My younger daughters are obsessed with their iPad Smurf Village. They build things, create and sustain communities, plant virtual peas that need to be watered. In general, they have an excellent SIM experience, only with little blue guys. Civilization building is fun for boys and girls.
My involvement in Smurfland is limited to checking in now and then to make sure, when my kids are in school, that the plants get watered and don't die.
'Til I heard the question, "Mom, can I buy Smurfette?"
Of course she wants Smurfette. What girl doesn't love Smurfette? I loved Smurfette. My sister loved Smurfette. She's fabulous. She's fun. She's blue. Now she's Katy Perry, for goodness sake.
"What are you buying her for?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Who else can you buy? And what for? 'Cause your village is filled with hundreds of frantically busy little blue guys hoeing and hammering?"
I was happy and relieved to hear that other Smurfs were also available for premium purchase: Tailor, Miner, Farmer and a handful of others, almost all eponymously named for their JOBS (a handful for their vices, like Lazy).
But, the one female Smurf?
No job. Not even a personality trait like, Lazy or Vanity (who, by the way is a male, but has a pink mirror, because, please, we all know that vanity is a really female trait).
She's named for her VAGINA. Know any boys or men with the diminuitive "ette" at the end of their names? It's usually a dead giveaway.
She does nothing except be female, the token 'non-male' -- the one who deviates from the "norm," which in this case is 50,000 blue boys with floppy white tams who apparently have magical male parthenogenesis capabilities. Nada but little tail-wagging lusciousness. I know. I know. It's just a game, a story, right?
And what, exactly, does the Smurf village story teach boys and girls about being Smurfette?
• Smurfs are boys
• She's defined by her sex, reduced entirely to her femaleness, which is, after all, simply not-maleness
• She was created to wreak havoc on the utopian male world (what else is new?)
• She doesn't work, have a job, or serve any "real" function
• She's super pretty, did I say that?
• Oh, I almost forgot, Smurfette is expensive, the most expensive one for sale
My kids get to download apps on my iPad in exchange for cultural deconstruction credits (woo-hoo, party time in our house!). So, before they could sign on to play in Smurfland, they had to tell me what The Smurfette Principle was (coined by Katha Pollitt in the New York Times.) They already knew that it was bad enough that there is only one female Smurf, who, by the way, serves two purposes 1) she was created to sow dissension and jealousy among the males and 2) she's there to show that the little blue men aren't... shhh... gay. But, actually selling her, for being female. IT SUCKS. I know, blah blah feminist blah. So boring.
Don't I know there are really serious things happening? And Nicholas Kristof, thank goodness, writes about them as much as possible. For example, girls being sold into slavery in other parts of the world.
That's right. Slavery. And why?
Because they're perceived as sub-human. They're commodities. Something you trade, buy and sell. Sounding familiar?
"Are you serious???" you say. Cute, innocent, wholesome Smurfs, little blue memes of subtle but virulent sexism? No way. This is America. Not only do women have nothing to complain about, but, for some people, we're destroying all the men. At the very least, we're the good guys and gals. The genuinely most fair and equal place in the world... those are the core tenets of American Exceptionalism. We are better than the rest of the world.
So, no, it's not just a story. It's our culture and we get to make it. Then it makes us. That Smurf story is no different from 80 percent of the hyper-gendered stories we tell our kids. And if you find that hard to believe, go visit The Geena Davis Institute website where you will find hard stats.
'Cause we're at the stage in this country where the true hard work of equality has to take place. This is the land where culture's destructive and dangerous messages about gender hierarchies and power are not delivered with blunt force trauma, (like stoning a young girl for being raped, which is so obviously wrong) but rather through fun and entertaining games and movies.
Why would I let my children play culture-shaping games involving the commoditization and sale of the only girl in the land without explaining it? It would be like serving them lard for breakfast, lunch and dinner and then pretending not to know why they were having heart attacks at 35.
Anyway, before saying anything to my daughter (in age appropriate ways, for those of you who are praying for my children's eternal salvation), I let my daughter purchase Smurfette to see what exactly she would do once unleashed onto the Smurf Village. Turns out she sweetly and innocently skips around town blowing heart kisses and distributing power credits to every little blue boy she swings by.
She should be careful. People will talk.
Besides, I'm kinda stuck on the idea that my daughters and I, my mother and sister, my sisters-in-law, my nieces and my female friends, their female friends... are fully human, not deviant from anything.
If you want to understand more about how pervasive The Smurfette Principle is, watch the phenomenally clear and compelling (and funny) video by Anita Sarkeesian. She makes awesome videos about understanding pop culture. Every school should use them as teaching tools if they are serious about creating equitable communities for boys and girls. If you are one of those people who believes in equality, but is "not a feminist" you can close your eyes when you have to click on the channel since it says the word "Feminist" in the title. But, you can do it when no one is watching.
Follow Soraya Chemaly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/schemaly