The Smurfette Principle: Being Part of the Problem

I write fiction. It’s what I’ve done for a significant part of my life, and one way or another, it’s what I’ll do until the day I die. I glory in the possibility of it, the freedom from depicting the world as it is and as it has to be. Instead, I can depict the world as it could be, as it deserves to be. I can even (and do) depict different worlds entirely.

And so I was understandably a little unsettled by a trend I’ve found in fiction. I consider fiction to be purposeful only when it tries to improve the world; completely accepting something that is flawed and unjust in the world weakens a work. As senseless as it is, that is exactly what most of the fiction-making world is doing with each page, each episode, each blockbuster. Ignoring a problem. A troubling trend.

I was understandably a little disturbed to find that I was following this trend, as well.

The Problem

This particular issue has been addressed by many before me—by so many and so often, in fact, that it has a name. What I am referring to is the Smurfette Principle. According to tvtropes.org, the Smurfette Principle is:

“[T]he tendency for works of fiction to have exactly one female amongst an ensemble of male characters… Said only woman will almost always be used as half of a romance subplot.”

This problem is ubiquitous among works of fiction, whether they be TV shows, movies, comics, or literature. Even as you read this, you’re likely realizing that one of your favorite works of fiction falls prey to this. But here is the question that people are constantly in debate over:

Why is this a thing?

It goes without saying that women are half of a given society’s population, and it is equally obvious that women match men as consumers of fiction. Intuition states that they would be well-represented, then; that half, or more than half, of all creative works should have female main characters, and that even those whose main character was male would be full of interesting, powerful women.

But that’s not the case. Women are underrepresented in fiction to a startling degree. When they are present, they are often “the girl” and nothing more. In the rare case that there are interesting, capable women, they are hobbled by a patriarchal society which does not allow for women to gain power.

Let me put that to you in a different way. In worlds which the artist has created, and which need not resemble our own in the least, women are largely either nonexistent, romantic interests, cardboard-cutout fringe characters, or powerless damsels.

The Popular Theory

Some people believe that this is a marketing ploy. There has always been a Smurfette, even before Minnie Mouse was introduced as Mickey’s other half. Because there has always been one, the audience expects one, don’t they? They don’t expect equality among gender representation in fiction. The very idea is ridiculous! How can they want something they’ve never known they could have? Thus, the big-wig executives, “The Man”, only green-light media that are part of the problem. And the creator of the fiction figures, “make what sells, right”? and hops on the bandwagon.

Personally, I don’t buy this. There has been fiction that fairly represents women. X-Men, in which there are almost as many women as men, and in which the women have equal depth and importance, comes to mind. The Wheel of Time does, as well, not only because half the cast is female, but because the characters live in a matriarchal society in which it is hard for a male to gain traction. Harry Potter does, too, since the title character only has a chance of outshining Hermione if You-Know-Who is around. I find it unlikely that “The Man” would okay some stories with women in the lead, but not others.

Why, then, are women so poorly represented?

I believe that supporters of the previous theory are half right. I believe that most of the blame does rest with the creators of the fiction in question. But, as one such creator of fiction, who also just happens to be male, I feel I have insight into the problem that reveals a very different cause.

My Theory

As a man, it is easier to write men. It is also safer. There will be no one waiting to cast stones of “wrote him wrong” at a glass house of pretty words. No one will accuse the creator of being sexist for depicting the thoughts of a man unfavorably. Not like they might if that man was to write women.

That’s it. Simple as that.

Now those of you who have watched or read most anything worthwhile will know that way of thinking is just stupid. Women in fiction are characters who happen to be female. Treating them as anything more mysterious is doing a disservice to equality in fiction. And  a writer opens himself up to at least an even amount of criticism for not introducing worthwhile women in the first place as he does for writing them badly.

But a fourteen year old writing his first few precious words can’t see this. To that fourteen year old, women are mysterious, impossible to comprehend. And to that eager teenager, who looks for approval from every eye who glances at his work—that teenager, who is crushed by every well-meaning criticism—there is nothing in the world more frightening than attempting to write women.

So he doesn’t. Maybe he decides this in a firm sort of way, that he just will not try, or maybe he decides this one character at a time. I’m just not ready, he might say to himself. The next one will be a woman. I promise. But he finds, as he grows as a writer, that it is progressively easier to write men, progressively more comfortable. Soon, he knows, he probably could write a woman. But that must be a hassle, to worry about every word, every thought, and suppress the part of himself that is inherently male.

He can’t know that his difficulty in writing women stems only from a fear and refusal to do so, and that, should he try, he could double his repertoire and expand his world’s possibilities exponentially.

And by the time he realizes, he might have already found success with what he has. Why should he change what has worked so far? Why fix what isn’t broken?

I fell prey to this mindset for years. But beneath my growing comfort with writing the male mind, there was also a growing sense that something wasn’t right. Strange as it sounds, it had become so natural to include women only as a romantic interest or because, “Hey, there has to be some women, right?” that it took a real look to realize what was missing.

And then a light bulb clicked on, throwing the grotesque shape of my work into focus.

I realized that, in my 800 plus page novel, I only had one significant female character. I realized that, as capable, powerful, well-developed, proactive, and essential to the plot as she might be, she was also essentially just a romantic interest. I realized that, though my world had the shadows of ten thousand years of history behind it, there was nothing in it that should cause the patriarchal traditions I had naively set in place. I realized that I had somehow, amongst all my other considerations, left the women out.

And by then, three drafts in, there was nothing for it but knuckle down to finish and promise to myself that, in future books, things would be changing very quickly.

To anyone who wonders how such blatant sexism could occur with relatively little outcry, I propose one theory I have not seen elsewhere: it happens because it always has, because teenage boys are stupid, and because men, as they say, are only boys grown tall.

I have been a part of the problem without ever seeing there was one. Now, when this disparity haunts each step I take down the path toward being published, I find myself incapable of being a part of the problem anymore.

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Thanks for reading!

Here’s the full page on the Smurfette Principle on tvtropes.org:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheSmurfettePrinciple

And here’s another  good article to read on the subject:

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/07/sleeps-with-monsters-the-smurfette-principle-we-can-do-better

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Originally published on: 06/07/13

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