The Smurfette Principle and Other Roles For Female Characters

I was always one of those little kids who loved to read. One of those kids who’d hide under the covers after bedtime with a copy of a good book and a flashlight. I even won a free copy of The Order of the Phoenix when it came out because I had the best Hermoine costume at a release party––I was technically supposed to be Ginny, but apparently, my curly brown hair said otherwise.

Although I loved to read, it became harder and harder to identify with many of the characters as I grew older. Sometime around middle school––I started to realize how one dimensional so many of the female characters I grew up with actually were. I realized the characters I loved were mainly male––not because I had anything in common with them, just because they were actually people.

Now, with a greater understanding of what I was reading (and a couple of literature classes under my belt), I have the facility of language to recognize and name these common female characters. Here are just a few of the narrow tropes many female characters fall into:

  1. 1. The Smurfette Principle

    Have you ever noticed the rampant overpopulation of groups of boys riding around on bikes as they grow up and learn about the world around them? There’s no shortage of stories about boys going on great adventures together––solving mysteries, contacting extraterrestrials. and even venturing to see dead bodies––but where are all the girls?

    Well, it turns out, there’s an answer to that. It’s called the “Smurfette Principle.” This principle says that––in a group of five or more–-there can only be a single, stereotypical female character. While the boys bond over a mutual love of adventure, bikes, cars, whatever, the girl’s sole role is to prove herself as one of the group. She faces additional challenges of being the only girl but never seeks female friendship. In fact, there is a related trope in which a second female character is added to the group––only to be vehemently hated by the original female member.

    We see the Smurfette Principle in books like Stephen King’s It. Bev, tough and disliked by the other girls at her school for her unique beauty, is the lone female member of her friend group. As well as being an essential member of the team, she is also the object of affection for not one, but two of the boys. Creating tension in the group, Bev’s existence is mostly centered around the development of the boys’ characters. While certainly Bev is slightly more developed than some characters, she is still objectified (in a pretty intense way, if you get all the way through).

    When women seek themselves out in books and movies, this is what we’re met with. As well as dealing with her own problems, Bev is subject to the constant barrage of (unsolicited) affection from the boys. Since this character is written by a man, she clearly fueled by that.

    In popular media with shows like Stranger Things (which, for the record, I love with my whole heart), we see the addition of a second female character. While El is originally the sole girl in a group of boys (this relationship, for the record, is skewed by the paranormal elements of the story), in the second season, we meet Max. A typical tomboy, Max is totally threatening to Eleven. Just another one of the boys, Eleven is jealous and spiteful toward Max at first.

    The two girls eventually reconcile and develop a strong friendship, but the second season pushes the idea that women and girls are inherently in conflict with each other. The boys in the group have their share of problems, but there is none of the implied tension that is posed with a female relationship. While the third season presents us with a feminist alliance we’ve all been waiting for, Max’s introduction into the group still tells audiences that women have to fight against our natural inclination to hate one another. That it is Eleven’s jealous nature, and not the toxicity of the patriarchy, that stops women from developing healthy friendships.

  2. 2. Manic Pixie Dream Girl

    We all know the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s whimsical. She likes bright colors and roller skates and pigtails. She’s almost childish––but like, she’s still totally fair game for men. She sneaks in through a broken window in the middle of the night and whisks away a man who needs to be taught to “lighten up” to a brand new world. She’s fun and dreamy, with no real responsibilities other than to show a male protagonist how good his life could be. Perhaps the most overtly catered to the male gaze, we still see the Manic Pixie Dream Girl appear over and over again, even in media that is created for girls and women.

    While this trope (like most tropes) has its selective place in literature, it can also be incredibly dangerous. Sure, it’s okay to like fun. It’s okay to love bright colors and laughing and spending your days on swing sets or hanging out with serious men. It’s not okay to tell women that it’s okay to like that only in service of men, that our role is to lighten the lives of men who fail to do so on their own. We are not emotional guardians, we do not have some inherent responsibility to provide lighthearted joy to the men around us.

    Laura Penny writes about becoming a real-life Manic Pixie Dream Girl:

    “Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing. For me, Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the story that fit. Of course, I didn’t think of it in those terms;  all I saw was that in the books and series I loved - mainly science fiction, comics and offbeat literature, not the mainstream films that would later make the MPDG trope famous - there were certain kinds of girl you could be, and if you weren’t a busty bombshell, if you were maybe a bit weird and clever and brunette, there was another option.”

