The ‘Smurfette principle’ coming soon to a theater near you

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.