The Smurfette Principle: Femininities in TV shows and Movies

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The Smurfette Principle

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.

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. Other times, writers will try to correct this problem by inserting a few more female characters.

- source: TV tropes

Check out this great video on the Smurfette principle by Feminist Frequency‘s vlogger Anita Sarkeesian:

The classic Smurfette embodies the traits of the only Smurfette in Smurfville:

Blonde, attractive, consciously feminine in dress, thought, speech and actions.

Think this trope is outdated? Well let’s see which TV shows I currently watch have only one woman amidst a primary cast of men:

Undercovers (2010)

Samantha Bloom amidst Steven Bloom, Leo Nash, Bill Hoyt and Carlton Shaw.

Black Smurfette. Attractive, petite and consciously feminine in her dress. Frequently found in high heels and tight pencil skirts during missions and among her fellow male spies.

Hawaii Five-O (2010 – present)

Kono Kalakaua amidst Steve McGarrett, Chin Ho Kelly and Danny “Dano” Williams.

Asian Smurfette.  At the beginning of the series, Kono proves that she deserves to `hang with the boys` by punching a fellow surfer who “stole her wave”. Way to go Kono. You could have just talked to him or given him a dirty look but you chose to resort to violence and show how bad-ass you are to the boys. She rarely gets to do fieldwork like Steve, Dano or Chin Ho. Instead, she is frequently stuck inside the office doing paperwork or chasing leads that often direct her to the ‘emotional’ aspects of the job such as handling children, telling family members their relative is dead or general tasks of emotional support to Chin Ho.

Burn Notice (2007 – present)

Fiona Glenanne amidst Michael Westen, Sam Axe and Jesse Porter.

The classic Smurfette except a bit older. Fiona is very much consciously feminine in her specialized, typically masculine field of armaments
and weaponry. Frequently found in high heels, tight jeans, a tight top with no bra in hot Miami.

Interestingly enough, Madeline Westen, Michael’s mother , is pictured in the promotional poster along with Fiona. However when Madeline and Fiona talk, the topic is usually about Michael. Jesse Porter, the only person of color in the team is not pictured on the poster. But that’s a whole other story involving race.

Chuck (2007 – present)

Sarah Walker, the classic Smurfette, amidst John Casey, Chuck Bartowski and Morgan Grimes.

Ellie Bartowski and General Beckman are both female characters but they are not in the primary cast. Their stories are not the main focus of the show. Both characters primarily exist in relation to other characters in the show.

Ellie exists in relation to Chuck as his sister, wife to Devon ‘Captain Awesome’ Woodcomb, and mother to her new baby. She used to be a doctor but apparently, with her new baby, that’s now out the window. When Ellie and Sarah talk, it`s mostly about Chuck.

Beckman exists apparently to only order the primary cast of mostly men around.  When Beckman and Sarah talk alone, it`s mostly about Sarah being concerned that something is wrong with Chuck or that something in the mission would endanger Chuck.

Fringe (2008- present)

Olivia Dunham, a classic Smurfette (albeit mysterious and slightly moody), amidst Peter, Walter and definitely in the FBI Fringe office.

Agent Astrid Farnsworth and Nina Sharp are also female characters but I do not consider their stories to be the focus of the show. In fact, we do not know much about Astrid other than the fact that she is Walter’s assistant/babysitter. Nina Sharp, though suggested to be brilliant, never really demonstrates her intelligence to help solve any mysteries in the series. In fact, I would argue her primary relation to the show is through her relationship with Dr. William Bell – who gave her control of his company upon his death – and Dr. Walter Bishop whom she provides with
continual emotional support and encouragement. The 3 female characters rarely talk to one another and when they do, it’s typically about Olivia’s relationship to Peter or the way Walter is acting.

Castle (2009 – present)    

Kate Beckett amidst Richard Castle, Captain Roy Montgomery, Javier Esposito and Kevin Ryan.

