How indie titles defy the Smurfette Principle and gender stereotypes

Smurfette Principle Essay Header Image

In 1991, feminist poet and essayist, Katha Pollitt coined and introduced the term known as the Smurfette Principle in her New York Times article, Hers; The Smurfette Principle. In the essay, Pollitt describes how popular childrenʼs entertainment defined the roles of boys and girls. To put it in basic terms “[b]oys 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”. Coming into the 1990ʼs, the gender stereotypes of the 1980ʼs (and earlier decades) were still being brought into childrenʼs programming, though gradually shifting by the late ʻ90s. In the ʻ80s, it was seldom, if not almost impossible to come across a television show where women take on more prominent roles just as much as men.

As the name implies, the term is based off of the character, Smurfette from the ongoing 1958 Belgium comic and 1981 animated series, The Smurfs, created by Pierre Culliford, best known by his pen-name, Peyo. Before two other female Smurfs were added to the franchise, Smurfette was the lone female character among an entire village of male characters and to her label, she is simply known as being the ʻgirlʼ whereas all the other Smurfs are named for their personality traits. Because the animation and toy industry were strongly affiliated in the ʻ80s, when it came to what was trending in childrenʼs entertainment, according to Maria Teresa Hart in her article, She- Ra and the Fight Against the Token Girl “[t]he all-important and lucrative toy aisles displayed an even more limited view of female characters than TV did”. This was all coming from a time when female characters were limited to being stereotypically “feminine or beautiful” and would serve as “sidekicks” and/or love interests for the male characters. It was rare “for an episode of a Smurfette-model show to pass the Bechdel test”, whereas “every episode a She-Ra-type show does”. It was also difficult to categorize which aisle She-Ra was be best suited for. The media marginalized its television characters and toys by what they believed boys and girls would want based on their gender, engraving stereotypes in the minds of their viewers and consumers.

Characters in animation were confined to “femininity” and women characters in video games were also being degraded to over-sexualization. Similar to the cartoons of the ʻ80s, these characters were also serving as the sidekicks and/or love interests for the male protagonist. The only difference was instead of using beauty as a strength, they would rely on displaying a hyper-titillating physical appearance to define what it means to be a strong women. However, in recent years, the animation, comics and toy industry have slowly taken steps into changing the status quo. It appears sexualized female video game characters are also seeing a bit of a decline in favor multi-dimensional ones. In his blog post on Gamasutra, Study: Sexualized female characters in games down over last decade, Bryant Francis writes,

“[i]tʼs a study that needs to be read with some caveats, but a report from researchers at Indiana University indicates that the number of sexualized female characters in games has decreased over the last 10 years…Ph.D candidate Teresa Lynch and her colleagues Niki Fritz, Jessica E. Tompkins and Irene I. van Driel…were interested in gathering data on the games industryʼs sexualization of female characters in video games to see if there were any changes in response to criticism of these depictions”.

The study involved “analyzing 571 games released between 1983 and 2014” in which Lynch concludes that “thereʼs been a significant decrease in the number of games that depict women in this fashion in the last few years”. Francis describes where the study is flawed, indicating that “it doesnʼt seem to cover the recent rise of mobile games that frequently feature women in sexualized costumes” and the subjectivity in “which characters are sexualized may differ depending on context or varying standards”.

Although the study has flaws, there have been some emerging changes in recent years of how female characters in games are being created with expanded traits, personalities and qualities. AAA games have been making an effort to feature female characters with more depth than what was presented in the past, such as Clementine from Telltaleʼs The Walking Dead and Faith Connors from Electronic Artsʼ Mirrorʼs Edge. Even iconic Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series, a character who has long been recognized for her sexualized image, is being more humanized than in her previous incarnations. In addition, it should also be noted even before these characters were introduced, Sierraʼs co-founder, Roberta Williams created a female protagonist named Laura Bow from The Colonel’s Bequest and The Dagger of Amon Ra, (which YouTuber, PushingUpRoses cleverly discussed in her video, The Forgotten Female Protagonist: Laura Bow?). In the midst of her naive nature and lack of experience with society outside of the South, this character is known to be reliant on her critical thinking skills and clever mystery solving.

Whether the gender stereotype displays female characters as too far into an extreme, being too stereotypically delicate (conforming) or being too stereotypically sexual (in an blatantly provocative manner) are not only degrading, but also stifling.

With an abundance of stories to be told, why should female roles be confined by one view in any media format and especially in games? Listed below are many examples of female leads in independently developed games (indie games) and descriptions regarding what it is about these characters and their diverse personalities that make them memorable. Aside from their traits, what is it about them that makes them fleshed out as characters than archetypes.

