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Nate Borofsky
May 1996

"Sister" on the Sidelines:

"The Smurfs" and the Antifeminist Backlash on Saturday Morning

 

 

Long ago, deep in an enchanted forest, there lived a small community of little blue elf-like Smurfs. Every Smurf was only "three apples high" and wore a matching white hat. They lived in peace and harmony with their forest surroundings. The only outside threat was the evil wizard Gargamel and his cat Azrael who spent most of their time trying to destroy the Smurfs. Under the leadership of Papa Smurf, however, they always managed to escape.

In 1981, an animated adaptation of a twenty-three year old Belgian Comic strip began showing on Saturday mornings in America. By 1982 it had the highest ratings of a Saturday morning television show in eight years and had won an Emmy for "Outstanding Children's Entertainment Series." "The Smurfs" lasted for nine years and produced over three hundred episodes.

"The Smurfs" is indicative of the backlash made in the 1980's against progress made during the 1970's in the portrayal of female characters in animated cartoons, specifically those created by the cartoon production company Hanna-Barbera. Female cartoon characters, who had become more independent and rational-thinking in the seventies, began to once again have only a token and stereotypical presence on the Saturday-morning cartoons of the eighties.

In the 1970's, one of the most popular "trends" in Hanna-Barbera's children's cartoons was the "kids-with-a-comic-sidekick" show.(1) In his illustrated history of the cartoon production company, Ted Sennet describes this trend:

The networks and Hanna-Barbera recognized that young viewers responded favorably to the mix of comedy and mystery, especially if the comedy portions were given over to the sort of zany slapstick characters they most enjoyed.(2)

The most famous example of this was "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?" Started in 1969, the cast of the show was made up of four teenagers - two female, two male - and their Great Dane, Scooby-Doo. The plots of each episode were mostly redundant: The five characters would encounter some kind of unexplained mystery (usually in a "haunted" house), which they would solve neatly by the end of the show. Scooby-Doo would provide the comic relief and, since he was the "star" of the show, make the series actually more of a comedy than a mystery. Scooby was not a straightforward portrayal of a dog, though. He could talk to some extent, albeit with a limited vocabulary, and was thus a viable character, rather than simply a pet.

 


Velma

The human characters represented a change away from the traditional portrayal of men and women in Hanna-Barbera's cartoons. While two of them, Daphne and Freddy, could be considered "traditional" (they could even pass for Barbie and Ken dolls), the other two, Velma and Shaggy, go against the traditional sex roles of cartoon "adventure" heroes. While Freddy is well-built, clean-cut and generally unafraid to take on dangerous tasks, Shaggy is skinny, unkempt (as his name implies), and ridiculously cowardly. Similarly, Daphne is thin, long-haired and wary of danger, while Velma is stout, "tom-boyish" and handles all but the most terrifying of situations rationally.

With regards to new portrayals of sex roles, Velma is the most radical. Shaggy does not fit the typical "masculine hero," but this was nothing unusual. A long tradition of bumbling male characters in Hanna-Barbera cartoons (i.e. Barney Rubble on "The Flintstones"), and in cartoons in general (i.e. Elmer Fudd from Warner Brothers' "Loony Tunes") precedes him. On the other hand, a brave, pragmatist heroine who did not wear pink jumpsuits (i.e. Penelope Pitstop) was something new. Around the beginnings of the feminist movement in the late 1960's, Velma represents a female character liberated from the traditional image of cartoon "woman," as well as the peripheral roles to which they were usually assigned.

As is common among television shows, imitations appeared almost immediately. Various incarnations of "Scooby-Doo" were being written up until 1979, but by 1971, "Josie and the Pussycats" was on the air. "Josie" followed the mystery-filled adventures of an all-female rock trio touring the world. While they are clearly portrayed as sex objects (their performance costumes are legless leopard-skin cat suits - complete with tail), they are precedent-setting, in that the female characters on the show outnumber the male ones two-to-one. One of the band members, Valerie, was African-American and, according to Sennet, "the first minority heroine in animated cartoons."(3)

