On Friday night, I finally saw The Avengers at a late-night showing with my boyfriend (who wore a Batman shirt, because of course). We both enjoyed it immensely, I was able to follow along with the story without having seen any of the previous films, and as a Joss Whedon fan, I was thrilled to see that he had his name attached to TWO well-received movies in the same summer. (Now can someone PLEASE release his version of Much Ado About Nothing?!)
Anyway, because I’m me, I started thinking about the Black Widow’s role in the film and how much I enjoyed her character. She’s the least supernatural of the six Avengers whose powers are less flashy than the others, but no less important or helpful to the group. She comes across as a real human being instead of an Action Girl stereotype that’s so typical of “ass-kicking” women in action films, a master of interrogation who still shows genuine fear of the Hulk (because who in her right mind wouldn’t be afraid of the Hulk?) She wasn’t my favorite Avenger – unexpectedly, my favorite might have been Captain America with his innocent, boyish charm and excitement over understanding the “flying monkey” reference – but she left a good impression, was an important part of the film, and I would love to see a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie somewhere down the line.
In short, the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff is a pretty cool character, which is why I was confused to see her labeled as a Smurfette. Yes, The Avengers has been mentioned as a film that uses The Smurfette Principle.
If you’re unaware of The Smurfette Principle, TV Tropes has a good explanation of the trope. If you don’t want to get sucked into the too-entertaining-for-your-own-good world of TV Tropes, though, here’s a brief summary: The Smurfette Principle is at work in male-dominated texts where a female character is thrown in for the sake of having a female character. She’s a token female with very little personality, she’s the only girl or woman in the story, and she doesn’t exist except as an extension of the male characters or to be a romantic/sexualized interest. (Smurfette in particular doesn’t have a personality attached to her name – she’s just “Girl Smurf.”)
On the surface, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow seems to be an example of the Smurfette Principle at work – she’s the only female Avenger. But the other aspects of the Smurfette Principle don’t apply to her. She’s not a female extension of a male character, she’s not overtly sexualized or a love interest of any of the male characters (although, again – I want her to have a movie with Hawkeye right now), and she has a personality and a fairly compelling backstory. She may be the only female Avenger, but she’s treated with the same respect and care as the male superheroes.
Another character who has been pinged as a Smurfette is Miss Piggy from The Muppets, which I find completely unfair to the character. Yes, Miss Piggy is the only prominent Muppet who isn’t a member of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but she has the most dominant personality of the entire cast and is arguably the most complex of the group. Miss Piggy is the best – don’t you dare call her a Smurfette.
This has me thinking that we need to create a spinoff for the Smurfette Principle, because describing characters like Black Widow and Miss Piggy as Smurfettes is just plain WRONG and inaccurate. We need a name for a trope that describes a lone female character in a male-dominated text who nonetheless has good characterization and isn’t held up as an example of the Exceptional Woman.