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Aurora from Child of Light (2014) by Ubisoft Montreal- Itʼs rare to describe a princess character as a strong female, but in the case of Aurora, this description fits. The story of Child of Light centers in on its protagonistʼs growth from a carefree child to an adult taking on her role as a leader. Accompanying her is a roster of whimsical characters, each of distinctive personalities. The story takes place in the year 1895 in Austria. Auroraʼs mother, the wife of the Duke passes away. After the Duke remarries, his daughterʼs body turns cold and appears to have died on the night before Easter Sunday. While Auroraʼs body lays dead, she awakens in a fantastical land where she embarks on a quest to, not only return to her physical form, but discovers what she must do to to return the sun and the moon after the Queen of the Night had stolen them. These circumstances spark Auroraʼs journey from childhood to adulthood. Throughout her quest she develops from a carefree, playful child to a sensible young woman.

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Merryn from Song of the Deep (2016) by Insomniac Games- Best known for the Ratchet and Clank and Spyro series, Insomniac offers innermost emotion in their latest release for Playstation 4, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows. The companyʼs chief creative officer Brian Hastingsʼ goal was to create a female protagonist with traits that can be held with such high regard. According to Hastings in an article by Joel Couture, Insomniac gets personal with undersea game Song of the Deep, the idea originated from his daughter and her fondness of the female leads in the media. He based Merryn on his daughter. Hastings “saw it as an opportunity to get away from some of the norms we see with female heroes in media” and describes the times his daughter talks to him about her favorite female protagonists, it “made [him] think about how every popular female character [he] could think of, across every form of media, was pretty”. While there is nothing wrong with pretty, Couture indicates “[i]t was more that is was something that had been done often, showing lack of other types of heroine that sent an unintentional messages”. The typical appearance by body type and facial features the mainstream media defines as beautiful, plus women and girls in media displaying strength by having a sexual appearance, are the representations Hastings pulls away from: “I wanted the hero of this game, Merryn, to be something different. I wanted her to show that you didnʼt need to be either sexy or badass to be a hero”. The end result is that the character demonstrates to his daughter and other girls that there are other characteristics to rate highly of such as “intelligence, creativity, kindness and resilience.”


Elodie from Long Live the Queen (2012) by Hanako Games- Taking on a darker turn than their previous titles, Hanako Games tells the story of Princess Elodie. Preparing to assume the role as Queen after her late mother, Elodie must survive 40 weeks before her coronation taking place on her fifteenth birthday. Based on the choices the player makes, she will either be killed by those within the castle who are willing to take advantage of the situation or live through until her birthday. If successful, Elodie grows from the timid, grieving princess to a strong-willed queen who can either use her power to oppress her people or be a benevolent leader in the end depending on how the player guides her moral perception. If shaped to become a caring leader, Elodie displays positive and admirable qualities by the knowledge and activities that contribute to her growth that not very many female protagonists are see doing, such as accounting, wielding swords, public relations, etc. Like Child of Light, where we see the rare scenario of a princess becoming a queen as part of character development, Long Live the Queen also defies the ʻprincessʼ role by allowing its protagonist to grow into the next phase in her life.

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Cassie from Perception (2016-2017) by The Deep End Games- Conceived by industry pros behind AAA titles like BioShock, Dead Space and Rock Band, Bill and Amanda Gardner puts players in the position of a young blind woman named Cassie. Told from the first-person perspective, the gameʼs main character relies on her senses and clever thinking skills as she navigates through a vacant, aging manor, which is the source of her nightmares. Cassie investigates the house to expel those dreams and in the process, uncovers its hidden mysteries. Throughout her explorations, the various sides of her personality start to show, from her sharp-witted tongue, to her vulnerabilities and sensitivities, to her critical thinking skills. Cassie sets a superb example of a strong female lead who resourcefully goes beyond her disability and displays both her fears and her courage.