Other shows featuring women in prominent roles soon followed, many with the rock music element of "Josie and the Pussycats." "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids" (1971) depicted the adventures of a teenage rock band whose members were actually undercover agents. Here there were two women and two men (Butch, however, was the leader), and a bumbling dog named Elvis. In "Jabberjaw" (1976), the rock band lived underwater in the year 2076 and consisted of two women, two men, and Jabberjaw, a giant shark who played drums and made wisecracks. While one of the women, the appropriately-named Bubbles, is little more than an "airhead," the other one, Shelly, is tough and clear minded along the lines of Velma. "Clue Club" (1976), which features a group of suburban teenage detectives, has no rock band, but it does have two talking bloodhounds who provide comic relief. Once again made up of two women and two men, it follows the "Scooby-Doo" pattern of two "traditional" characters, and two "unconventional" ones. Velma's role is filled here by Dotty, "a thirteen-year-old computer wizard who [stays] in the clubhouse garage, dispensing valuable information at the touch of her fingers."(4) Aaron Spelling's "Charlie's Angels" influenced the crime-solving companions of "Captain Caveman" (1977). While this might not be a source of particularly "radical" female characters, the "Teen Angels" solved their mysteries without any male companions, except for Captain Caveman (who resembles Scooby-Doo more than a real human). From 1969 to 1977, women began to play an increasing role in Hanna-Barbera's television shows, no longer being relegated to the periphery.

 

If the increasing presence of non-traditional female characters in cartoons was a reflection of the increasing visibility of the Women's movement in the 1970's, however, the cartoons of the early eighties were affected by the "New Right" conservative movement in the late 1970's which brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency. The 1980's brought with them a reversal of many of the gains made by women in the 1970's. Congress placed restrictions on abortion, the STOP ERA campaign helped to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment three states short of ratification, and the media launched what Susan Faludi has called an "undeclared war against women" against women in the 1980's. "The past decade has seen a powerful counterassault on women's rights, a backlash," she writes, "an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win for women."(5)

If the Women's Liberation movement of the seventies brought about the appearance of rational, clear-thinking female characters in cartoons, the backlash of the eighties removed them. When looking at the cast of characters on "The Smurfs," one immediately sees a move away from the prominent female leads which characterized the 1970's cartoons. Although there are one hundred male Smurfs (only about twenty or twenty-five are ever developed as characters), there is only one Smurfette. The "kids-with-a-comic-sidekick" cartoons had an equal fifty-fifty gender ratio, and in those that did not (such as "Captain Caveman"), there was a majority of female characters. In "The Smurfs," however, the female-to-male ratio is 1 to 100.

 

Although "The Smurfs" has foreign origins, it is a product of the United States in the early 1980's. Like "Scooby-Doo," it began a trend in children's cartoons which lasted for years. The decade of the Reagan presidency brought to Saturday-morning cartoons what Tom Engelhardt has called the "Shortcake Strategy" (based upon the children's character, Strawberry Shortcake).(6) The term refers to the creation of children's cartoon characters based upon the licensing of merchandise.

The licensing of cartoon characters has existed since the turn of the century. Merchandise displaying characters such as Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, or Scooby -Doo have existed as long as the characters themselves.(7) The products, however, were created well after the cartoon characters had been established. Joseph Barbera, co-founder of Hanna-Barbera, said in the 1970's, "When a program is on for more than one year, we stand the chance of selling merchandise. If it doesn't stay on the air, and the networks don't renew it, then merchandisers just aren't interested."(8) There was a standard progression through which a cartoon character would be licensed.

Yet with the coming of the Reagan presidency, the progression began to change. The greatest obstacle to changing the order of character licensing (i.e. toys spawning television shows) was that the television show would be seen as a "program-length commercial."(9) Mark Fowler, the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appointed by Reagan, began to apply "deregulation" to the restrictions on the amount of time allotted for advertisements.(10) As the administration's policy became clear, the networks gradually began to be less fearful of the concept of a "program-length commercial."

In the wake of the immense profits made from the licensing of Star Wars merchandise, a greeting card company, American Greetings Corporation, teamed up with the toy manufacturing division of General Mills (which had created the licensed Star Wars toys) to create a new character. Based on a study that young girls in America were "wild for strawberries," they created the character of Strawberry Shortcake, a freckled little girl with a disproportionately large head and mop cap.(11) Without a television series or comic strip, the two corporations began manufacturing several "Strawberry Shortcake" products, spending large sums on advertising ($2.5 million), and, most importantly, licensing the use of her image.(12)


Shortcake

A planned television series was rejected by the major networks, who were still too hesitant to air a "program-length commercial." Nevertheless, three "Strawberry Shortcake" television specials were made and sold into syndication (e.g. sold directly to local stations). Within four years "Shortcake"- related merchandise had made over one billion dollars. Seeing the tremendous potential for profit, as well as signs of FCC deregulation, networks began to think twice about airing commercially driven shows. Despite Strawberry Shortcake's failure to receive a regular television show, she opened the door for other corporations to create stories around toy characters that could easily be transformed into regular television series.

