No Smurfing Here: The Lone Woman in a Male Crowd

What do Penny from The Big Bang Theory, the rebooted Carol Marcus in Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Black Widow from The Avengers have in common with a cartoon character?

Simple answer: The Smurfette Principle.

Find the Female.

Find the Female.

Longer answer:

The phrase “Smurfette Principle” was coined by Katha Pollitt in the New York Times (April 7, 1991), but even if you’ve never heard of it, you probably can guess what it means based on its name. After all, everyone knows who Smurfette is. She’s an adorable blonde female Smurf…ahem, actually, the only female among a village of men.

That’s what the Smurfette Principle refers to: this idea that you can somehow create balance in your fictional world by throwing in a token female.

There’s a lot of tokenism in fiction, and it isn’t limited to women. There are also token minorities and token alternative lifestyles thrown into fiction all the time, to hide the fact that most of the characters are attractive, middle-class or business-class, white, heterosexual males with money and power that a lot of us don’t have. (Pay no attention to the inequality behind the curtain, please.) There’s a whole world of other people out there, so if we stick in a single representative of those “others,” it’s all good, right?

Nope. It’s not.

But I’m going to focus on the token female here, because it’s been a real problem in genre fiction.

First, consider Smurfette herself. She was not originally a smurf among smurfs…because smurfs originally were all male. Where all these blue men came from without a female (or a musical group) in sight, I’ll never know. Even the Ents in Lord of the Rings admitted they had some female Ents around somewhere, though those women trees were somehow misplaced. That was back in the days of Middle Earth, when trees didn’t only dangle nuts, it seems.

But in Smurf Land, apparently, smurfs grow up from the ground like mushrooms or something. They’re all male. And they love life. Things are so great that their enemy, Gargamel, has no way to destroy them…until he comes up with a plan that might have been hatched in sexist medievdark smurfetteal theology:

Create a woman and send her in to wreak havoc in the man’s paradisical Eden, a la Lilith.

Smurfette didn’t just cause trouble by inciting male rivalry due to stirring up smurfy sexual desires. But also, by the by, she started out as a BRUNETTE! The hussy!

Eventually, Papa Smurf “fixes” Smurfette by removing her “evil ways.” While he’s at it, he also transform her into a curvy, breasty, giggly BLONDE who wears lace and high heels. Sexist, much?

blonde smurfetteIt’s bad enough when the token female is a token…only there to create a false sense of “equality” in a situation that would otherwise be visibly unbalanced. It’s even worse when said token female is highly sexualized on top of it.

If you think the Smurfette principle isn’t alive and well today, then do me a favor and rent Season One of The Big Bang Theory. Now, to be fair, I enjoy this show; I’m not one of the haters. But if we’re being fair, then let’s admit that Penny was the token Smurfette on that show for quite a while. Literally.

In Season One, Penny is not just the only female among men. She’s also blonde, she’s oversexed, and she disrupts the perfect world of the male buddies by making them all want her. (Except for Sheldon, whom the show portrays as patently abnormal, including his apparent asexuality.)

On top of it, Penny is also supposedly stupid. Sexist, much? And insulting besides. I’m a brunette myself, but I have plenty of blonde friends who are just as bright as I am. Blonde doesn’t equal dumb.

Witness Carol Marcus of Star Trek fame. She’s a blonde…and a scientist too. She’s not exactly the only female in Star Trek, but since she’s one of the few females with a speaking role, we ought to pay attention to how she’s portrayed.

In the original Wrath of Khan, Carol Marcus is a force of nature. She’s not just a scientist; she created the Genesis machine, a machine that makes life out of non-life. Woohoo, Goddess! She’s even in charge of her team of scientists. I mean she’s a leader. Imagine that. Carol Marcus is so formidable and strong that James Tiberius Kirk himself was not quite man enough for her.

But in the rebooted Trek movie Into Darkness, Carol is little more than eye candy and plot bait. Sure, she looks great in her underwear, but what happened to the strong, intelligent woman that cowed even Kirk? She’s not present. Some imposter is there in her place. And I don’t like her much.

In other words, it’s not enough to have a “token” female among your male cast. If she isn’t strong in her own right, then how does she manage to deal with all the testosterone?

