Earlier this week, Margot Mogowan, founder of Reel Girls, a web site dedicated to media equity, wrote a post lambasting the movie Minions for its dullard sensibility and disappointingly routine sexism. Most families taking kids to the movies aren’t giving sexism a second thought, preferring instead to just get out of the summer heat and sit quietly in the dark consuming all kinds of delicious things that aren’t good for them. As Mogowan pointed out, Minions, which grossed $400 million worldwide last weekend, is a perfect example.
Critiques like McGowan’s are often greeted by benevolent sexism, irritation and/or aggression. “Seeing how dumb and stupid [Minions] often are. I just couldn’t imagine Minions being girls,” explained Creator Pierre Coffin in an unconscious reference to a “Women Are Wiser” trope. “Can’t we just let these galumphing pods of ridiculousness make us laugh for a little while?” TIME’s Bryan Moylan explained. While conceding that Minions can be interpreted in infinite ways, including as pill-shaped patriarchy vectors, he continued, “The claims about diversity and feminism seem a little bit absurd. No one seemed to critique … The Smurfs” of all being the exact same shade of blue. And considering that the one female Smurf, Smurfette, who was magically manufactured by an evil wizard to infiltrate their all-male society and tear it down from the inside, spends most of her time worrying about her hair and fending off the affections of her cohort, it’s not like she’s Rosie the Riveter in a mushroom.”
Actually, the Smurfs have been critiqued, extensively, on both counts, including an entire book touching on their racist and anti-Semitic overtones. In regards to gender, however, Katha Pollitt, in a very influential 1992 breakdown of a pervasive problem with gender in media, coined the term The Smurfette Principle. It’s something every kid should learn. Pollitt’s analysis continues to be frustratingly relevant and applies directly to Minions, which, like the Smurfs, defaults to a generic male standard.
Despite being talked about as if they are genderless, the Minions, like the Smurfs, are not – unless you consider the names Bob, Kevin, Stuart and Herb gender neutral. Moylan’s question, “Can’t we just let the Minions make kids happy?” really begs the question of which kids. Watching the Minions is probably, beyond surface giggles, only making some kids happy. This movie, and most other animated films are remarkably similar, in terms of representation, to children’s television programming, which means that young, white boys are happy in ways that most girls and boys of color are not. That’s not the fault of young white boys, but a spillover reality of the lack of media diversity in general. A male standard, which, studies, show, stereotype, alienate and dehumanize girls.
Animated films powerfully, engagingly and invisibly transmit harmful ideas about gender and gender roles. Most representations of gender in children’s movies are downright horrible. According to extensive research conducted by the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Media and SeeJane.Org, males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films: the same as it was in 1946. Despite a firm financial rationale, companies, surprise-to-no-one, themselves stunningly lacking in diversity, continue to effortlessly and cheerfully invest in grooming unthinking sexists and racists. But, hey, lighten up.
Now, with games and customizable merchandising, there’s an added twist. A few years ago, my daughters were obsessed with the Smurf Village iPad app. They built things, created and sustained communities and planted virtual peas that need to be watered. My involvement in Smurfland was limited to checking in now and then to make sure, when they were in school, that the plants got watered and didn’t die. That was true one of them asked me, “Mom, can I buy Smurfette?”
“What are you buying her for?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Which other Smurfs can you buy? And what for?”
It turns out, you had to pay for extra for characters that had particular skills or attributes: Tailor, Miner, Farmer and a handful of others, almost all eponymously named for their JOBS, with a handful named for their vices, like Lazy. But, the one female Smurf? No job. Not even a personality trait like, Lazy or Vain. (Vanity Smurf, by the way is a male, but has a pink mirror, because, please, we all know that vanity is really female trait.) Smurfette? She is nada but blue tail-wagging lusciousness. She is, we are led to believe, the proud owner of a cute-as-a-button blue VAGINA and maybe, since she actually has a figure, unlike most animated females, that can accomodate internal organs and the extradordinarily magical ability to make babies.
In summary, in kids’ brains: the norm is male. Male smurfs have jobs and actual character traits. Smurfette, the one female, defined purely by her sex and looks. She doesn’t work, have a job, or serve any “real” function. She was created to wreak havoc on the utopian male world (what else is new?). She’s super pretty, did I say that?
The basic contours of these messages were outlined by Pollitt decades ago. There is, however, an additional, tech enabled, touch: now Smurfette, the only girl, is for sale, the most expensive Smurf you can buy.
This is the fundamental framework for the vast majority of the hyper-gendered stories we tell our kids. Take, for example, the singing of the song “Golddigger” in Sharktales, a film that got generally good reviews, was deemed “positive” for kids and was rated PG.
Some of the best sing-along parts?
“Yeah, she’s a money magnet, smell a dollar bill in ya clothes.
…Gold digger style from her head to her toes
….She’s out to get ya dough none more none less
…When she look at you she only see “ching-ching”
…Be around your neck, reel around your arms
….Look you in the eye, and tell a boldface lie.
…Schemin on the way to money yo, well ya tried
….Ye sir, she’s all about being paid
That’s high on the list, but the sheer misogyny of Tangled’s “Mother Knows Best,” capping off as it did decades of Disney’s wretched and poisonous stereotypes about mothers, older women and undermining of even an iota of intergenerational sorority, is a close runner up. IS NOTHING SACRED?
Why would concerned parents ignore the fact that their children are playing culture-shaping games involving the commoditization and sale of the only girl in the land? Or the erasure of girls entirely?
Critiques like these can be tiresome. It gets irritating to see the world through this filter, especially in a culture resistant to introspection and failing to institutionalize media literacy for children. However, mocking efforts is particularly self-serving and unhelpful given what we know about implicit bias, stereotypes and stereotype threat.
Anyway, before saying anything to my daughters about Smurfette’s particular commodification (in age appropriate ways, for people praying for my children’s eternal salvation), I let them buy her to see what exactly she would do once unleashed onto the unsuspecting Smurf Village. Turns out she sweetly and innocently skips around town blowing heart kisses and distributing power credits to every little blue boy she saucily swings by.
She should be careful. People will talk.
Portions of this article were updated from an earlier post.
Soraya Chemaly is a feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order). Article originally appeared on Huffington Post Women.