The 1980s were a golden era for TV cartoons. Animated shows including The Smurfs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Real Ghostbusters featured vivid landscapes and a variety of strange heroes, from blue forest people to human-cat hybrids to sewer turtles. But they had one significant thing in common. As the writer Katha Pollitt noted in The New York Times in 1991, most cartoon series featured a legion of male characters but only a single female, a phenomenon that Pollitt called the “Smurfette Principle.” Because the animation industry and the children’s toy market were so closely linked at the time, the trope of a token girl amid a troupe of boys dominated not only television, but also the shelves of toy stores.
By the mid-1980s, the superhero He-Man led the charge on both fronts. “I have the power!” was his famous battle cry, but not everyone in the sea of gender-skewed TV programs felt the same way. That is, until the 1985 arrival of She-Ra: Princess of Power, a He-Man spinoff series that inverted the Smurfette structure. Starring a cast of all-female superheroes with formidable powers, the show essentially presented a girls’ alternative to the many boys’ clubs that dominated the cartoon world. She-Ra taught its young viewers that women could be more than sidekicks, while giving girls a range of female personalities to identify with. But although She-Ra solved many problems, she also suffered from several of her own. If the Smurfette approach suffers from the pitfalls of tokenism, the She-Ra Solution—as seen in the upcoming Ghostbusters remake—often faces audience hostility, enduring gender stereotypes, and a baffled marketplace.
The first major hit on children’s television in the 1980s was The Smurfs, the blueprint for these male-focused shows. Launched as a Belgian comic strip, it evolved into a Saturday morning cartoon, which debuted in 1981. Smurf Village was a mushroom-sheltered utopia of over 100 male Smurfs, all led by their wise patriarch, Papa Smurf. The show’s single female, Smurfette, was born a femme fatale: The show’s villain, Gargamel, created her to sow discord in the Smurf community. But she repented and gave up her meddling, so Papa Smurf turned her into a “real Smurf” through a magical Cinderella-esque transformation in which her bristly dark hair became long blonde locks, her dress was trimmed with lace, and her shoes became high heels.
The show communicated her virtue and “realness” in the only way it knew how for a female character: through her beauty and femininity. Unlike the other Smurfs, who have personalities based on their names (Brainy Smurf, Jokey Smurf), Smurfette is simply coded as “girl.” This was reinforced by toy figurines from the ’80s, which show Smurfette engaged in stereotypical girlish activities, such as picking flowers, holding a baby, or doing aerobics in leggings.
As the decade went on, other male-centric ensemble shows joined the after-school TV lineup: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Transformers, The Real Ghostbusters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These shows transported their young viewers to wildly imaginative worlds that featured everything from pseudo space-Vikings (He-Man) to robots that could become boom boxes or a triceratops (Transformers).
But when it came to gender, these cartoons followed the staid Smurf template. All had entirely male casts, whether a defined quartet of heroes (Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters) or an army of 100 or more (the Autobots and Decepticons). And many had a wise Papa Smurfesque patriarch, such as Optimus Prime (Transformers), Jaga (Thundercats), and Splinter (Ninja Turtles). In accordance with the Smurfette Principle, each also had its lone female, including Teela (He-Man), Cheetara (Thundercats), Arcee (Transformers), Janine Melnitz (Ghostbusters), and April O’Neil (Ninja Turtles). To give some credit, these women weren’t all picking daisies or doing aerobics (though the leotards on some of them might suggest otherwise). Often they were fighters who engaged in spirited dialogue and had active roles in the plot. Teela was a captain of the royal guard and regularly criticized Prince Adam (He-Man’s alter ego) for being lazy and cowardly. And April often furnished support to her sewer-turtle troop and joined in their fights.
But despite having greater presence and personality, these characters still often functioned as two-dimensional stand-ins for all women. Even their contributions to the team reflected their gender: Cheetara’s super power was her “sixth sense,” which can easily be read as women’s intuition. April’s greatest skill was being a communicator and relaying information, which played into stereotypes of women being “all talk,” while men are “all action.” Their characterizations were often retro as well: Janine was a throwback to the type of brassy secretary seen in 1930s screwball comedies, and April was a Lois Lane-style reporter.
