The Smurfette Principle
January 29, 2010
We open with The Nostalgia Chick looking right at the camera, not saying anything as background music plays. After a few seconds, she takes a big deep breath, exhales, quickly waves at us, and begins.
Nostalgic Chick: Today, we’re going to talk about The Smurfette Principle. I remember back, [looking up and putting her right index finger on her cheek] all the way back to 2008...
We get a ripple effect as we dissolve to The Nostalgia Critic in his room on his phone, talking to our heroine.
Nostalgia Critic: Hey, congratulations! You got the job.
NCh: [on the phone] Hey, that’s great! Hooray for life! [gives a “thumbs up” and she freezes with a happy face]
NC: Oh yeah, you’ll love it. You’ll be just like me, only female. [cut to her room, where she lowers her eyebrows in sadness with her mouth still agape; yeah, this ain’t good. Cut back to NC] Alright, later! Bye. [he closes his phone and looks up in the other direction] God, I’m awesome.
We ripple back to NCh in her room.
NCh: Hi, I’m your Nostalgia Chick, and I am a [using air quotes] “distaff counterpart.” [she reluctantly shrugs her shoulders and throws up her hands] It pays the bills. And no, the irony of that never escaped me, especially given the fact that it is my job to review nostalgic stuff from people of our age group and, uh, we had an awful lot of that sorta thing back in the day. [cut to a pic of Smurfette] But what do I mean by “token chick”? [back to NCh] Well, I think that should be obvious, as obvious as the line of modern and post-modern. Somewhere around between the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we kinda got weird about the idea of homogeneity, even if we were targeting things towards a specific gender, which we were in the ‘80s. So, that’s where the idea [quick cut to a pic of Token from South Park] of tokenism came in. [back to NCh] We’re more inclined to use this for, say, token minorities but, in a weird way, women sorta became a minority.
Cut to a vintage Mickey & Minnie Mouse cartoon.
NCh: [v/o] I think most token chicks kinda serve to remind us that there is [cut to a pic of Mickey in his well-known outfit] the default, and then there’s the [cut to a pic of Minnie] deviation from the default. [we see a montage of clips from Ducktales, The Muppet Show, and Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers] Hence why most gender-neutral TV shows of yore had male leads, and the only ones with female leads were on goddamn [cut of a clip of…] My Little Pony and things aimed at girls. [brief clips of Animaniacs and Beavis & Butthead, the latter showing off Daria] Yes, we saw exceptions; but they were pretty rare in the grand scheme.
NCh: Well, why is this? Well, same reason you see this in adult media: ever since we came into the era of focus groups, there’s this sort of attitude that women write stuff for women and men write stuff for everyone.
Cut to clips from My Little Pony, Transformers, Tiny Toon Adventures, TaleSpin, and Animaniacs.
NCh: [v/o] So in the ‘80s, we had a lot of stuff set for a specific demographic. In the ‘90s, especially with the advent of WB shows and the “Disney Afternoon,” those lines blurred a lot.
NCh: And we were more interested in gender-neutral stuff that everyone could watch. So, why was it that the main characters were still mostly male?
Cut to a montage of clips of Muppet Babies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with scenes of April, and Rescue Rangers with Gadget.
NCh: [v/o] Sometimes, especially for the more gender-neutral audience shows, you’d find that there’d be two. You’d have the main one, who is usually some form of love interest; and then some sort of backup, [cut to Irma from the Turtles show] who is probably some shade of geek or weird or less intrusive in some way, depending on the nature of the show.
NCh: This goes back… way back. I’m not gonna say back to the beginning of literature or whatever, that may be true, but for our purposes, let’s go back to the beginning of animated stuff.
Cut to a vintage Felix the Cat cartoon.
NCh: [v/o] With your Felix the Cat and Bosco, you pretty much only had girl characters that existed as some love interest/goal for the dude to have wacky adventures. [cut to a Betty Boop cartoon] But you also had the likes of Betty Boop, who was pretty popular as a comic heroine if a bit, well… unwitting 14-year-old sex slave-ish… [bell dings as the cartoon freezes to show this caption: “Seriously, she’s supposed to be like thirteen.” Cut to clips of Disney & WB cartoons from the ’40s and ’50s] But later in animation development, we’ve got the two big animation houses. Who take two different approaches. With Warner Brothers, pretty much all of the characters are dudes except Tweety’s Granny and Pepe Le Pew's sexual assault poster child.
