Smurfette? How do they get away with this stuff?

Buy a McDonald’s Happy Meal and get a toy: OK, I didn’t expect it to be enlightening.

But to hear Kevin Newell, the company’s executive vice president and global chief brand officer, tell it, that’s exactly what it should be:

McDonald’s is committed to playing a positive role in children’s well-being. The Smurfs Happy Meal program delivers great quality food choices, fun toys and engaging digital content that reinforces important environmental messages.

Awesome. Granted, the last time I saw a Smurf, it was about 1978, and he looked like this:

And I don’t recall being overly concerned with gendered toy representations at the time. Anyway, now I’m told by the Happy Meal box that, “Smurfs are named after their individual talents: there’s Farmer, Painter and Baker… Know your talent and find your Smurf name!”

The girls both got male Smurf characters, which struck me as interesting, because the counter person had asked us if the Meals were for boys or girls. Then I looked at the characters on the box. Then I looked at the complete list of them on the website (see the poster version here):

Then I wondered what Smurfette’s “individual talent” was that got her — the only female Smurf — named “Smurfette.” And at that point, if it hadn’t been for all the fat and salt and sugar in my meal, I might have stopped enjoying it.

In context

I’ve commented before on the gender segregation in film making. The gist of it is apparent in this graph from the Celluloid Ceiling report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Not many women in charge:

But isn’t it improbable that a blockbuster kids’ movie, which grossed more than $75 million in its first two weeks, could be so blatantly sexist? There are a few women in the cast of the movie version of The Smurfs, but all the Smurfs are still male except Smurfette. Next thing you know they’re going to turn the only female character in this promotion — which, remember, plays a “positive role in children’s well-being” — into an adult sex symbol played by Katy Perry. You’re kidding.

Is sexist even a word anymore?

In fact, sexism used to be a very common word. According to the Google Ngrams database of millions of terms from their vast collection of digitized books in American English, “sexism” was even more common than “bacon” during the 1990s (you can play with this yourself here):

Unfortunately, in my opinion, sexism has retreated from the language, and kids’ stuff seems to be more shamelessly gendered than ever. I think this sad state of affairs is at least partly the result of what you see in that green line above — the backlash against feminism (and anti-racism) that made it seem more unpleasant or unwarranted to make a “big deal” out of sexism than to treat girls like this.

P.S. I haven’t seen the movie. Please tell me it has a hidden feminist message I haven’t heard about.

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Smurfette? How do they get away with this stuff?

  1. Ron

    The Smurfs are from Belgium. It’s *impossible* for anything from such a progressive country to be sexist… :)

    Anyway: kids’ stuff is shamelessly gendered because children are shamelessly gendered.

    Study of any “pack” mammal (humans, chimpanzees, apes, lions, horses, etc, etc) and you’ll see — whether matriarchy or patriarchy — physical and behavioral sex dimorphism.

    Besides, isn’t it great how many celluloid bean-pole thin, leather-wearing, blade-wielding women can beat up legions of armed and armored men in mere moments?

  2. Chuck Bury

    I’m not sure you could say the fi has a hidden feminist agenda but (possible spoiler alert) the central theme of the humans in the film is about an expectant father getting his priorities straight. Changing from. A workaholic who cares more about his career than the baby they are expecting to realizing the job he will as a father is the most important he will ever have.

    As a stay-at-home dad I found it a very enlightened movie on gender roles. Also note that the mother to be works, though as an artist not as on Wall St or anything. And that because all the other smurfs are male they must by necessity be beyond “gender roles” as their society practically speaking has only one gender.

    As to Smurfette, and I have no idea if this is canon or not, the movie explains that all smurfs all male and that Smurfette isn’t named for her personality because she was created by their arch nemesis – the wizard who is also the villain in the movie. You can blame either the original creator of the characters or the of the TV cartoon for that situation, I’m sure Wikipedia knows.

