Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Sassette Principle

A long time ago I posted this image on my blog and Twitter as a response to what I feel is the rampant misuse of the Smurfette Principle:

The Sassette Principle: In media criticism, characters or events inconvenient to the argument will be mysteriously ignored to artificially inflate the gravity of the argument, even when they don't necessarily refute the argument.

It has come up a few times again in the past few days so for the sake of clarity I should probably expand on it by explaining properly what I mean with it.


The Sassette Principle
An Addendum to the Smurfette Principle


Katha Pollitt, a feminist poet, essayist and critic who apparently fell asleep during a showing of The Little Mermaid(1), coined the term Smurfette Principle in 1991 in an essay for the New York Times. She defines it as follows:

"Contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, like "Garfield", or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined." (2)

Further, here is how Tvtropes.org defines the Smurfette Principle.

"For any series not aimed solely at females, odds are high that only one female will be in the regular cast." (3)

There is certainly validity to the observation that shows not typically for female audiences tend to include very few female characters to contrast with the male ones. That by itself is not in question, thus the Smurfette Principle isn't necessarily an incorrect observation.
My issue however is that far too often this observation is used to generate outrage over an often false description of the particular setting or circumstances we are applying it to. In the context of the Smurfette Principle, its namesake Smurfette is naturally regularly brought up because "she's the only female in a town of 100 smurfs". The obvious implication people are supposed to make is that the writer(s) of the Smurfs went through the trouble of defining 100 characters with only 1 of the little blue creatures being female and with her primary characteristic being the girl. Sounds pretty bad, right?

Well, the problems with that statement are the following:
  1. There aren't actually 100 Smurf characters despite over 50 years worth of stories, comics, cartoons and movies.
  2. Smurfette is often elevated to being the second-in-command after Papa Smurf rather than just being "the girl". Her importance is greater than that of most other smurfs.
  3. There are more female characters who are not smurfs.
  4. There are more female smurfs introduced other than just Smurfette. Such as Grandma Smurf, Clockwork Smurfette and Sassette (and most recently in The Smurfs 2 movie, Vexy Smurf).

None of these things refute the premise that in Smurf media there are a minority of female characters to a majority of male characters. What it does show however is that the severity of this disparity is often unrealistically overstated to make the problem seem much more severe than it in actuality is. Going by male and female character lists on the Smurfs wikia (male) (female), for the moment not taking into consideration the creators and voice actors on said lists (making this a bit sloppy), the ratio becomes closer to 1 female for every 3-4 males instead of the extremely hyperbolic 1 female for every 100 males.

So it all boils down to how honest the piece is represented. Is the person commenting on this phenomenon actually representing the media as it is, or are they sweeping characters or events under the carpet to artificially inflate how dire the supposed problem with representation is?

This doesn't apply solely to the Smurfette Principle either, for example you could easily alter it to fit complaints about damsels in distress: is the critic actually representing a particular character the way she is presented, or are they reducing her entire role down to that moment she served as a damsel in distress and are they representing her accurately during that time?

I feel this is an issue in media criticism that is important to bring up.  It is so rare to actually be presented counterpoints or data that doesn't fit the speaker's specific narrative within the context of their criticism. A lot of critics arguing for better representation in media like to present their problems as if we essentially need to start from nothing, because the current media landscape is so outrageously offensive it would be a mercy to just tear the whole thing down.


Here's an example you won't see when media critics
complain how female characters are always big-breasted
and scantily clad. This character in question is
technically fully naked.

That is not a reasonable position to get behind when we have come to a conclusion based on a multitude of fallacies, one-sided arguments and false representations. This ignores a lot of awesome characters we already have (heck, sometimes even people when the achievements of women in game dev are being ignored). We have a ways to go in a lot of areas, but the goal should be inclusivety for all, not getting rid of everything someone personally doesn't like. That's not being inclusive or progressive at all, that's just kicking out the established hierarchy and redecorating the throne room for a different team (which of course sounds like an awesome deal for the people taking over).

In short: the Sassette Principle is not a refutation of the Smurfette Principle, we are unfortunately still in a situation where writers could stand to insert more female characters in their art (or other minority characters for that matter). However the Sassette Principle is a comment on overstating the problem when presenting things like the Smurfette Principle (which unfortunately started in the very article that coined it).

Or, the Smurfette Principle, wrongly applied, ignores the existence of Sassettes. 


The Burden of Default

As a further comment on the arguments of Hers; The Smurfette Principle, I would also like to add nuance to the following idea:

"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." (2)

There is another side to the coin here that goes unexplored in the article, namely that in a situation in which a pure Smurfette Principle is in play, a girl doesn't have to be anything other than a girl whereas a male character does need a defining trait to matter at all. The downside of being default is that you need other characteristics that lift you out of that state of defaultness. So the male characters in the Smurfs really need to be individuals to be at all noteworthy. After all, why would anyone care about you if you are just default? You aren't valuable since they already have plenty of you!
I would not dare state strongly what effect this has (if any at all) without studies to back it up, but if we're to assume the messages it instills I'd like to present the idea that a straight-up Smurfette Principle could also leave young girls with a sense of entitlement simply for being girls and young boys with feeling lesser valued for just being boys (If this statement is offensive to you, consider that it still makes the case that we need more female representation).


The Smurfs - The Smurflings (2013 reprint)

Notes & Sources

1) Somehow the author of the article notes that Ursula's words, despite villainous, are proven correct, even though I have no clue where she gets this idea as the reverse of the situation plays out since Prince Eric is obviously looking for a girl with a voice (which could metaphorically be considered as him valuing a woman for her thoughts rather than her looks). I go further into this in Out of the Sea. 
3) Tvtropes.org, The Smurfette Principle
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheSmurfettePrinciple

Images from:
- Peyo's The Smurfs: The Smurflings (2013 reprint)
- The Lord of the Rings: War in the North (2011)