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.
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 medieval 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?
It’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!