"The Smurfs" became one of the first television series to put "the Shortcake Strategy" to the test. They had an advantage over Strawberry Shortcake, in that they already had a kind of history. Begun in 1958 as a Belgian comic strip created by Pierre "Peyo" Culliford, they had existed for over twenty years in Europe. This provided a defense against the accusation of being a "program-length commercial." Unlike Strawberry Shortcake, one could simply view "The Smurfs" as a harmless adaptation of a comic strip.

Smurf-related merchandise, however, had existed for years. Smurfs had been sold as small figurines throughout Europe since the 1960's and were eventually used as promotional items for British Petroleum.(13) "Smurfmania" began in England in 1978, with Smurf paraphernalia being given out at gas stations and the "Smurf Song" nearing number one the British pop music charts.(14) In 1979, they were licensed to Wallace and Berrie, a small gift manufacturer in the United States. Placed as "impulse items" at cash registers, Smurf "miniatures" quickly caught on, and by 1980, Smurfs had been sub-licensed to seventeen other companies.(15) While they had existed for years as a comic strip in Europe, most Americans knew them only as toys.

Even the story behind the creation of the television show "The Smurfs" is based on the presence of the toys. As Culliford himself explained:

NBC had originally turned down a Smurf show. But one day Mr. Silverman [an NBC executive] was taking a walk with his little daughter and she wanted a Smurf, which Mr. Silverman bought for her. She took it to bed with her. He quickly telephoned animator Hanna-Barbera [creators of The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, etc.] and gave them the go-ahead for a television show.(16)

While some might have argued that "The Smurfs" had been simply based on the comic strip, its beginnings were clearly centered around the licensed merchandise.

Being the first television series to successfully utilize the "Shortcake strategy," "The Smurfs" took place at a critical point in children's television. It undoubtedly helped to clear the way for the dozens of licensed-product-related television shows with no comic-strip past to fall back on. During the 1980's, cartoon series such as Pac Man, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Monchichis, and The Care Bears unabashedly became "program-length commercials." The creation of "The Smurfs" is indicative of the political and business climate in which it took place. With increased deregulation and corporate growth, it is no coincidence that the start of the Reagan era brought with it the domination of corporate-created and controlled cartoons on Saturday morning.

While one cannot dismiss the show's Belgian roots, "The Smurfs" is mostly an American creation. In adapting the series to television, NBC and Hanna-Barbera took considerable leeway with the story plots. While some of the early episodes are based on Culliford's stories, the bulk of them were written by American writers in the 1980's (although he is credited with "supervising" the stories). While the television show has been translated and viewed around the world, it was funded by American networks, written by American writers, and (perhaps most importantly) subject to the power of the American television ratings system.

 

The story of the Smurfs is as follows. Under the paternal guidance of Papa Smurf, each Smurf lives a peaceful life of both participating in chores for the community and doing whatever they like to do. They live in houses that resemble giant hollowed-out mushrooms in a well-hidden village deep in the forest. All of the Smurfs are blue and wear the same white hat and white pants, except for Smurfette (who wears a dress). Most of the developed Smurf characters have a specific role or characteristic that defines their identity within the community. For instance, Handy Smurf is always building things; Painter Smurf is always painting a "masterpiece;" Brainy Smurf is a self-righteous (and annoying) intellectual; and Clumsy Smurf is a comic device - acting as his name implies. Every time Papa Smurf leaves the village, however, some form of chaos will ensue. Critical to their survival because of both his wisdom and his magic, Papa Smurf is the "family patriarch." He is a strong, loving father, who disciplines his "children" when necessary.

The Smurfs speak their own kind of dialect which utilizes the all-purpose word, "smurf." "Smurf" can be either a verb or a noun, with the adjective, "smurfy." Usually the intended meaning is clear from the context. Episode titles such as "All Work and No Smurf," "Smurf the Other Cheek," and "The Sky is Smurfing!" are examples of the Smurfs' speech pattern. In addition, the staple food of the community is "smurfberries," and the game of choice is "smurfball." It is rare, in fact, that more than a few sentences of dialogue will go by without the word "smurf" being used.


Papa Smurf

The Smurf society is organized into what could be seen as a kind of socialist utopia (ironic, considering the show's capitalist origins). Each of the Smurfs works for the good of the community, and there is no hierarchy of power (except for the wise leadership of Papa Smurf). While all of the Smurfs wear white, Papa Smurf wears a red hat and red pants. With a flowing white beard, he vaguely resembles Karl Marx. If Smurf society symbolizes a socialist state, then the evil Gargamel could be interpreted as the corrupt capitalist world. Among his several reasons for wanting to capture the Smurfs is that he needs them for a recipe to make gold. Behind his evil is greed, the antithesis of "Smurfy" communal values.

