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The Smurfette Principle: why can’t Hollywood accept gender equality?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 12/11/2017 Steve Rose
The cast of Junanji © Getty The cast of Junanji

It has been a good year for women in cinema in many ways, with a high count of quality female-made and female-led movies, and the removal of an echelon of sexual predators from the industry. But by some metrics, there’s still a way to go. In particular, the Smurfette Principle. The phrase was coined back in 1991 by US writer Katha Pollitt, who bemoaned the number of films and TV programmes that featured a group with one lone female. Not just The Smurfs but also The Muppets, Winnie The Pooh, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and so forth. “The message is clear,” she wrote, “... boys are central, girls peripheral.”

There’s little to celebrate when applying the principle to recent movies, either. Next week, for example, sees the release of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, in which four teens are sucked into a fantasy game world – two girls and two boys. But when they get there one of the girls finds herself in the body of Jack Black. That’s a funny gag, but it leaves Karen Gillan (in skimpy Tomb Raider gear) as the sole female lead. Even in a movie that could have had equal gender billing, the Smurfette principle appears to abide.

Video: How Karen Gillan's 'Guardians' Role Prepared Her For 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle' (Provided by Wochit)

Perhaps that’s a fitting ending to what’s been a Smurfette-heavy year. Even Wonder Woman, the female-empowerment icon of 2017, has been the Smurfette twice this year. Her own movie began with a pleasing reversal – Chris Pine as the lone male on Themyscira – but when they got down to the action, she was in “the world of men”. And in Justice League she’s once again surrounded entirely by males. It doesn’t get much better elsewhere. Star Wars has had a long-running Smurfette problem. (As Batman put it in The Lego Movie, “turns out the hairy one’s a dude, and the metal one, too. All dudes.”) Things reached a low point with last year’s Rogue One, though The Last Jedi is making some amends with new character Rose Tico.

Let’s turn to the biggest horror hit of the year: It. What do we see? A bunch of pubescent boys plus Beverly, who’s regularly the object/victim of male sexual desire. Flip over to It’s small-screen counterpart, Stranger Things, and it’s exactly the same. Last season’s Smurfette, Eleven, was out of the picture this time, so the boys swiftly found a replacement, Max, whom they alternately ostracised and lusted after to the point where you wondered why she wanted to be in their gang at all. The problem is so glaring, even the Smurfs themselves realised they needed to do something. In this year’s Smurfs: The Lost Village, the actual Smurfette deserted her blue-skinned patriarchy and discovered a whole community of female smurfs. So rejoice! Gender parity has at least been achieved in Smurfland. We’re still waiting for the rest of Hollywood to get the memo.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is in cinemas from Wednesday 20 December

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Gallery: Time flies - 20 movies that turn 20 in 2017 (Provided by Photographic Services)

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