Gender, Characterisation and Smurfs

Here’s another great contribution to the debate about women in SFF and literature in general: Max Barry explains why the marginalization of women is all down to dogs and Smurfs.

The point about animals being considered male by default does not quite work in Germany, because over here it is mostly assumed that the grammatical gender of a given animal will also be their biological gender. Hence, cats, goats, geese, ducks, bees, flies, spiders, mice, hyaenas etc… are more likely to be portrayed as female, because their grammatical gender is female. Meanwhile, dogs, wolves, lions, tigers, elephants, bears, fish, rainworms, etc… are more likely to be portrayed as male. It does not really improve the situation though, particularly if you compare which animals are coded as female to which animals are coded as male.

In the comments of the post, there is some bonus Smurf neepery about the origina of Smurfette. Jeez and I thought I was the only one who knew this stuff.

Yes, I was a big Smurf fan as a kid. I had a whole Smurf village in my room with loads of figurines and Smurf houses and even a windmill. I have to check if my parents still have a photo somewhere, because it was awesome.

The pronounced gender imbalance among the Smurfs bothered me even as a kid. However, until I watched the cartoons I never quite grasped that there was only one Smurfette. So I collected all versions of Smurfette (plain Smurfette, Smurfette with flower, ballerina Smurfette, Smurfette playing tennis, Smurfette rollerskating, etc…) there were in the mistaken belief that the different versions of Smurfette were all different female Smurfs who just happened to look alike, just as all male Smurfs happened to look alike even though they were different characters.

Though Max Barry is on to something with the concept of Smurf characterisation, which he describes as follows:

Then you’ve got Smurf books. Not actual Smurfs. I mean stories where there are five major characters, and one is brave and one is smart and one is grumpy and one keeps rats for pets and one is a girl. Smurfs, right? Because there was Handy Smurf and Chef Smurf and Dopey Smurf and Painter Smurf and ninety-four other male Smurfs and Smurfette. Smurfette’s unique personality trait was femaleness. That was the thing she did better than anyone else. Be a girl.

Smurf characterisation is still quite common, particularly in film and TV, and nowadays there is a variation that is even more problematic than the original, namely a version where there is more than one female character (mostly two, because let’s not go overboard with the gender balance here) yet one of those female characters is defined only by a single trait, while the other gets to be “the girl”. As a result, the female character who doesn’t get to be “the girl” is often portrayed as unfeminine or de-sexed.

Torchwood – the original Torchwood seen in season 1, not the current American travesty – is a good example: Jack was the boss, Owen was the snarky one (and the doctor), Ianto was the tea boy or the boy toy, depending on your POV, Toshiko was the geeky one and Gwen was the girl, as evidenced by the fact that all of Gwen’s storylines at least from season 2 upwards (Gwen in season 1 had a personality apart from being female) revolve around her being female. She has relationship trouble, gets married, gets pregnant. Meanwhile, Toshiko was completely underdeveloped and had no actual character beyond a talent for computers and a crush on Owen.

Leverage is another example. Nate is the boss, Hardison is the geek, Eliot is the muscle, Parker is the thief and the crazy one and Sophie is the girl. And of course, Parker is also the character who is antisocial and constantly has issues with what is considered normal behaviour, including normal female behaviour.

Now Smurf characterisation doesn’t have to be bad per se. Hustle is pure Smurf characterisation down to Stacy or respectively Emma as the designated girl and I still love it. The A-Team, one of my top ten favourite shows of all time, had Smurf characterisation. I like Leverage in spite of its Smurf characterisation (and Leverage also pulls the deep, dark character-defining trauma stunt, too). I loved Torchwood during its first season in spite of its Smurf characterisation.

And even Misfits, which I absolutely adore and which is probably my favourite show at the moment, starts off with Smurf characterisation and gives us the big-mouth, the athlete, the possibly psychotic geek, the chav and the slut, the latter two being female. But Misfits quite cleverly subverts this by giving us stereotypes and then gradually showing us the human being underneath the stereotype. “Look here. You think you know these kids, know what kind of people they are just by looking at them? Well, look again.” Misfits uses the Smurf characterisation trick to make us question our prejudices.

And this is also the reason why the shows listed above managed to be good in spite of their Smurf characterisation. Because the characters were never just Smurfs, they were always more than they seemed at the surface. And once they turned into nothing but Smurfs – or even worse, were replaced by evil twin Smurfs* – I generally lost interest.

*I’d argue that this is what happened to Torchwood from season 2 onwards – many of the characters were no longer the people I’d come to like.

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One Response to Gender, Characterisation and Smurfs

  1. Pingback: Dog Day Disasters – and a Linkdump | Cora Buhlert

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