By: Dr. Elizabeth Nichols
When I was young, Star Wars was my favorite movie. On the playground at school, I was first to join in the make-believe and pretend with the boys, where (on a good day) I would get to be Princess Leia. On bad days, I had to be an Ewok. It was hard to play Star Wars if you identified as female because there was only one “girl” character.
Today, I’m still a fan- and I still play. More precisely, I am what Henry Jenkins calls an “aca-fan,” a scholar who merges the roles of fan and academic and who is “explicit about the sources of their knowledge and the passion that drives their research.” (2006, 4). I study the world of costume play, engaging with participatory popular culture in the United States and Latin America. Over the past six years, I have been the mother to a young cosplayer, faculty advisor to my university cosplay club, a staff member for my local ComicCon, and a scholar engaged in IRB-approved research into gender, identity, appearance, and cosplay.
Over time, I have observed how women in Western culture continue to struggle against structural, societal norms of heroism that limit women’s roles and silo female participation in heroic stories. In this essay, however, I would like to highlight very recent changes that are happening in participatory popular culture. Challenges to the well-documented phenomena of the “Smurfette Principle” and the “Female Affiliation Complex” are becoming visible in the production of such films like Black Panther and Mad Max: Fury Road and in television series like Stranger Things. These media products mirror the kinds of supportive and collective female heroism displayed by fans, who in their fannish activities, are creating an environment that bodes well for the development of female heroism in the future.
On this topic, this essay will speak less to what it means to be a heroine and more to the issue of how women’s networks of support help produce heroines. I believe that is the presence of these mutually supportive female communities, developed in fan spaces, and modeled in new media products, will make it possible to break with old notions of women’s heroic journeys. This, in turn, will provide revolutionary space for the development of heroines in Western media.
The Smurfette Principle
In 1991, poet and essayist Katha Pollitt reflected on a phenomenon in popular culture which she termed the “Smurfette Principle,” referring to a popular children’s cartoon that featured a hundred male creatures, and one lone female (Pollitt). Pollitt found the gender balance in the program to be representative of many others, all of which followed the same pattern of offering viewers and readers “a group of male buddies. . .accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined” (Pollitt 1991).
The stereotypical definition of the lone female in male groups, for Pollitt, was important for the way that the woman or girl became representative of an element of general femininity to the exclusion of her individuality or the development of her own heroic agency. To illustrate, Pollitt offered the examples of the “Mother,” Kanga, in the tales of Winnie the Pooh or the “Girl Friday” represented by April to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Pollitt 1991). In her essay, Pollitt expressed dismay that storytelling had not progressed past a point where women were only avatars of feminine virtue. “How can it be?,” Pollitt wonders, “that 25 years of feminist change have made so little impression?” (Pollitt).
It is a worthwhile question, and not only for children’s programming. The Smurfette Principle, while coined to describe problems in youth media, continues to be relevant in such programs as Stranger Things (Miller 2017). Even as women increasingly become involved in the writing and production of stories, films, and television programs, female characters are still often relegated to the status of “the girl” in the story.
The Smurfette Principle is a double whammy of a lesson for young girls. Firstly, the continuous repetition of the trope reinforces that, even if she is a strong woman, there’s only room for one female person in any group of men in a story (Rose 2017). Secondly, the principle additionally emphasizes that women play a role that is limited in emotional and heroic scope as well.
The Female Affiliation Complex
The message communicated by the Smurfette Principle, then, as internalized by both young men and young women, can and does continue to have deleterious effects beyond the problematic nature of playground activities. Teaching children that women’s roles are limited and that, when there is room for women, there is only room for one, maybe part of the reason that even women in production roles struggle with creating entertainments that break with these limiting structures.
