Girls are not peripheral: Time to kill the ‘Smurfette principle’
- Published: 13 August 2011
- Hits: 10809
Strong female characters such as Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series and Sookie Stackhouse of True Blood fame are one way of killing off the notion that boys are the norm and girls merely a variation of the ‘norm’, writes Natalie Wilson.
14 August 2011
In her classic 1991 article, “The Smurfette Principle,” Katha Pollitt argued that in the majority of media “The message is clear. 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.”
Or, as Barbara Creed, author of The Monstrous Feminine, might put it, males are the norm, the central heroes in media narratives, while females and femininity are made monstrous.
As I prepared to attend Comic-Con to promote my new book, I though a lot about female characters and the roles they play in the type of narratives Comic-Con features. In what follows, I offer some thoughts on three very well known Comic-Con-esque characters: Hermione Granger, Sookie Stackhouse, and Bella Swan.
Thankfully, in Deathly Hallows: Part 2 girls are not a variation nor are they singled out as girls or monsters, rather, they are equally as vital, as strong, as smart, and, sometimes, as evil. As noted at This Girl on Girls, this is in keeping with the spirit of the books, wherein “JKR did not go out of her way to make women seem stronger and superior to men in the book, but rather wrote a series that showed men and women as equals – they can be equally evil, equally smart, and equally brave.”
In this final film of the saga, Hermione is not, like “a passenger car drawn through life by a masculine train engine,” (as Pollitt describes the majority of young female characters). She is a full-blown engine herself, pulling Ron and Harry out of the Gringotts with her dragon-riding idea, and helping Harry bring down Voldemort full-steam throughout. She is not a monster in the negative sense of the term, but she is monstrously smart and brave – and demonstrates this – as monsters are so good at doing, on multiple levels.
Do I wish she had more screen time? Sure I do. In fact, I would have preferred the Harry Potter series had been instead the Hermione Granger series. Yes, I know J.K. Rowling says Harry popped into her head as wizarding protagonist and that she didn’t set out to create a male lead. I also realize the saga is brimming with strong female characters (as detailed here, here and here).
Yet, given that male protagonists still vastly outnumber female ones in films, books, and television, I wish Hermione was the girl who lived at the center of the saga. Especially because she has such an interesting relation to monstrosity.
As a “mud blood,” she knows what it’s like to be an outsider judged for being different. This is likely what spurs her activist bent including her attempts to stop house-elf slavery. In the final film, her empathy for monsters shines through once again, when she notes the way the goblins are treating the dragon is barbaric.
In The Sookie Stackhouse Series, and in the HBO adapation, True Blood, Sookie is similar to Hermione due to her outcast status as half-fairy and mind-reader. This too results in her empathy for all types of monsters and “specials.”
In the book series especially, her class status, lack of university education, and waitressing work are also tied to her empathetic nature – she knows what it’s like to be viewed as “less than.” This season, Sookie continues to function as female power-engine rather than passive passenger car. Refusing to accept Bill’s lies or be intimidated by Eric, she repeatedly shows herself to be smart, brave, and good-hearted.
Bella Swan, though also a working class character, isn’t depicted as particularly in tune with the unfair differentials of power and privilege in the Twilight saga. She eats up the wealth privilege her association with the Cullens allows. Though she likes the Quileute and relishes her friendship with them, she never comments on the race/class inequality that results in the Cullens living in mansion and owning multiple high-end cars, while Jacob lives “on the res” and drives an old Rabbit.
At the end of the saga, Bella becomes a bonafide monster, but her monstrous status does not result in any reflections about prejudice or power/privilege – rather, she merely relishes in how great she looks and how cute her human-vampire baby is.
In contrast, at the end of Harry Potter saga, we learn Hermione's Ministry career involves fighting for the rights of oppressed house-elves and muggle-borns. As such, she seems a better suited heroine for our current times of giant Voldemort-like corporations squeezing the life out of us muggles than the comparatively shallow Bella with her Edward-bought limited edition Mercedes.
And though Sookie’s series has not come to a close, each book of the series involves her as an intrepid Nancy Drew of sorts, solving mysteries and helping others.
Of course, Hermione and Sookie are not perfect. Hermione’s a bit bossy. Sookie sometimes seems on the verge of needing rather than wanting all the various (and often abusive) men in her life. But, each are far more like Buffy, the slayer so many loved, than Bella.
When Buffy was all the rage, Seventeen magazine surveyed young women about dreams and found they didn’t most often dream about being dark-alley victims saved by an Edward-like prince, but instead dreamt they themselves were like Buffy, slaying monsters and kicking butt.
I hope a similar survey today would reveal females dreaming themselves like Hermione or Sookie, rather than like Bella. Or, if they do dream of being like Bella, that their version of her is stronger and more active than the Bella in the books because we need strong female characters, both in our fiction and in our dreams.
The astute Emma Watson, of Hermione fame, recognizes this fact. Recently, she noted:
“I feel like young girls are told this whole idea that they have to be this kind of princess and be all delicate and fragile and that’s bullshit. I identify much more with the idea of being a warrior and being a fighter. If I was going to be a princess, I would be a warrior princess, definitely. I think women are scared of feeling powerful and strong and brave sometimes.”
Indeed, they are Ms. Watson. And might this fear be lessened if females were given more brave, strong heroines in films to look up to? I would guess Watson would agree with this claim, given her comment in a recent article from Entertainment Weekly that “Film is an incredibly powerful medium, and filmmakers have the power to affect the way people think about the future.”
Oh, how I love you Emma Watson, and the character you play, and if I could invent spells to change the future narratives, my first would be “Arrresto Bella! Hermione and Sookie Engorgio!” – meaning stop with the Bella-esque damsel-in-distress female characters and let films swell with Hermione and Sookie magnificence!
This spell, were it too exist, might once and for all put an end to the Smurfette principle.
Natalie Wilson, a Women’s Studies and Literature professor at Cal State San Marcos, is author of the recently released Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga.
She pens one of the academic blogs analyzing the saga at http://www.seducedbytwilight.wordpress.com/. She is also author of the blog Professor, What if? and writes regularly for Ms Blog, Girl With Pen, and Womanist Musings. Her home page can be found http://www.nataliewilsonphd.wordpress.com and her Twitter handles are @seducedbytwi, @drnataliewilson, and @professorwhatif.