Pepe Le Pew: You know, one of the mysteries of my life is why a woman run away when all she really wish is to be captured.
Cut to clips from Space Jam with Lola. Oh, joy.
NCh: [v/o] Although this changed in the mid-‘90s with the Warner Bros. characters. Oh, the token chickism. Was it ever more blatant? Less said about that, the better.
NCh: But Disney was the one that kinda really started this interest in the whole default and deviation-from-default complex. Basically, this idea that men seem to want a “vaginaed” version of themselves, or at least Mickey Mouse does.
Cut to Disney cartoon clips of Mickey & Minnie and Donald & Daisy Duck.
NCh: [v/o] Granted, Mickey is pretty boring. I guess Daisy Duck’s not much like Donald, but these girls are pretty much straight women to the dudes. Or, more often, judgmental obstacles because women exist to make men miserable.
We see Donald pulling away from the phone receiver in a booth because Daisy is rapidly speaking. He can’t get a word in.
Donald Duck: But-.. but I…
Daisy Duck: …manners, and your English is terrible. Until you develop a more pleasant personality, I don’t ever want to see you again!
NCh: So back in the days, either we strived to impress them - to comedic effect, old and oblivious - to comedic effect, sexual assault victim - to comedic effect, or they just didn’t exist. But this was more sort of World War II-era cartoon characters. So what does that say for our generation’s female foil?
Cut to The Smurfs episode, The Smurfette, starting with the title card.
NCh: [v/o] Okay, let’s take a look at our namesake here: Miss Smurfette. The show took place in a utopian sausage fest - all dudes until Smurfette came along, created by an evil wizard intent on sowing discord among the Smurfs. Yeah.
NCh: This ain’t a new one. There seems something embedded in our human consciousness that women are just the sowers of discord.
Cut to a zoom-in of a painting of Eve taking an apple off THAT tree, followed by the same of a different depiction.
NCh: [v/o] In the Bible: “Ooh, just had to eat from the tree of knowledge and cosign mankind to an eternity of misery and womankind to bleed every month.” [now we get some zoom-ins of a few paintings depicting the opening of Pandora’s Box] In Greek mythology: “Ooh, just had to be curious and open that box and spread misery everywhere.“ Hell, according to Homer, it was a bunch of goddesses bitching that started the Trojan War.
NCh: We’re just doomed: innocent and childlike, and yet curious and destructive. I don’t know how we stand us.
Papa Smurf: [calling up to ‘our hero’ in her upstairs window] Aren’t you surfing with us, Smurfette?
NCh: The use of verbs has always been amusing to me. “Dude… we went smurfing last night and… y’know what? I don’t wanna even smurf about it.”
Cut to a montage of clips from The Muppet Show.
NCh: [v/o] More geared towards comedy, we have Miss Piggy, who - unusual for girls in comedy - is actually allowed to participate in the slapstick, but usually to the point of violence.
We see a scene from The Great Muppet Caper where Miss Piggy kicks the evil female diamond thieves; cut to Muppet Show clips of Kermit.
NCh: I think we’re meant to relate to her poor beleaguered boyfriend. [here is a clip of Piggy strangling Kermit, instead of hugging him] Just like Mickey and Donald, “all we want to do is please her, but all she does is abuse.”
NCh: And now, as a complete non-sequitur: Miss Piggy singing “Jackson” with Johnny Cash. Cuz it’s awesome.
Cut to that version as featured on The Muppet Show.
Johnny Cash: [singing] I’m gonna mess around / Honey, I’m goin’ to Jackson / Look out, Jackson town.
Miss Piggy: YA-HOO! [singing] Well, go on down to Jackson… [cut back to NCh]
NCh: Now back to our regularly scheduled kvetching.
Cut to a montage of Muppet Babies clips.
NCh: [v/o] Later, we got Muppet Babies with this interesting addition: since it’s aimed at both boys and girls, the producers of this show decided another female character was in order so…Baby Scooter, like an amoeba, split into two beings: one male and one female. And we have Skeeter. [cut to Skeeter imitating a trumpet fanfare; back to Nch]
NCh: Fun fact: [as images of the following pop up underneath her, with accompanying bell dings] what do Skeeter, Megatron, and Abu have in common? [the pics disappear] Same voice actor. [she shrugs her shoulders]
Cut to more Muppet Babies clips.
NCh: [v/o] So it seems the gender-neutral stuff is more aimed towards younger kids.
