Hers; The Smurfette Principle
BY KATHA POLLITT; Katha Pollitt is a poet and essayist.
Published: April 7, 1991
Usually when parents give a child some item they find repellent, they plead helplessness before a juvenile filibuster. But “The Little Mermaid” was my idea. Ariel may look a lot like Barbie, and her adventure may be limited to romance and over with the wedding bells, but unlike, say, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, she’s active, brave and determined, the heroine of her own life. She even rescues the prince. And that makes her a rare fish, indeed, in the world of preschool culture.
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.
Well, commercial television — what did I expect? The surprise is that public television, for all its superior intelligence, charm and commitment to worthy values, shortchanges preschool girls, too. Mister Rogers lives in a neighborhood populated mostly by middle-aged men like himself. “Shining Time Station” features a cartoon in which the male characters are train engines and the female characters are passenger cars. And then there’s “Sesame Street.” True, the human characters are neatly divided between the genders (and among the races, too, which is another rarity). The film clips, moreover, are just about the only place on television in which you regularly see girls having fun together: practicing double Dutch, having a sleep-over. But the Muppets are the real stars of “Sesame Street,” and the important ones — the ones with real personalities, who sing on the musical videos, whom kids identify with and cherish in dozens of licensed products — are all male. I know one little girl who was so outraged and heartbroken when she realized that even Big Bird — her last hope — was a boy that she hasn’t watched the show since.
Well, there’s always the library. Some of the best children’s books ever written have been about girls — Madeline, Frances the badger. It’s even possible to find stories with funny, feminist messages, like “The Paperbag Princess.” (She rescues the prince from a dragon, but he’s so ungrateful that she decides not to marry him, after all.) But books about girls are a subset in a field that includes a much larger subset of books about boys (12 of the 14 storybooks singled out for praise in last year’s Christmas roundup in Newsweek, for instance) and books in which the sex of the child is theoretically unimportant — in which case it usually “happens to be” male. Dr. Seuss’s books are less about individual characters than about language and imaginative freedom — but, somehow or other, only boys get to go on beyond Zebra or see marvels on Mulberry Street. Frog and Toad, Lowly Worm, Lyle the Crocodile, all could have been female. But they’re not.
Do kids pick up on the sexism in children’s culture? You bet. Preschoolers are like medieval philosophers: the text — a book, a movie, a TV show — is more authoritative than the evidence of their own eyes. “Let’s play weddings,” says my little niece. We grownups roll our eyes, but face it: it’s still the one scenario in which the girl is the central figure. “Women are nurses ,” my friend Anna, a doctor, was informed by her then 4-year-old, Molly. Even my Sophie is beginning to notice the back-seat role played by girls in some of her favorite books. “Who’s that?” she asks every time we reread “The Cat in the Hat.” It’s Sally, the timid little sister of the resourceful boy narrator. She wants Sally to matter, I think, and since Sally is really just a name and a hair ribbon, we have to say her name again and again.
The sexism in preschool culture deforms both boys and girls. Little girls learn to split their consciousness, filtering their dreams and ambitions through boy characters while admiring the clothes of the princess. The more privileged and daring can dream of becoming exceptional women in a man’s world — Smurfettes. The others are being taught to accept the more usual fate, which is to be a passenger car drawn through life by a masculine train engine. Boys, who are rarely confronted with stories in which males play only minor roles, learn a simpler lesson: girls just don’t matter much.
How can it be that 25 years of feminist social change have made so little impression on preschool culture? Molly, now 6 and well aware that women can be doctors, has one theory: children’s entertainment is mostly made by men. That’s true, as it happens, and I’m sure it explains a lot. It’s also true that, as a society, we don’t seem to care much what goes on with kids, as long as they are reasonably quiet. Marshmallow cereal, junky toys, endless hours in front of the tube — a society that accepts all that is not going to get in a lather about a little gender stereotyping. It’s easier to focus on the bright side. I had “Cinderella,” Sophie has “The Little Mermaid” — that’s progress, isn’t it?
“We’re working on it,” Dulcy Singer, the executive producer of “Sesame Street,” told me when I raised the sensitive question of those all-male Muppets. After all, the show has only been on the air for a quarter of a century; these things take time. The trouble is, our preschoolers don’t have time. My funny, clever, bold, adventurous daughter is forming her gender ideas right now. I do what I can to counteract the messages she gets from her entertainment, and so does her father — Sophie watches very little television. But I can see we have our work cut out for us. It sure would help if the bunnies took off their hair ribbons, and if half of the monsters were fuzzy, blue — and female.