I saw this billboard while on a bus yesterday; it was urging adoption of pets from shelters, and it was a big banner portrait (not a photograph) of five Yellow Lab puppies. Four of the five are looking straight out, while just one of them is tilting the head…and has a pink bow behind the ear. Well gee, guess what we’re supposed to think – the one with the bow is A Girl.
So why is there only one girl then? Why four forthright direct Boy puppies and just one flirtatious coy bow-behind-the-ear Girl?
(And why single her out? Why signal her sex? Why put a bow behind her ear? When the fuck do puppies ever wear bows behind their ears?!! How would you even attach it? And why would you try when you know the puppy would yank it off in two seconds flat? What is your point?)
I’ll tell you why: it’s the Smurfette Principle. It’s the Muppets principle, the Toy Story principle, the Lion King principle, the Ice Age principle, the Winnie the Pooh principle, the Wind in the Willows principle. It’s the everybody is a boy except for a very rare weird stupid coquettish thing in skirts or with a bow behind her ear principle.
The Smurfette Principle was named by Katha Pollitt in the New York Times magazine in 1991. Not a god damn thing has changed in those 21 years.
Take a look at the kids’ section of your local video store. You’ll find that features starring boys, and usually aimed at them, account for 9 out of 10 offerings. Clicking the television dial one recent week — admittedly not an encyclopedic study — I came across not a single network cartoon or puppet show starring a female. (Nickelodeon, the children’s cable channel, has one of each.) Except for the crudity of the animation and the general air of witlessness and hype, I might as well have been back in my own 1950’s childhood, nibbling Frosted Flakes in front of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and the rest of the all-male Warner Brothers lineup.
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. In the worst cartoons — the ones that blend seamlessly into the animated cereal commercials — the female is usually a little-sister type, a bunny in a pink dress and hair ribbons who tags along with the adventurous bears and badgers. But the Smurfette principle rules the more carefully made shows, too. Thus, Kanga, the only female in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” is a mother. Piggy, of “Muppet Babies,” is a pint-size version of Miss Piggy, the camp glamour queen of the Muppet movies. April, of the wildly popular “Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles,” functions as a girl Friday to a quartet of male superheroes. 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.
And it even applies to puppies for christ’s sake. There are four male dogs for every female – ask any biologist; this is a known fact about canine reproduction.
Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. And it would be nice to see that change, one of these days.