NCh: But the stuff aimed for the older bunch was a lot more distinct in terms of what demographic they're going for: young boys, seven to twelve…. whatever.
Now we get a montage of clips and stills to emphasize NCh’s points.
NCh: [v/o] You’ve got your He-Man; his counterpart, She-Ra. Your Transformers and their rough equivalent, My Little Pony. And each show had their own little tokens: girl shows had their token dudes; dude shows had their token chicks. Oddly enough, He-Man seemed to be more progressive in that you actually had female characters - on the good side, anyway - who weren’t all passive and girly and sometimes almost ahead in even number. Not so for She-Ra. Or for the Ponies. Or for Transformers.
NCh: Though you could argue with Transformers that that kind of made sense… in a way that I’m sure the creators had no intention of it doing so.
Cut to a Transformers montage.
NCh: [v/o] You could argue that it makes sense for alien robots to act like dudes because they’d see our culture and go, “Well, I guess ‘dude’ is the default. We should look like dudes.”
NCh: Which would be all well and good except for the fact that there are female Transformers. [pauses] And they’re PAAAAAAANK.
Cut to clips of Transformers featuring Elita One, I‘m guessing, one of the female bots in question.
NCh: [v/o] Optimus Prime might be Robot Christ, but he did have a girlfriend who has - surprise, surprise - pretty much the pink equivalent of him because again, all men want a “vaginaed” version of themselves. But she was a recurring character. In fact, there weren’t really any recurring female characters in the first two seasons except for Spike’s girlfriend, Carly. But in the third season, they got a real one: an honest-to-God token girl with Princess Leia’s metal hair and all the personality of a make-up compact.
NCh: And she’s PAAAAAANK.
Cut to clips from a later version of Transformers called Beast Wars.
NCh: [v/o] Not so in later continuities in the ‘90s, like with Beast Wars, where there was Blackarachnia. And she was EEEEVILLLL.
NCh: You can tell cuz she’s not PAAAAAAANK.
Back to Beast Wars clips.
NCh: [v/o] And for the most part, she actually had dimension and her gender was rather incidental, the nonsense of gendered robots notwithstanding. Granted, later in the series, she gets less evil. Now, while you could count this towards the series having more complex characters than the G-1 Transformers, she does end up as something of a love interest, albeit briefly. [cut to a Thundercats montage] Thundercats, curiously, also fell into this trope for a majority of it. As we had one major female character filling the slot of “the sensitive one“, and also the one with the “sixth sense“ or whatever. You’d think it’d be a little more even in terms of gender ratio since, aesthetically, it’s basically an interstellar version of [cut to a clip of the filmed version of…] Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats on steroids.
The Cats Cast: [singing] Can you ride on a broomstick to places far distant? / Familiar with candle, with book and with bell? / Were you Whittington’s… [back to Nch]
NCh: How did that thing last for so long?
Cut to a montage of Animaniacs, Ducktales, Rescue Rangers, and Talespin clips.
NCh: [v/o] Now, flash forward to the ‘90s. Shows got a lot less gender-specific in terms of the target audience, but here’s where it gets a little more palpable: In these words, pretty much, all your main characters were dudes with the occasional sprinkling of womanly whiles; you see this especially in the syndicated Disney shows. [cut to clips of Turtles with April] But then you’ve got other entities, like a sort-of post-feminist damsel-in-distressm, like April O’Neil: she’s just gotta get that story, even if it means getting kidnapped all the time and having to be rescued by a bunch of mutated adolescent reptiles… over and over. [cut to appropriate clips from Gargoyles] Less primitive but in a similar slot is Elisa from Gargoyles, who was pretty much the only chick on that show for the first chunk of it, save for evil counselor Troi. Not only was she a token girl, she filled a few other slots as well: being half-black and half-Native American.
NCh: Like a post-modern Uhura, but with lines and a backstory and stuff.
Cut to an Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures montage.
NCh: [v/o] Then you had your Warner Bros. cartoons, which, curiously, started to mirror the Disney cartoons of the early years by having girl versions of boy characters. Take Animaniacs, for example.
Yakko Warner: It’s Yakko and Wakko and our sister, Dot!
Now an Animanics montage.
NCh: [v/o] Originally conceived as being three male characters, one of the higher-ups decided, “Lets make one of them a girl”, who was pretty on the level with her brothers except for when there were other chicks around.