While most of the major characters derive their identity from a personality trait, Smurfette's distinguishing characteristic is that (until the appearance in 1985 of the adolescent Sassette) she is the only female in the village. Regardless of what specific characteristics she embodies, she is the only female Smurf. Even if she were as "progressive" as Velma on "Scooby-Doo," which she is not, the message would still be that women mostly belong on the sidelines. Her sex is simply a "characteristic," like clumsiness or artistic ability.

Like most non-human female cartoon characters, Smurfette has specifically "female" characteristics. Her long blonde hair and abnormally long eyelashes set her apart from the male Smurfs, as do the dress and high heels she always wears (in the forest!). In almost every scene, she is at least somewhat off-balance. The German company Schleich manufactured the first "Smurfette" ("Schlumfinchen") figurine in 1971.(17) Her character was not present in the very first few episodes of "The Smurfs," however, but was added by Hanna-Barbera early in 1981.(18)

"The Smurfette" was one of the first episodes created.(19) It sheds light on the differences between "Smurf" and "Smurfette." She is originally created by the evil Gargamel as a means of capturing the Smurfs. "I'll get them through their hearts," he shouts. "I will send them a Smurfette. The Smurfette will be their downfall!" He describes her as "the first female Smurf - a beautiful, but evil, Smurf to lead all the others to me." The first (and for a long time the only) female Smurf, then, begins as a seductress created by the forces of evil.

The effects of "the Smurfette" are soon apparent. The first Smurf to find her is Hefty Smurf. Hefty embodies the image of working-class masculinity. With an arrow-through-the-heart tattoo on his arm, he possesses the greatest physical strength of all the Smurfs. When he finds her in the forest crying, "Boo-hoo! I'm so lost and alone," she immediately attempts to seduce him. Their initial dialogue is strikingly racy for a children's television show:

HEFTY: Who are you?
SMURFETTE: I'm a Smurfette.
HEFTY: A Smurfette?
SMURFETTE: Ya' know what that is?
HEFTY: No.
SMURFETTE: Do you like what you see?
HEFTY: I don't know.
SMURFETTE: You will.

Getting the Smurfs "through their hearts" apparently implies sexual seduction. Hefty carries her back to the Smurf village over his shoulder ("I'm weak... and helpless," she states), where Papa Smurf tells her she can stay as long as she likes. "You're among friends now," he says. The Smurfs (all male, of course) are overjoyed. "We're in for a treat," one exclaims. "You're in for a surprise," Smurfette says to herself. They welcome her with more than just friendship. They find her "femininity" appealing, and treat her differently than they would a male Smurf. She is given a pink house with heart-shaped windows (which none of the other houses have). Despite the fact that the male Smurfs have never seen a female of their species (ostensibly because one had never existed), they know "instinctively" that she is different, and must be treated so.

Although they are attracted to her, Smurfette does not have as strong an effect on them as either she or Gargamel would like. She organizes a picnic for the "boys," sending out individual invitations to all of them. They all admit that they are interested but are too busy doing their communal "chores" to attend. Even Papa Smurf must attend to work in his laboratory. While they do find her appealing, their communal work ethic protects them from her seductions. Smurfette is left alone in the forest with her picnic basket. When she realizes that none of them will come, she begins to change her tactics. "If I can't lure them out," she says, "maybe I can flood them out." She goes to the river dam the Smurfs built, where she entices the Smurf working there to open the floodgates, flooding the village. Before it is destroyed, however, the gates are shut. Smurfette is brought to "trial" to answer for her actions.

Smurfette is saved from punishment by breaking down and crying. She admits that she is working for Gargamel. Hefty Smurf shouts, "Lemme at her!" She begins to cry to such a degree (at least twenty tears appearing on the screen every second) that the male Smurfs lose much of their anger. Embarrassed, Hefty remarks, "Don't cry, Smurfette. I mean, my smurf is worse than my bite." Smurfette tells them, sobbing, "You've been so nice to me... Whatever you do to me I deserve." All of the Smurfs (except for Papa) begin to cry. While the male Smurfs initially have a violent reaction, Smurfette's submission to their will pacifies them.


before

Smurfette's desire to remain in the village tells much about the nature of a "Smurf" and a "Smurfette." She says, "I wish I could be a real Smurf - like all of you." The other Smurfs suddenly stop crying and protest. "A real Smurf?!!" they shout, "Impossible! Not in a million smurfs! No one's ever become a Smurf before!" It is not clear exactly what "a Smurfette" is, but she admits not only that she is different from the other Smurfs but that she is not even "a real Smurf." Despite this fact, Papa Smurf believes he can "cure" her of her evil. "I may not be able to undo all of Gargamel's spell, but I can try," he tells her. His statement implies that it is likely that she never will be "a real Smurf."

