Don’t fall victim to Smurfette Syndrome in your writing

There was a nice interview in today’s Boston Globe G section with Geena Davis, who is on a campaign to generate more women’s roles in G and PG-rated movies. She’s noticed over the years that a lot of movies for young people have one woman character.

Thank you, Geena for giving some Hollywood backup to one of my biggest peeves.

For years I’ve been ranting about what I call Smurfette Syndrome. Decades ago it occurred to me that the Smurfs (for those of you unfamiliar, a cloying uninspired cartoon that was inexplicably popular decades ago) had a bunch of characters, all stereotypes — the doctor, the carpenter, the happy guy, the smart guy, the dumb guy, etc. Then there was the one female. Smurfette. As though she were another subset of the bigger set. I don’t remember if she had any particular talent or characteristic that distinguished her, aside from being female. But then, that was the point, right? One guy was a doctor. One was a carpenter. Smurfette was a girl.

Smurfette Syndrome doesn’t only occur in movies and cartoons. It happens in life, yes even in the “post feminist” year of 2013.

And it happens when we write.

It’s easy to make characters fit stereotypes, even ones we don’t agree with. There’s so much thinking to do when it comes to writing a book (or a story, or an article), that some things automatically get put on the brain’s back burner and don’t get fully cooked.
Minor characters, or even secondary ones, are thrown in sometimes without the thought we ought to give them.

I’m not saying this explains Smurfette Syndrome in the greater world around us — there are a lot of societal issues that go into that — but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our little part to stamp it out in our writing.

This doesn’t only apply to gender stereotypes, but to cultural, religious, ethnic, career stereotypes as well.

We live in a diverse, interesting world with a lot of diverse, interesting people. Consider the people you live with, work with, see every day. Do most of them conform to stereotype? I’m guessing not.

I won’t go into a long thing about our social responsibility to stomp out stereotypes one character at a time and by doing so, maybe we can help make the world a better and more welcoming place for generations to come. You already get that.
But I will make a case here for interesting writing. The more interesting your characters, the more interesting your book.

Face it, no one really found the Smurfs interesting, did they? I didn’t spend much time on them, except to wonder why there was only one girl (and wonder about ALL the implications of that, sexless as the Smurfs seemed).

Less cartoony, more interesting, should be our goal as we work hard at writing words that people will want to, and enjoy, reading.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
This entry was posted in Craft, Maureen Milliken, Uncategorized, Writers, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Don’t fall victim to Smurfette Syndrome in your writing

  1. A challenging post, Maureen — thanks for the food for thought! A recent analysis on public radio of TV’s treatment of women characters suggested the most balanced presentation of how women today live is found in the “reality” shows, where women employers add up to the percentage that really takes place. I think we could safely say that SinC detective fiction demonstrates women at work in sleuthing, policing, and assisting friends in crisis, in wonderful enriching ways. If I had a granddaughter, I’d be giving her “our” mysteries all the time … As things go, I’ll be giving them to my grandsons when they are a bit older. Fiction helps us present not just what is and was, but also what ought to be. Thank goodness!

  2. An important conversation. Being mindful of the topic is so important for all of us. Especially SinC members!

  3. Phil Innes says:

    Yes, a pert article about the life of our times. Currently in pre-production is a series set in Brattleboro “The dispossessed” where the women will definitely not be Smurfed. About 10 years ago I asked 10 women I knew which character in a tv drama series they thought most real? Any character 25-40 would do. All 10 said “um…” and nothing else.

  4. Pingback: SINCNE Blog Summary April-May | Pen, Ink, and Crimes

  5. Pingback: SINCNE Blog Summary April-May | Pen, Ink, and Crimes

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