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When it came to women characters, it seems the writers ran out of their otherwise abundant creativity and resorted to leaning on old tropes. The characters’ already restricted personalities sometimes grew even more muted over the course of the show. Take Janine from Ghostbusters: As the author Cathleen Schine has written in The New York Times, Janine began the series as “a marvelously nasal young woman with short skirts, pointy glasses and pointy hair who chewed her gum loudly and exchanged exasperated, affectionate wisecracks with her cartoon co-stars.” But thanks to a fairy godmother/ghost’s makeover, Janine underwent her own Smurfette-style metamorphosis: Her edges were softened and her glasses and hair become consequently more rounded. By the end, Schine concluded, Janine was “the standard cartoon femme.”
In addition to serving as supporting characters, these women often carried the burden of adding romantic interest to the plot and were made to fill the “girlfriend” role. For Teela and He-Man, and April and Donatello, it’s implicit; for Cheetara and Tygra, and Janine and Egon, it’s overt. This common narrative device drives home yet another message about female characters: Their primary relationships aren’t with other women, and their value as people comes from their value to men.
On the merchandise side of things, the all-important and lucrative toy aisles displayed an even more limited view of the female characters than TV did. Teela and Cheetara were warriors, but unlike their male counterparts, their action figures had less threatening staffs instead of swords. The first Ghostbuster action figures only showed the male quartet competently busting poltergeists with a speech bubble above their heads reading, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” Janine was finally added to the fourth set of toys released, the “Fright” collection, but she was shown as a damsel in distress, knock-kneed in one and running away in terror in another. Most figures came equipped with two weapons, but Janine was only given one (her other accessory was a cordless phone). Arcee, who made her debut in Transformers: The Movie, didn’t even make it to toy shelves for the movie’s premiere. (She eventually arrived there in 2001.)
Into this world came She-Ra: Princess of Power. The show was created in tandem by Filmation and Mattel as a counterpoint to He-Man in hopes that it would retain He-Man’s large, gender-mixed audience, while cashing in on girls as toy consumers. The backstory of this spinoff was similar to the original: He-Man’s twin sister, Princess Adora (aka She-Ra), led The Great Rebellion against Hordak and his Horde army on the planet Etheria. Like Smurfette and Janine, Adora also went through a transformation. But unlike them, Adora didn’t become more feminine or beautiful. Instead, she used the Sword of Protection to turn into a more powerful being—the warrior She-Ra.
From a gender perspective, She-Ra was the mirror universe of He-Man. Adora was surrounded by a cast of female superheroes, such as Glimmer and Frosta. She had just one male companion, Bow. Even her wise patriarch was a matriarch, Madame Razz. As a show, She-Ra: Princess of Power parried with the Smurfette-style shows on several fronts: The simple act of flipping the ratio of male to female characters meant the show’s gender divide came close to evening out. The series placed women in protagonist roles rather than supporting ones, and allowed them a range of skills, interests, and quirks that would have been impossible under the Smurfette model.
Perhaps the most important element that She-Ra brought to the after-school arena was the portrayal of relationships between women. This wasn’t entirely missing from the Smurfette model: Over the course of a show, a main female character could come into contact with another woman passing through. But having multiple female stars allowed She-Ra to treat friendships and allegiances between them as a regular and integral element of the show, which meant these relationships could achieve some depth. While it’s rare for an episode of a Smurfette-model show to pass the Bechdel test, it’s practically a given that every episode of a She-Ra-type show does.
Unfortunately, She-Ra faced almost as many problems as it solved. The series struggled to gain the same audience as He-Man. Even at its peak, The Princess of Power had 100,000 fewer household viewers than He-Man, despite the fact that the shows were often packaged together in a single “Power Hour.” Network heads for children’s programming firmly believed girls were willing to watch shows with male protagonists, but boys were unwilling to watch female-led shows. Their research and focus groups only reinforced these conclusions. Jennie Trias, the head of children’s programming at ABC, said the network even brought in a child psychologist to gain a deeper understanding of boys’ resistance. (Some theories: Younger boys go through a phase where they want to separate from their mothers and dislike seeing female characters in positions of authority.)