    • Thanks, Chuck. Good move by them placing the Smurfs in contemporary human society as a way to handle the anachronistic nature of Smurfs. Sounds interesting. According to Wikipedia (which does have a good article on Smurfette), she was created out by the evil villain. The only female, a creation of evil. Nice. That’s really even worse than the Adam and Eve thing…

      • Ron

        The only female, a creation of evil. Nice. That’s really even worse than the Adam and Eve thing…

        What’s the best way to disrupt a well-functioning team of young men? Add a pretty, flirty young woman into the mix. Instant distraction, jealousy and internecine quarrels.

  3. “Anyway: kids’ stuff is shamelessly gendered because children are shamelessly gendered.

    Study of any ‘pack’ mammal (humans, chimpanzees, apes, lions, horses, etc, etc) and you’ll see — whether matriarchy or patriarchy — physical and behavioral sex dimorphism.”

    Phillip’s point seems to be that it’s sexist to portray female characters as being notable primarily for being women while portraying male characters as being notable for their accomplishments (being “handy,” “brainy,” etc.). So, you seem to have missed this point, Ron. Unless you’re trying to argue that women actually are only notable for being women, as opposed to being notable f for their diverse accomplishments.

    • Ron

      So, you seem to have missed this point, Ron. Unless you’re trying to argue that women actually are only notable for being women, as opposed to being notable f for their diverse accomplishments.

      I was aiming my ire at the last paragraph.

      (The beauty of text editors is that it allows one to take the time to think, reflect and wipe out what you already wrote…)

      Now that I think about it, it reminds me of Snow White living with the Seven Dwarves: single female and “labeled” males. I don’t want to take the analogy any farther than that because I know nothing about what Smurfette actually did in either the original Belgian or the 1980s American cartoons.

      Another thing that comes to mind is that the males are purposefully painted into boxes. Whereas she can she could evolve in any direction the writers want her to, the males can each only ever be — just like the stereotype of the 1950s housewife — one thing.

      • “Whereas she can she could evolve in any direction the writers want her to,”

        And sadly, she never does. She just exists in a perpetual state of object for dudely smurf desire.

      • Ron

        And sadly, she never does.

        And the “men” are ossified.

        She just exists in a perpetual state of object for dudely smurf desire.

        Isn’t that the right and proper primary function of women???

  4. Neal

    It’s not just Smurfette. With the forthcoming relaunch of all the DC comics titles, there has been pretty heated debate about place of women in the DC universe. The focus hasn’t been so much about how women are represented, which many feel is still highly problematic, but rather on the number of women creators and lead characters, both of which are going to decline. Of the 100 plus writers, artists etc. scheduled to work on DC comics, only two are women. As a percent, this may be worse than female smurf representation. DC Women Kicking Ass is an excellent resource on this.

  5. Alara Rogers

    What’s the best way to disrupt a well-functioning team of young men? Add a pretty, flirty young woman into the mix. Instant distraction, jealousy and internecine quarrels.

    Except this doesn’t make any sense.

    A team of human young men come from a sexually dimorphic species in which women are required for reproduction and therefore men have evolved to be interested in them, but cultural factors have excluded women from the team. So add a woman back into the team as “nature” intended, and yes, you’ll get disruption; the men have adapted to what’s for humans a profoundly unnatural (albeit culturally common) state of affairs, the lack of half their species, and adding that half back in causes the same sort of disruption that smart, well-behaved ten year olds suffer when they turn thirteen and the sex hormones kick in. (The same would happen to a well-functioning team of young women.)

    But Smurfs never *had* women. Therefore they never had sex. Therefore they should have had no reproductive drive and no interest in sexuality; therefore, Smurfette shouldn’t have been a disruptive influence at all.