In 1988, scholars Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar proposed the “female affiliation complex,” to explain how English-speaking female writers and artists demonstrated an anathema to association with other women (1988, 240). These scholars argued that through the twentieth century, women acted upon deep-seated feelings of rivalry and anxiety as they competed for the few spaces available to them at the artistic patriarchal table. This anxiety, argued by Gilbert and Gubar, led female authors to not only fail to support younger generations of female artists, but to also actively discount and disparage their work. When women, perceive that there is “only room for one” girl in male spaces, they are trained into continuous competition with other women (Gilbert and Gubar 252).
This dynamic is then repeated in the world of fictional heroines. When more than one female character is included in a story, they are often placed in active conflict. The female antagonist is often of an older generation; an evil witch or horrid stepmother, modeling the way that older artists and writers work against younger women. The repetition of this narrative conceit in such media products as the various retellings of the Snow White myths in the twenty-first century has both reinforced and promoted this idea. It is not surprising, then, that women on the playground, and in the workplace must work harder to imagine team-building with other women to empower female heroines.
Women’s Coalitions and Revolutionary Affiliation
Fighting against existing structures may be difficult, but I would argue that such struggles are happening successfully. In the past several years, visual media are beginning to offer tales of heroines who count on other women, and who learn, and receive support from older female figures. What’s more, I believe that we can see the active participation of female fans having an effect on the production of new media and how women, individually and in groups, are portrayed on screen.
To see the kind of fictional entertainment that offers models of intergenerational and intra-generational female affiliation, I would ask us to consider two recent films: 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, and the 2018 production Black Panther. Each was both popular, financial success, and also critical success. Both films also present female heroes, and in addition, wide networks of supportive women allow the heroines of the films to succeed.
In both examples, heroic women hide behind the men named in the title. Beginning with Mad Max, despite the title, Furiosa, the role played by Charlize Theron, is the main character in the film and its heroine. Throughout the story, Furiosa works for, and with, both a group of younger women seeking freedom from sexual exploitation and a group of older women, to help her overthrow a violent, patriarchal regime. At the end of the film, it is the coalition of these women who bring hope for the future to the community. Similarly, while the female figures in Black Panther cannot be considered the protagonists of the film, it is still their resilience, intelligence, and willingness to work together that allows for the successful resolution of the plot and the Hollywood-style “happy ending.” Without the intelligence, teamwork, and heroism of Queen Ramonda, Princess Shuri, Nakia, the warrior clan of the Dora Milaje, and their leader Okoye, the battle and the kingdom would literally have been lost.
Both of these films, after their release, received praise and adulation as “feminist” masterpieces (Smith 2015, Ntwasa 2018). I would not go that far. However, I believe that what many commentators were responding to with this exaggeration was the unexpected and heretofore nearly unseen presence of such strong, multi-generational networks of women. In these two films, there was room for more than one woman- and what’s more, the women in the film did not compete with each other for limited space in a patriarchal society, but rather worked together to, in the case of the one film, overthrow that same patriarchal regime.
Participatory Fandom and Produsage
The changes in the arc of female heroic storytelling are both a reflection of current fan practice and a motor that will encourage the continuation of female affiliation in fan groups. Twenty-first-century fans actively engage in trans-media produsage- “the collaborative, iterative and user-led production of content by participants in a hybrid user-producer role” which is common in literature with fan-fiction, multi-user online games, and in cosplay (Bruns 2006, 1).
In my research into cosplay, I have witnessed how groups of women work together to not only provide mutual support and assistance, but also to generate new, heroic figures that challenge canonical figures in fantasy and science fiction texts. Cosplay is a truly participatory culture, as proposed by Henry Jenkins (2006 “Confessions,” 64). What this means is that a group of women, like those in the Cosplay Club at my university (of which I am faculty advisor), feel empowered to work together to create new heroic figures out of extant media.