But if She-Ra struggled with her Nielsen ratings, it was in toy stores that she faced her greatest battle. As the sociologist Elizabeth Sweet told The Atlantic this year, the 1980s were a time when toys were becoming increasingly segregated by gender, with potentially damaging effects. The result was that children, and the way they played, became defined by stereotypes.
The Princess of Power toy line was created to pair with Barbie as an alternative that would absorb any surplus in the doll market (versus losing that ground to a competitive company). In the pink aisle, Barbie reigned supreme, with sales of around $350 million a year. Mattel saw She-Ra as the perfect overlap between Barbie’s beauty and He-Man’s brawn. She was action-figure size, but had comb-able, golden hair—something that gave her “fashion doll” qualities. It’s reasonable to believe that the intersection between two top-selling toys would translate into an easy victory at the cash register.
But She-Ra’s sales floundered from the start. Roger Sweet, a Mattel toy creator and the author of Mastering the Universe, estimated her total sales at $60 million, an anemic number compared with He-Man ($2 billion) or Barbie ($350 million). In the highly gendered world of 1980s children’s play, She-Ra’s crossover led to confusion. Boys are often unwilling to play with action figures with hair (an issue that resurfaced with today’s Batman figures), and girls are used to playing with statuesque dolls that change outfits. As The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance recently wrote in a story on Legos: “Kids routinely favor the toy they believe is meant for them, based on their gender.”
Of course, it’s possible that sales slumped because kids couldn’t even locate these toys. When faced with She-Ra, some store buyers and managers were at a loss. Where did this little blonde warrior princess live? Most shops assigned her a spot randomly, at times with girls’ dolls, at other times with boys’ action figures.
In the end She-Ra ran for only two seasons on TV (from 1985 to 1986), and her toy line folded. Some Masters of the Universe toy developers even blamed her failing brand for bringing down He-Man’s successful run. By the end of the decade, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had become the top-rated show on children’s television. She-Ra’s attack on the status quo had been abandoned, and the Smurfette Principle prevailed.
As the next decade of children’s television unfolded, it seemed male-centric shows would dominate. Even the Smurfette tokenism of the past was often absent. Many of the most popular shows, such as Ren and Stimpy, Pinky and the Brain, or Timon and Pumba were male buddy comedies. The other trend emerging was programs showcasing the lone male superhero: Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman. But the She-Ra Solution wasn’t forgotten.
Exactly a decade after the show ended, Cartoon Network launched The Powerpuff Girls, which had the trio of Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup protecting the city of Townsville. This time the cartoon caught the brass ring of a mixed-gender audience, and it went on to become the highest-rated show on the network. Entertainment Weekly speculated that other pop-culture heroines like X-Files’ Scully or Xena had paved the way for the show’s success, while ignoring another warrior princess who’d already laid the groundwork. Given The Powerpuff Girls’ tremendous achievement, it’s odd that other networks didn’t seek to copy this winning formula. Instead, the show, which was rebooted in April, remains one of the few examples of female-driven children’s entertainment.
Thirty years after She-Ra, as Hollywood mines the 1980s for movie ideas, studios have embraced the tried-and-true Smurfette structure in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film. Megan Fox, who plays April O’Neil, recently said in an interview, “I don’t get a whole lot of say in terms of character development on movies like these” and summarized the roles she’s offered as “interesting stripper.” Meanwhile, the She-Ra Solution continues to be met with confusion and heated resistance when it’s used—as the new Ghostbusters movie proves. The outcry over its inverted gender roles feels far too familiar. The film and video-game critic James Rolfe even refused to review the film saying, “Ghostbusters is something that a lot of us grew up with.” This echoes what many detractors have been saying about the film: This isn’t about misogyny, they say. Ghostbusters was my childhood. Indeed it was—but one based on a model that snuffed out alternatives in which women, just like men, could lead, fight, and prevail.