In film and media, a trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience.
In a New York Times article she wrote in 1991, the poet, Katha Pollit, identified a common problem with the portrayal of women in film and TV – there aren’t enough of them. Pollit pointed out that even though women (obviously) make up half the population of the world, works of fiction with an ensemble cast – TV and film in particular but also books to some extent – very rarely have a 50/50 balance. Indeed most often there is just one female added to the mix.
She named this The Smurfette Principle.
So what are the possible consequences of this scarcity of female characters in popular culture? Pollit suggests that this tendency has a huge impact on 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. (1)
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…”Let’s play weddings,” says my little niece. We grownups roll our eyes, but face it: it’s still the one scenario in which the girl is the central figure. (2)
There are exceptions to this (I knew there was a reason I loved Buffy!) but they’re rare.
Now that I know about the Smurfette Principle I can see it everywhere – awareness is powerful.
It really makes you think…
(1) Katha Pollit, Hers; The Smurfette Principle, New York Times, April, 07, 1991
- After the email dump [redacted] is history | Hadley Freeman (guardian.co.uk)
- How was smurfette created (wiki.answers.com)