In this journey through Jesus Feminism, I’ve largely focused on how the marketing schemes targeting women unveil a need for feminism–the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes–in and of themselves. But what about in the media?
Specifically, I want to briefly examine how women are portrayed in video games and in sitcoms. Most of this information is coming from the Feminist Frequency YouTube channel. Though lengthy, I’d encourage you to watch the video below for a more fully developed analysis of the issue.
The video introduces two principle concepts: The Ms. Male Character and the Smurfette Principle.
The Ms. Male character is a feminized version of a character that already exists. The issue with the Ms. Male Character is that they often possess no other traits than being a feminine version of an otherwise male protagonist. In addition, a character being “feminized” to create a Ms. Male Character presents its own problems. Foremost, to feminize a character, generalized female attributes are used to “mark” a character. If we take Ms. Pac-man, we see that she is identical to Pac-man but she has a bow, lipstick, eyeshadow, and a “beauty mark.” These signifiers only signify that she is female, and do not express any other personality. She only exists in relation to being Pac-Man’s female counterpart.
Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency has said, “When female characters are “marked” by obligatory stereotypical identifiers it actively limits the range of available options by enforcing a narrow, restrictive and monolithic model for the portrayal of femininity. Meanwhile, since male characters are allowed to be unmarked it permits a much wider array of possibilities for their designs.” This highlights the error in the design of the characters, as it limits them to a narrow personality.
But how widely and thoroughly is this error applied? Obviously Pac-Man is about as vanilla as possible–he is nothing more than a collection of yellow pixels. But there are other examples in which uniquely personified characters are feminized and are then limited by their femininity. Amy Rose is nothing more than a female counter part to Sonic, Pretty Bomber is the female counterpart to Bomberman. Dixie Kong is a feminized version of Diddy Kong. The Feminist Frequency video even brought to my attention the feminization of a boulder in the Adult Swim Game “Giant Boulder of Death.” Video games and cartoons are rather prolific in creating Ms. Male Characters.
Sarkeesian adds, “Ms. Male Characters typically aren’t given their own distinctive identities and are prevented from being fully realized characters who exist on their own terms. This has the, perhaps unintended, effect of devaluing these characters and often relegating them to a subordinate or secondary status inside their respective media franchises, even when they are, on rare occasions, given a starring role in a spin-off or sequel.”
Another principle highlighted by Feminist Frequency as a common media error is The Smurfette Principle. This principle was coined by Katha Pollit in her 1991 New York Times Editorial. The principle, in essence, is defined by one woman appearing in an otherwise male dominant society. The name, of course, originates with Smurfette, the lone female smurf in all of smurfdom.
This too is rather common. Pollit explains:
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.
And so, again, I find a reason for feminism. Women are under represented or absent in media. When they are present, they are often marked by gender signifiers that limit their personality to either a narrow stereotype or to a feminized version of another character.
This contributes to a world in which “boys are the norm, girls the variation” and in which “girls exist only in relation to boys.” But when women and girls only exist in relation to men, then they are subjugated and made second class citizens, subtly, if not overtly. This, at it’s root, hinders the social equality of women.
As Christians who affirm the dignity and value of every person made in the image of God, this is not something that is acceptable. We want to bend our life towards God’s coming, where all people have dignity that is recognized, where boys and girls are the norm.
More from the Jesus Feminist Series