Females In The Movies Part 3: Princess Leia And The Smurfette Principle

Princess Leia

Click here to read more of my Females in the Movies blog series.

Another female role model in media from my childhood was none other than a side-bun wearing, gun-toting space princess: Leia.

Yes, she got captured and remained so for a majority of the first movie (a stereotypical damsel in distress by definition). But anyone who can verbally slap Han Solo with a much needed reality check, confront Darth Vader whilst in handcuffs and surrounded by Stormtroopers, and throw out the term “nerf herder” during a squabble like it’s no one’s business is someone worth looking up to. She may not have been the most skilled physical fighter, but she certainly wouldn’t go down without a fight. She lived for something larger than herself, serving as a figurehead and diplomat for the Rebellion. Leia’s a terrific character who asserts her identity, but sadly takes a backseat to Luke and Han throughout the series.

Yet another reason to aspire to be Leia.

In recent years, I’ve questioned if I looked up to Princess Leia when I was a kid because she was the only female in the Star Wars universe. Lando Calrissian might have been the “last black man in the galaxy”, but for all we know, Princess Leia could have been the only person carrying two X-chromosomes, too. Did I look up to her due to the mere fact that she was the lone female in an all-male cast or was I actually drawn to her character?

This question underlines one of media’s chronic conditions: The Smurfette Principle, a concept that feminist essayist Katha Pollitt constructed in 1991, named for the popular 80’s cartoon featuring a village of male Smurfs and their lone female, creatively named Smurfette.

The Smurfette Principle is the tendency for movies, TV shows, or books to have exactly one female amongst an ensemble of male characters. This is blatant in all forms of media, not only with female characters, but with black characters, gay characters, or basically any other minority groups. This is also known as having a “token” character in the ensemble, such as “the token black character.”

I want you to go through this brief thought process with me.

  1. What was the last movie or television show you watched?

     A.  The World’s End. (Click here for my review)

Sam (Rosamund Pike) and her brother, Oliver (Martin Freeman)

2. How many main female characters were there? Supporting female characters? What was her/their relationship to other men in the movie/show?

A. One supporting female character — the sister of one of the main male characters, past lover of two main male characters.

Did your movie fall prey to the Smurfette Principle? Mine did, and chances are, yours did, too. And in my movie, The World’s End, the female character was only introduced into the story because of her relationship with her brother (main character) and kept in the storyline because of her romantic past with two of the other main male characters.

Smurfette Principle: The Black Widow (second from right), the only female on The Avengers

There are exceptions to this principle, but that’s what they are: exceptions. And if you did think of an exception, was it a movie aimed specifically at females? The underlying belief of The Smurfette Principle seems to be that movies featuring (white, heterosexual) men will be popular with all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender. The flip side of this mindset: “who wants to watch (white, heterosexual) women onscreen?”

The answer: only females, and only occasionally.

It appears as though Hollywood writers have a female gender quota of “one” to fill and don’t feel the need to stretch themselves, leaving minority groups underrepresented.

Smurfette Principle: Penny (second from right, female), Raj (far right, Indian) and the guys

Therein lies the major issue. If media reflects life, and media consists of masculine, white, heterosexual males, then this narrow group of demographics is defining our society’s “reality,” both for their own group and the underrepresented groups.

Male is the default. Females are sexy decorations.

This brings me back to Princess Leia and the Star Wars original trilogy, the epitome of the Smurfette Principle.

Perhaps to some extent I looked up to Leia because she was a female. But I don’t think I would have admired her if had she been a timid, passive princess who was content to let the men do all the work.

Maya (Jessica Chastain) from Zero Dark Thirty

Some of the responses I received about female role models in movies cited powerful heroines such as Maya from Zero Dark Thirty, Helen Mirren from Prime Suspect, and Angelina Jolie from Tomb Raider. I think it’s easy for girls and women to look up to these headstrong female action (or “active”) heroes. We like them because they are powerful women among powerful men. They are thriving in a man’s world. They may not share any of our personal characteristics, but is easier to imagine ourselves in their shoes than it is to imagine being a male action hero. And when they give the villain sass, we can envision ourselves doing the same thing under the right circumstances.

I came here to chew bubble gum and spout feminism. And I’m all out of bubble gum.

I want to know:

What other movies or TV shows have you recently watched that fall prey to The Smurfette Principle?

What exceptions to The Smurfette Principle can you think of (a movie with more than one female or other kinds of “token” characters? Is it a movie aimed at women, men, or toward the general population?

Click here to read more of my Females in the Movies blog series.

1 Response

  1. Nolan

    Yes, Princess Leia is the token female in Star Was. What sets her apart? She didn’t have to be the wonderful character that she was. She could have been vapid and shallow. Star Wars would still have been a hit.

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