Yakko [in the center of a circle of Vegas showgirls]: I love cartoons.
We see a very sexy nurse on Animaniacs.
NCh: [v/o] And on that show, they tend to be a bit… goodness.
Yakko and Wakko [after they’re done drooling and gawking over said nurse]: HellOOOOOOO, Nurse!
NCh: Being in a big honkin’ film school and being surrounded by dudes constantly, I empathize.
Dot Warner: Boys. Go figure.
Cut to clips from Tiny Toons.
NCh: [v/o] Then there’s the Tiny Toons, which features two main character bunnies: Buster Bunny and Babs Bunny.
NCh: [after a long pause] And, of course, she’s PAAAAAAANK.
Back to Tiny Toons montage.
NCh: [v/o] But our dude duck gets a chick duck. There’s also a young female Pepe Le Pew. There were a couple of characters on that show that weren’t spin-offs from older characters or counterparts, like Elmyra here.
[NOTE: Elmyra Duff WAS based on Elmer Fudd, but it was never said if the two were related. Anyhow, we see a clip of Elmira “playing” with Dizzy Devil - and by “playing,” I mean carelessly whacking him to the ground as she skips.]
Elmyra: You can be my puppy! And we’ll be together every day and I‘ll love you and… [fades out as she continues skipping]
NCh: Sometimes, I feel like the creators of these shows didn’t much like children.
Cut to clips from Rocko‘s Modern Life and the title sequence of Clarissa Explains it All.
NCh: [v/o] It continues and so on. You see more gender diversity in some of the Nickelodeon shows like [title card images appear of…] Hey Dude and Salute Your Shorts.
NCh: Odd how the same isn‘t really true for cartoons, although we do get instances of token chickism all the way up to pretty much Hey Arnold.
Clips of Hey Arnold and the Clarissa intro play.
NCh: [v/o] Still tipped towards the dudes - but you gotta take what you can get - at least, they did have some shows like Clarissa Explains It All, which were pretty much for general audiences.
NCh: But we didn’t get a female main character until The Wild Thornberrys.
Now we see a montage of Aaahh!!! Real Monsters clips.
NCh: [v/o] Though you could argue for Oblina in Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. This show was like a dark proto-Harry Potter; and she’s like our proto-Hermione. Though I did always find it odd that a chick would room with two dudes.
Olbina: GOTTA HAVE THE WUGGLE! [I think that’s what she yelled…]
NCh: But hey, she’s one character, right? So when you look at the Nicktoons, which are, for the most part, aimed at age groups and not genders…
Cut to a list of Nicktoons episodes off of Wikipedia.
NCh: [v/o] Since 1991, Nickelodeon has produced 33 Nicktoons. Of them, there have been three [The Wild Thornberrys, As Told by Ginger, and My Life as a Teenage Robot are highlighted on the list] with main female characters. Sounds about right. Unless you count [we see this show is now highlighted:] KaBlam; then it’s, like, three-and-a-half.*
[NOTE: At the time this episode was made, there was a fourth Nicktoon that had a female protagonist; The Mighty B, focusing on the adventures of girl scout Bessie Higgenbottom. The show is even listed as Nicktoon #31 on the Wikipedia excerpt Lindsay provides.]
NCh: You can go on and on with this. And I know what a lot of people would say: “big fucking deal, right?”
NCh: [v/o] Well, then we go into the media that’s not for children. Is it really that different? The more formulaic something is, the more it falls into these niches. Whatever works works, but it doesn’t do much for those of us who are trying to get out of those niches. And no one ever seems to think that these niches particularly benefit anybody.
Aretha Franklin [singing, as lip-synched by Babs Bunny in a Tiny Toons episode]: R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me...
NCh: Not that I’m filling a niche or anything. So I guess some would ask: “What’s the point of me pointing all this out? Well… I would ask: “Why is it so easy to relate to male main characters and yet to female main characters not so much, unless you yourself are female? What does this say about us?” And might this not be something more interested in exploring?
Dot: [about to yell something, but she pauses and retracts] Never mind.
NCh: And if the answer is “no,“ I can’t say that’s anything new. I’m your Nostalgia Chick, and this is why I don’t have a catch phrase.
As the credit screen appears, we hear this from “Obligatory Villagers” by…
Nellie McKay: I’m Dennis Kucinich, and I approve this message.
NOTE: The credits also include: Apparently, I was wearing the exact same eye make-up in 2008.