female is usually a little-sister type, a bunny in a pink dress and hair ribbons who tags along with the adventurous bears and badgers. But the Smurfette principle rules the more carefully made shows, too. Thus, Kanga, the only female in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” is a mother. Piggy, of “Muppet Babies,” is a pint-size version of Miss Piggy, the camp glamour queen of the Muppet movies. April, of the wildly popular “Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles,” functions as a girl Friday to a quartet of male superheroes. 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.
Just yesterday, I blogged about the pathetic 8 to 1 male/ female ratio in the new ‘Winnie the Pooh‘ which scores one lower than ‘The Smurfs’ at 9 to 1.
As Pollitt alluded to in ’91, the ‘Smurfette principle’ isn’t only about numbers. Male smurfs’ names alone attribute personality and/ or skill to their characters and include Gutsy, Jokey, Baker, Handy, and Brainy. So they are brave, smart, funny, useful and can cook.
And oh, can they cook! Lest you have any doubt that life imitates art and art imitates life, Baker Smurf is played by real life acclaimed chef Wolfgang Puck. Not Alice Waters. And the Smurfette’s moniker? Her name tells us she’s the coquette; her skill is her smile.
But back to numbers, there are real life consequences for forcing half of the population into a tiny minority. ‘The Smurfs’ assigns real life men nine great roles. That’s nine big salaries going to stars who include George Lopez, Paul Reubens, and, aforementioned Wolfgang Puck. Oh, forgot to mention Hank Azaria who gets to star as the bad guy– Gargamel. The main female role is played by twenty six year old Katy Perry, so even in cartoonworld, the girl must be young and pretty if she wants a big part. Does this makes you wonder about who’s doing the hiring?
All the top positions on ‘The Smurfs’ from Director to Producers are 100% male including writer credits, casting, music composition, and cinematography.
The mirror image gender disparity of top jobs in the real world and star roles in kids movies is not some crazy coincidence. Fantasy world is an opportunity to show kids they can dream big, not dream in stereotype. Until females can get gender equality in their imaginations, they won’t get it in reality.
Unfortunately, the Smurfette principle doesn’t just apply to children’s films. It happens a lot in adult media, as well, most egregiously in movies (which tend to have a smaller cast) than books and TV, but the latter are hardly immune. I suppose it’s not really a surprise; the people who grew up watching things like ‘The Smurfs’ are now the ones writing the adult works, and they write on the same template with which they are so familiar, that of the male as default, female as deviation from the norm. In light of this, I think that the best way to break the cycle is to change the portrayal of women in children’s media, and so stop indoctrinating children to believe that women are secondary.
The Smurfette principle DOMINATES adult media, BUT I find it incredibly shocking that the public allows it for kids. I’d like parents to get way more upset. I honestly think many don’t notice because we’ve been so conditioned. Part of the reason I started my blog was in the hope that parents would get pissed. Kids movies put on the facade of being cute and innocent, they’re often rated G when they’re sexist propaganda. I’d rather my kids hear “shit” than watch Cinderella any day (or “Pretty Woman”)
Yes, I see what you mean. I’ve heard from intelligent, educated women that they don’t feel like there’s sexism in their day-to-day lives, so I think you’re right about us having been conditioned to not notice it. Sexism in adult media is bad enough, but it’s more sinister in children’s media because they’re young enough that a) they’re easily conditioned and b) they’re not capable of analysing the problems in it, which adults sometimes are. I say ‘sometimes’, because the pervasiveness of such sexism in children’s media makes it harder for adults to notice it as anything but normal. You’re completely right when you call it ‘propaganda’, because it is: children are being conditioned to believe that women are inferior and that their gender *is* their personality.
Agree with your analysis. This will only change when parents refuse to take their kids to see such films.
I will refuse to take my child to see these films, but unfortunately I will be in the minority.
I wish instead of refusing to go to the bad ones we could create some good cool ones. I guess we need some billions first.
Just wrote to Michelle, we’ve got to get some pro-girl movies out there somehow. It’s so much more fun to yes than no.
So disappointing, no progress made at all.
TWENTY YEARS! Seriously. And the sexism is so blatant. Usually, these days its more underground, a little harder to point out. This is like shooting fish in a barrel. How to make it stop?