Often, token women seem strong, yet they don’t have much personality showing underneath their power. Take The Avengers’ Black Widow. She’s a token female among a cast of men. Not just the superheroes who are all male except for her, but also the military leaders who organize the superheroes, a male scientist, and a male villain.

Black Widow is tough and smart. I like her as a character.

But we don’t get to know her beyond her tokenism. Yes, she can cleverly fight her way out of trouble. She even outwits Loki. But other than that, I don’t know who she is, what she cares about, or much beyond the fact that she’s been an operative and she’s friends with Hawkeye, who also doesn’t get to do much in the movie. We can’t even define Black Widow in terms of her relationships because we don’t get to understand the guy in that relationship any more than we get to understand her.

The Smurfette Principle is a particularly egregious trope precisely because it suggests a nod to equality and mutual understanding of others who are different from us, while actually not delivering either things.

One woman among tons of men is not equality. An underdeveloped character of any kind (female, black, hispanic, gay, lesbian, whatever) is no way to understand people who are unlike you.

And in a world filled with Fergusons, terrorists, victim blaming, fear of those who are sexually and culturally different from those in power, and more problems along these lines, we definitely need more commitment to fairness, compassion, and comprehension. Tokenism of any kind in fiction only sweeps the problem under the rug and pretends it’s not really important.

It’s time to get rid of the rug and get rid of tokenism while we’re at it. Believable characters of all kinds can speak to us powerfully in fiction and bring light to our souls. Let’s reach out for that!

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6 thoughts on “No Smurfing Here: The Lone Woman in a Male Crowd

  1. I’m gonna jump in and defend Penny. She’s not as educated as the guys, but she’s not stupid. She has the worldly smarts, the social smarts the guys lack. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched season one, but I remember being impressed several times at her being written as plenty smart. Just… not highly educated.

    She’s been much less sexualized as the seasons progress, which surprises me because the actress hasn’t become any less sexy.

    The thing that bothers me about BBT is that none of the girls are nerds. Amy at the least and maybe Bernadette should both be every bit as geeky about Star Wars as the guys. …but of course, you’re writing about tokenism, so I’m getting off topic.

    Yes, Penny was definitely the token female for a few seasons. But she wasn’t dumb! 🙂

    • Penny certainly has social smarts that the guys lack, but is the least educated of the bunch. However, a lot of the show’s laughs come from the other characters reacting to Penny’s relative lack of knowledge as though it’s a relative lack of intelligence. Perhaps a more fair way for me to analyze this is that Penny’s relative ignorance is meant to point out the smart people’s disdain of her. But given that she’s also portrayed as a waitress hanging on to silly acting dreams and an alcoholic, she’s a bit of a stereotype too…one in which the Midwesterner is stupid and drinks too much and has no commitment to upward mobility.

      It doesn’t particularly bother me that none of the girls are nerds, but their disdain for the men’s nerdish behavior is yet another stereotype. Some of us women can respect a guy’s love for hunting or fishing or Star Wars or sports. We don’t have to share that love to be respectful. But then again, that’s also off topic for today. LOL. So much to talk about, so little space.

  2. A fantastic article. I’d forgotten about the origins of Smurfette.

    Speaking of, Arwen was kind of that character in the books, but in the movie, she was given the roles of (I think) two male elves from the books to give her more agency. I’m still torn between liking the changes (because otherwise all we have is Galadriel and Eowyn) and being offended that some of Frodo’s own agency was removed to make her more “bad ass” (in the books, he makes it to Rivendell alone).

    • Thanks, Alex. I’d thought about Arwen too, but had no time to talk about her. Given that Tolkien was going for a specific type of writing…an English mythology of sorts, where a lot of details are shorthanded…I tend not to talk too much about his books. But in the movies, she’s fair game. I agree that Frodo becomes less active because of the changes to Arwen’s character, which is a problem for me. I also think Peter Jackson could have made some of the elven archers in Two Towers females. I don’t remember any of the elves who find the Fellowship in Galadriel’s woods as females. The one with the speaking line is male (Haldur?). I loved him, but that character could have been female, or a female could have been standing right next to him glaring at the noisy dwarf. There were some missed opportunities there.

  3. I never watched the Smurfs, but good gravy-what a tool story line! And they changed her hair? No wonder they tanked! This got me thinking about Steel Magnolias and the token men in that plot. Both pretty bad stereotypes of Southern men. Really good post, M!

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