    The story (and it is in fact part of the original canon) is trying to have it both ways. The lack of women in the Smurfs isn’t supposed to be sexist, because the Smurfs are fundamentally sexless! But if they’re actually sexless, not males who have been deprived of female companionship, then they should react no differently to Smurfette than they would to any newly introduced Smurf. The fact that they *do* react as they do to a “pretty, flirty young woman” indicates that their lack of female Smurfs is a flaw in their society and a deprivation, not a natural part of Smurfness… but since no explanation is given as to why there are no female Smurfs, we’re supposed to take the explanation that Smurfs are all male because they lack gender at face value, as if male isn’t a gender.

    The fundamental problem with the Smurfs is that the original product is pretty damn old. What came to the US in the 1980’s wasn’t new then either. But it’s such a part of pop cult understanding that the Smurfs have only one female that I guess they felt they couldn’t update that by randomly making some of the Smurfs female, as it would destroy the whole point to Smurfette. (That, and while I see TV shows doing updates that make characters that were originally male into women to restore some sex balance, I see no attempt to do so in movies… in fact, the Star Trek movie excluded two of the original female cast, Janice Rand and Christine Chapel, while the X-Men movie created an “origin team” that consisted solely of men, plus two women who eventually quit to join the “bad guys” and one human woman who got her mind wiped, despite the fact that their willingness to play fast and loose with characters’ ages meant that *any* of the enormous cast of female X-Men could have been used as part of the origin team. And I *loved* those movies.)

    • Ron

      cultural factors have excluded women from the team.

      Extremely germane question: which cultures *do* constantly mix the genders in *all* activities? None that I can think of.

      If that is an accurate state, then ISTM to be prima facie evidence that are “naturally different”.

      But Smurfs never *had* women. Therefore they never had sex. Therefore they should have had no reproductive drive and no interest in sexuality

      So how can there be sexism in the the Smurfs?

      the Star Trek movie excluded two of the original female cast, Janice Rand and Christine Chapel

      My blood just *boils* whenever I think of that “reboot”. The people who were Lieutenants and Ensigns during ST:TOS would have been in Jr High when Kirk was at Starfleet Academy.

      • Alara Rogers

        But Smurfs never *had* women. Therefore they never had sex. Therefore they should have had no reproductive drive and no interest in sexuality

        So how can there be sexism in the the Smurfs?

        Well, that’s exactly my point. If you have a group of entities who we code as “male” because they don’t have distinctively feminine features or voices, but they themselves are sexless, then adding an entity with what we perceive as distinctively feminine traits shouldn’t produce *any* sex or gender related effects at all. In other words, the guys shouldn’t be attracted to Smurfette, her “flirtatious” behavior should end up having very little effect, and she shouldn’t be a disruptive influence in any way that adding a new “male” Smurf wouldn’t be.

        However, that’s… not the way it goes down. Gargamel created Smurfette to be a disruptive influence, simply by being a female in an all-male group… and it works in the story, because the series tried to have it both ways. The sexism is in the way the creator betrayed his own premise. His Smurfs aren’t in fact sexless beings; they are, in fact, *male*, because they react to the presence of a female the way males would. Which begs the question of why there had never been females to begin with. *Why* would a society of entities that are male, and only male, ever come into existence? Maleness doesn’t exist as a concept without femaleness, but many human men don’t recognize this; they perceive their own state of existence, which is maleness, to be the human default, and don’t recognize the ways in which their gender separates them from any Platonic ideal of “human without gender”. So men are the default, and women are the Other, and it makes total sense to them that there could be a society comprised of nothing but males which is then thrown into confusion by the introduction of a female.

        In reality, the only way you get a society that has no females in it is if the males excluded them, or if someone outside the society kept the females out (an example of the second would be a boys’ school, where it’s not up to the little boys to keep the girls out, but the people who run the school, who may themselves comprise both men and women.) So trying to say that a society could exist that “naturally” had no females, which was disrupted by the introduction of a female, is sexist because the situation it posits could only happen if males are normal and females are Other… which isn’t the case in reality.

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  7. Kuerten

    There are 4 female smurfs.
    Smurfette, sassette, nanny, and clockwork smurfette. (wich is a robot built by handy.)

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