In 2019, the Drury University Cosplay Club, comprised of seven women, designed a group cosplay for the local ComicCon. Their vision, as conceptualized and brought to life, was of a group of “Warrior Disney Princesses.” Each member chose a canonical female figure from the Disney catalog and imagined her as a heroine with added strength, power, and agency. Working as a group, the club took figures such as Ariel, Belle, and Tiana, and then conceptualized them with different costumes, added weapons, and adjusted stories. Belle, for example, carried a sword and shield- and wore the Beast’s pelt as a cloak. The club brainstormed together, shopped for supplies together, and then met once a week to build the costumes, sharing expertise and skills. They then wore their costumes as a group to the convention. (I joined them as a version of the Queen from Snow White).
This brief example is one of many that scholars working in the field of cosplay have seen. Cosplay builds a sense of community among fans who share similar interests and seek to find others with whom to build skills and enjoy media (Cohee Manifold 2009, Seregina and Weijo 2016). It is a communal, participatory, culture that empowers women to imagine new heroic stories. This energy and creativity then, has affected media production.
Henry Jenkins notes that participatory fandom has created a convergence culture, in which produsage and fan participation has led to the co-production of new media products. As the above example shows, twenty-first-century female fans are empowered to take ownership of both individual characters and whole franchises in order to create new content, while corporate interests increasingly encourage these kinds of active participation with a “healthy respect for their value” (Jenkins, “Convergence,” 2006). This is, perhaps, why we see the increase in positive female affiliation represented on screen.
Conclusion: The Development of Affiliation in Stranger Things
I believe that we can see one example of this kind of feedback loop if we return to the example of the wildly popular Netflix program Stranger Things. The program, as I and other commentators have noted, suffered significantly from the Smurfette Principle in the first two seasons and advanced neither the idea of either the complexity of female characters or the idea of female affiliation (Miller 2017, Nichols 2019). Season 3, however, marked a significant turn and change in this dynamic. In Season 1, the main female character is Eleven, the stereotypical “girl” in a group of boys. In Season 2, the show adds another young woman to the group, Max, but Eleven reacts to her presence with the jealousy and anger of the female affiliation complex.
It isn’t until Season 3 (2019) that Max and Eleven find true friendship and build support between them. This, for many viewers, was “particularly redemptive in the way it subverted their once jealousy-ridden relationship” (Hayssen 2019). Of even more interest is the fact that it was, in part, the input of actresses Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven) and Sadie Sink (Max) that made the storyline happen. Sink reportedly told the producers in 2017 that “I’d love to see some girl power…that’d be pretty cool. I think Eleven and Max could make a really good team” (Ernsberger 2019).
This desire for more female affiliation outside the story world of Stranger Things helped make possible the representation of women’s mutual support within it, which in turn models heroinism and mutual support among women and girls. This is how new media and the power of produsage work. As women work together to produce new heroines, media producers see and mirror that activity- suggesting a positive turn in the development of popular culture heroinism in the future.
The author, Dr. Elizabeth Gackstetter Nichols is a professor of Spanish and Gender Studies at Drury University. Her current research is in popular culture, cosplay, and beauty work in the Americas.
Image: Members of the Drury University Cosplay Club in Cosplay at Visioncon 2019. Courtesy of the Author
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 My observations here, like those of Pollitt, Gilbert and Gubar are relevant to the media products of white, European and Euro-descended writers and producers. The cultural and literary traditions of Latin America, Africa and those who live within those cultural traditions within the U.S. and Europe do not, often, conform to the observations expressed here. While I know that they adjective “Western” can be problematic, I use it here only to denote the white, European Euro-descended tradition in film and television, and to be clear that I am not speaking of African, Afro-descended, Latino or Latin American artists and media products.  The Bechdel Test for films, is another way to look at and evaluate this same type of limitation. For those unfamiliar, the Bechdel Test, coined in 1985 by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Look Out For asks us to evaluate films with three rules, 1. Is there more than one female character with a name? 2. Do the two female characters talk to each other 3. Do the female characters talk about something other than a man? This test is still widely used and debated in current film studies.  Here I refer to 2012’s Mirror Mirror, 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, and the “Evil Queen” figure in the television program of Once Upon a Time.