Arguably, Martha Rodgers, Alexis Castle and Lanie Parish are all female characters in the show. But again, they do not make up the primary cast or plot which revolves around the NY police precinct. In fact, come to think of it – Castle is essentially a ‘house husband’ but somehow manages to find some way to remain outside of the house as much as possible. If a woman in a TV show is shown to be a housewife, her character’s concerns will probably revolve around her husband, her children and house chores not homicides or how to save NY from terrorists.

And movies:

Star Trek (2009) with Uhura

Star Wars (The Original Trilogy) with Princess Leia

Star Wars (Episodes IV, V, VI) with Padme Amidala

Pirates of the Caribbean (I, II) with Elizabeth Swann

Inception with Ariadne

Transformers (I,II) with Mikaela Banes

X-Men (I, II, III) with Jean Grey

and many more I’m sure. But maybe I’m just looking for movies and TV shows with Smurfettes…maybe this isn’t such a big deal after all. There
are shows like The Wire, 4400, V, BSG, Firefly and Buffy which have more than one female character in their primary casts. And what about Veronica Mars, True Blood, Dollhouse which are all stories told from a female perspective?

Certainly there are shows which do not feature Smurfettes (thank god) but the point is that those shows are far and few in between. Not to mention, some of them have stereotypical representations of queerness (BSG with Admiral Helena Cain, True Blood with Lafayette) , of race (Angel, a Buffy spin-off, with the evil deity Angel and  Zoe Washburne as the militaristic second-in-command of the Firefly both ironically played by Gina Torres, Wallace Fennel in Veronica Mars as the basketball playing, black male sidekick), of femininities (manipulative Anna, helpless Lisa, anti-hero Diana in V, anti-heroes Starbuck and Echo) as well as of masculinities (clueless pawn Tyler in V, overprotective Bill in True Blood, charming sexually viable Malcolm in Firefly, headstrong Admiral William Adama in BSG).

I think the point that Sarkeesian makes in the video about Hollywood trying to capture nostalgia from the 80s and 90s films, TV shows and
such is most interesting. I have noticed that there is set to be a bunch of movies based on the Avengers from the Marvel Universe . Here are is the confirmed cast of The Avengers movie (2012):

Thor

Black Widow

Iron Man

Captain America

Hawkeye

Nick Fury

Bruce Banner

Professor Erik Selvig

Loki

The Incredible Hulk

Guess who the Smurfette is?

When I write blog posts like these, I have mixed feelings. I feel excited to be writing about something I am passionate about but overwhelmingly, I feel frustrated that such tropes still exist today. I worry what my younger sisters and female cousins would think when they watch these shows and movies. It’s not that it’s wrong to watch these shows – it’s just that we have to be careful when we exclaim that these shows are being progressive  just because they feature a superficially ‘strong’ female character.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves why we feel this need for superhero movies? Why we are attracted to men as heroes in TV shows. Why the heroes are almost always male and typically hypermasculinized, white and able bodied.

We need to start looking at everyday superheroes. Heroes who walk by us in the street, who sit next to us on the bus, who live with us, who care for us, who nurture us, who stay up late into the night to offer us their support. We need to start looking at real women and at real men, with feelings, with motivations, with their own lives and concerns.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to watch movies and TV shows that perpetuate these stereotypes (or maybe it is, depending on your viewpoint) but the important thing is to remind ourselves is that they do not exist in a vacuum. These ideas of women, of men, of people come from wider, oppressive ideas that exist in our society. We can start to challenge these ideas by critically thinking about and questioning the multi-million dollar movies and popular TV shows that cross national borders and individual imaginations. With time, we can hope to work for change.

Want to see more common tropes on women in pop culture?

Check out the Women in Refrigerators trope and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope videos.

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2 responses »

  1. Hey, thanks for your support! I actually got the idea to write this blog post after reading Feminist Frequency’s post on the Smurfette principle. I expanded on her idea with the TV shows I watch.

    Reply
  2. I think this is among the most vital information for me.
    And i’m glad reading your article. But should remark on some general things, The web site style is great, the articles is really excellent : D. Good job, cheers

    Reply

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