“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.” – Katha Pollitt
I was recently in Tesco picking up some gluten-free biscuits, and I wandered into the clothing area. In with the assorted men’s jim-jams was a pair of Justice League pants in anticipation of the movie coming out this autumn, which was pretty cool to see, because I’ve seen far too little out there for my favourite movie of the summer… until I noticed the problem. Yes, there was the Bat Signal, the iconic ‘S’, lightning bolts and a stylised ‘A’, but something very significant was missing. One of DC Comics’ triumvirate was completely missing… you can see where I’m going here, can’t you?
Wonder Woman, in the context of Justice League (or her scene-stealing appearance in Batman vs. Superman, which I may yet watch just for her), is one of the most iconic Smurfette characters out there. Ripley, in the Alien franchise – touted as another feminist icon – is also a Smurfette. Marla Singer. April O’Neal. Cheetara. Princess Leia.
Smurfette is The Token Girl in a universe that is otherwise a total sausage fest. Sometimes, she’s there to add some appeal for girls/women, though she doesn’t get included in the merchandise (Black Widow, Rey). Sometimes, she’s there to be the love interest, showing the softer side of a brooding badass and usually ending up ‘fridged’ for her trouble. Sometimes, as with Sharon Carter in Captain America: Civil War, or Rose Granger-Weasley in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, she’s there to deflect a queer reading of the incredibly close homosocial relationships that are necessitated by telling a story with only boys. Sometimes, she doesn’t do that well, which is the fount of slash fanfiction. Smurfettes are also why gender-inversion is an emerging trope, from last year’s Ghostbusters, and the upcoming Ocean’s 8 remake to one mother’s experience of reading The Hobbit to her daughter.
Smurfettes range from the flatly useless and/or tragically murdered to another trope I find equally irritating: the hyper-competent woman who, despite being more badass, qualified and generally useful, ends up sidelined and subordinated to the charisma and talents of the comparatively-mediocre everyman protagonist. Think Hermione Granger saving the day even when she’s been petrified by the basilisk. Think Princess Leia comforting Luke Skywalker on the loss of a bloke he knew for a week – tops – after her entire planet just got blown up so that Peter Cushing could make a point. Think Trinity in The Matrix, Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. She’s Not Like Other Girls, but her fate usually ends up that way.
Brief history lesson: ‘The Smurfette Principle’ was coined in 1991 in a New York Times Column by Katha Pollitt, bemoaning the lack of female characters for her infant daughter to connect with and relate to:
“The sexism in preschool culture deforms both boys and girls. Little girls learn to split their consciousness, filtering their dreams and ambitions through boy characters while admiring the clothes of the princess. The more privileged and daring can dream of becoming exceptional women in a man’s world — Smurfettes. The others are being taught to accept the more usual fate, which is to be a passenger car drawn through life by a masculine train engine. Boys, who are rarely confronted with stories in which males play only minor roles, learn a simpler lesson: girls just don’t matter much.”
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM) published Gender Bias Without Borders, possibly the largest-ever study of gender depictions in global cinema in 2014, and the results are even worse than you think. Only 7% of directors are women. Only 10% of films have a gender-balanced cast. Women nab 31% of speaking roles, but only 23% are protagonists. In your average crowd scene, only 17% of the background figures are women; if you approach 33%, it is often perceived as being dominated by women.
In last year’s Ghostbusters, it wasn’t just the main characters who were gender-inverted. The Smurfette, the token hot chick, was gender-flipped into Chris Hemsworth’s vacant Ken doll character, Kevin. It was a scene-stealing comic role that flipped the script, and left a lot of male viewers flipping tables. It is one of the most vivid, savvy and political critiques ever offered of The Smurfette. Better than any article could, it draws attention to how limited in scope these sorts of roles are and how much more we need to do to address gender depictions in cinema.