    This trope gives women who fall outside the realm of conventionally attractive (meaning white, blonde, incredibly thin) another narrow box to fit in. While it doesn’t give us true freedom of expression, it poses as a slightly more attainable aspiration than the Damsel in Distress idea.

    John Green is notorious for his use of Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

    In his first book, Looking for Alaska, the main character Miles falls in love with a girl named Alaska. Equipped with even a quirky name, Alaska helps Miles do all the things he’s always wanted to do but never had the courage. She’s beautiful, fun, a little crazy, and disorganized. Then, she dies in a mysterious accident and Miles spends the rest of the book mourning her.

    Unfortunately, this story isn’t Alaska’s journey––it’s Miles’. We see here that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl will have to sacrifice pieces of herself (or even her life) for the growth and development of the male protagonist.

    I won’t swear off all Manic Pixie Dream Girls––where would we be without Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter or Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia? If writers in film and books could take a step back and flesh out these characters, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope could perhaps transform into something valuable. What would happen if we removed the male protagonist and followed the journey of the female character instead? What if she was more than a shell of male desires––if she had her own story, who would she be? While we can still find places in literature for these kinds of characters, we need to challenge authors to think critically about killing off women deemed less important than their male counterparts.

  3. 3. Strong, Independent Female

    So it turns out even some of the characters we praise for their strength still fall prey to misogyny. This trope (often written by women) pigeonholes female characters into a tiny box of strength, rather than aiming for complexity or depth. While the general public has accepted that women are going to play some role in literature and film, we’re still not completely comfortable with the idea of complex female characters.

    Writer Stephanie Philo says,

    “Strong Female Character can shoot a gun and take a punch, but she does not cry. Strong Female Character is sarcastic and witty, but never nervous or uncertain. Strong Female Character is angry, but never vulnerable. Strong Female Character doesn’t need a man, but she’ll land one anyway.”

    While masquerading as a step forward for women, this trope is perhaps as restricting to women as the classic housewife. Previously, women were expected to be sweet and silent, but in recent years a new idea has emerged. Still an object for male affection, the Strong Female Character is expected to be emotionless and stoic. This still manages to serve as a fantasy for male writers and readers, offering lofty expectations at the other end of the spectrum for women.

    Strong Female Character is many things, but she simply isn’t realistic.

    Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy fits perfectly into this trope. While Katniss received widespread praise for her “reversal of gender roles,” she is still largely modeled after the image of the ideal woman. 

    All while fighting for survival and maintaining a cool exterior, Katniss is still a nurturing mother figure to her sister. Though not sweet and sensitive like perhaps we are accustomed to, Katniss volunteers to take the place of her sister Primrose in the Games after she is randomly selected. Katniss is altruistic and fiercely dedicated to her family–-even when it comes at the price of her life.

    Furthermore, the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale takes center stage, even as the novel picks off child warriors one by one. It was odd to me, even as a middle schooler, to flip through pages full of gore and violence and still pick up on the strong element of romance in the book. With Peeta admitting his love for Katniss before they set foot in the arena, Katniss is given almost no time to develop characteristics without the presence of a romantic interest.

    It seems like this trope is fighting so hard against traditional gender roles, it forces women into total emotionlessness. Though presented as a feminist statement, the Strong Female Character suggests to readers that women can’t be both emotionally available and “strong”.

While men can have flaws, challenges, growth, women are written as simple––either they’re docile and sweet or fiercely independent. Don’t fall prey to this trap. It might be tempting to root for any representation of women, but we need to demand more. We are not one-dimensional characters who can keep up with the men and simultaneously earn their affection. We are deserving of our own journeys, our own stories, our own character arch. I want more than strong, I want human.

Reading is far more wound up in our identities than we originally think as kids. It’s hard to lose yourself in a story when you only see a flat version of the person who’s supposed to be you in a three-dimensional world. Even though my gender has impacted the way I read stories, I’m still lucky to see myself at all. Women of color and queer people have to deal with this at an even higher rate. While these tropes are troubling, we must continue to critically engage with them and advocate for well-rounded, real characters that escape these flat tropes.