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Kathy Kathy Rain: A Detective is Born (2016) by Clifftop Games- Taking place in the Fall of 1995, aspiring journalist Kathy Rain investigates the bizarre circumstances behind her grandfatherʼs death. During her search, she also has some reconciling to make with her own family history as well. Kathy is a brutally honest, sharp-tongued, critical thinker. She brings out that side of her character when someone is displaying incompetence or suspicious behavior and often makes sarcastic remarks as she searches. There is another side to her personality that comes up when she talks with those closest to her and when a part of her past is coming back to haunt her. When Kathy talks to her grandmother, she sets aside her snide humor and cynicism as they converse after the funeral. Upon discussing family matters and history, Kathy is shown to be an agnostic while her grandmother is a believer, but is able to speak respectfully to her. Kathy playfully jokes with her best friend, Eileen, a devout Christian, but their differences in character or beliefs never clash. When confronted with her past mistakes, Kathy is seen going through her personal struggles, which comes off as genuine. The qualities as seen with Kathy show various layers to her character, all of which define, not only a strong female character, but a well rounded character players can identify with.

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Alex from Oxenfree (2016) by Night School Studio- While spending a night over on a mysterious island with her stepbrother, Jonas, 17 year-old Alex uses her trusty radio to track strange occurrences caused by supernatural forces. After the loss of her brother, Michael and the subsequent divorce of her parents, Alex becomes a defiant teenager, coping with these changes in her life. Nonetheless, Alex is very resourceful when it comes to tracking. Most of her personality relies on the playerʼs input, in which they can bring out the sanguine side of her character or the cynical side of it. In any case, the situation she and her friends are put into serve as an opportunity to confront that part of her past. Whatever choices the player makes will alter the gameʼs outcome and how Alex finds closure in the end. Oxenfree is one of those rare instances that takes the time to flesh out its protagonist and invite the player to understand her state of mind and motives. Like Perception, Oxenfree was also conceived by AAA veterans, whom are known for their work at Disney and Telltale Games.

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Thora from Jotun (2015) by Thunder Lotus Games- Upon her mortifying demise, Norse viking, Thora is obligated by the Gods to defeat each of the Jotun. Faithful to the mythology, it is the only way for her to earn her place in Valhalla and redeem her failure. With a combination cultural input and a protagonist who strengthens her capabilities, Thora is simple in concept yet complex in backstory. The gameplay focuses less on scoring and more on the challenges she endures, keeping the character development at the forefront.

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Scout from Flame in the Flood (2016) by The Molasses Flood- Also created by AAA experts who contributed to popular series like Halo, BioShock and Guitar Hero, Molasses Flood pushes players into the place of post-societal survivor, Scout as she and her faithful dog, Aesop travel together. Scout is accustomed to the new world disorder and quickly adapts to her surroundings. She is a skilled navigator and with savvy quick thinking, she is capable of using a handful of supplies to her advantage. According to the gameʼs lead designer and companyʼs president, Forrest Dowling in a Gamasutra exclusive interview with Phill Cameron, How The Flame in the Flood builds tension through motion, “[t]here are a lot of variables that we can tune throughout the river gen as we wanted to create a lot of different experiences as you travel down it…The way the flow is generated and the speeds it moves in the ways it affects the raft had been difficult. We want it to feel like something you donʼt have a lot of control over, but you need to be able to feel like youʼre able to exert some control”. With the game mechanics being set up in such away that the player is forced to react critically and actively than they probably normally would, this gives them the sense of what a believable character in such a situation would grapple with and the intense challenges attached to it.

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Rosa from the Blackwell Series (2006-2014) by Wadjet Eye Games- Introduced later that same year company founders Dave and Janet released their debut, The Shivah, Rosangela ʻRosaʼ Blackwell is a free-lance book reviewer living in solitude. Upon learning about the death of her aunt Lauren, her last surviving family member, she also discovers her family history. As the game progresses, Rosa meets the ghost of a man named Joey Mallone, who died in the 1920ʼs. He reveals to her that all the women in the Blackwell bloodline, specifically her grandmother and aunt, were mediums. Therefore, she too inherits this ability to see and communicate with the spirits of those who are deceased. Some of them are oblivious of or fail to accept their untimely demises and it is her job to guide them into the afterlife. At first Rosa is reluctant and somewhat uncompromising. As the first game and the rest of the series advances, she not only accepts her role as a medium, but grows as a level-headed critical thinker.

There is a need for reevaluating early depictions of female characters in media as old societal stereotypes have become outdated. The toy and animation industry of the ʻ80s branded their characters as simply being beautiful until recent years. Video games in the past decades used a similar marketing strategy where sexiness was the defining characteristic instead of showing women with other strengths and beauty. These images had negative effects on young women and girls, according to many studies. In recent history, however there are emerging examples of characters created with diverse traits. Indie game developers are openly contributing to this cultural shift in a similar fashion to the gender-redefining input of the animation industry. Although the damaging stereotypes still exist in all forms of media to this day, the gaming industry is slowly helping to change social perspectives of women.


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