The difference between a "bad" Smurfette and a "good" Smurfette becomes clear after Papa Smurf has worked his magic upon her. Stepping outside of his house, he says to the male Smurfs, "Fellow Smurfs, I will now introduce the new and improved Smurfette." They stare in awe at her. One gawks with his tongue hanging out. The old ("bad") Smurfette had medium-length black hair, a simple dress, and shoes similar to those worn by the male Smurfs. The new and "good" Smurfette, however, has long blonde hair, a more decorative dress and high heels. In becoming a "Smurf," she has become both of a "lighter" race and of a higher class.


after

Yet why did she need to be transformed? What was it about Smurfette that was not "a real Smurf?" It is implied that, were she not to undergo the metamorphosis, she would continue to try to seduce the other Smurfs. When she is of a "darker" race (and a lower class), she cannot stop using her sexuality for evil. In order for her to be good and virtuous, she has to be of Northern European descent.

The male Smurfs are certainly affected by the change. As the Smurf with his tongue hanging out implies, Smurfette has gotten to more than just their hearts. "Hello boys," she says. "Hello Smurfette!" they unanimously reply. To the confusion of Papa Smurf and Smurfette, they suddenly disappear. They quickly return, however, each bearing gifts for her. "Now that's more like it!" she says. The male Smurfs start to fight over who can give his gift to Smurfette first. If they had only been only lukewarm to her presence before, all of their attention is now focused upon her.

Yet in becoming "good," Smurfette also becomes more naive. Apparently unaware of the fighting going on around her, Papa advises her to go back to her house and "freshen up." In her house, she is spoken to by Gargamel (through her magical compact mirror) who, realizing that she has been "transformed," tricks her into believing that he has good intentions. He convinces her that he wants to throw a "surprise party" for the other Smurfs "to pay [them] back for their, uh, kindness." Despite the fact that he created her to destroy the Smurfs, Smurfette believes that he really intends to throw a party for them. With her transformation to "goodness" and whiteness, she has become trusting to the point of being moronic.

Along with becoming "a real Smurf," Smurfette has become superficially vain. She rushes to her window to announce the "surprise." "Yoo-hoo!" she shouts. Instantly, every male Smurf, including Papa Smurf, is standing outside her house (they wouldn't even go to her picnic before). She tells them to go ahead into the forest, but she stays behind to "pick out just the right dress." While Papa leads the over-enthusiastic male Smurfs into the woods, she stands in her closet looking at her dresses (all of which look the same), saying, "No, this one's too long. I wore that this morning. Oh, this one's too plain. I'll save that for tonight." She did not appear to have any of the dresses before her transformation, but the huge wardrobe appears to be part of being a "good" Smurfette.

The ending of the episode offers an interesting twist. Once they reach the spot of the "surprise party," the male Smurfs are captured by Gargamel. Smurfette, arriving late, sees Gargamel laughing in triumph. Knowing that only she can save the male Smurfs, she disguises herself as "The Lone Smurf" and taunts Gargamel. "The Lone Smurf" wears both pants and a shirt (none of the male Smurfs wear shirts), "normal" Smurf shoes, and a Lone Ranger-esque mask (out of which her "feminine" eyelashes protrude). Gargamel, incensed that he has not captured every last Smurf, chases after her. "Get him, Azrael!" he says to his cat. Yet "The Lone Smurf" is too quick for them, and they end up injuring themselves while Smurfette frees the others. When the other Smurfs ask, "Who is the Lone Smurf?" she takes off her disguise to reveal her identity (apparently she was wearing both her dress and high heels underneath the other clothes).

One could interpret this ending as a defiance of traditional gender roles. Smurfette dresses and acts like a "man." She climbs trees, swings on vines, and rescues the actual "men" from danger. When she first becomes "good," she tells Papa Smurf that she does not feel like "a real Smurf" on the inside. He tells her that, in time, she will become one. After saving the others from Gargamel, the Smurfs shout, "The Smurfette is a real Smurf at last!" She has to break from the traditional sex roles in order to become a "real" and valid member of the village.

The writers of the episode (four men) undoubtedly thought that they were making a progressive statement. Yet the ending also implies that one cannot break from the gender norm without disguising one's biological sex. In order for Smurfette to act "manly" she must cover up her true identity and actually convince all of the others that she really is a man. After she has finished saving the others, she reverts back to her "normal" identity. The ending suggests that women have the potential to act out "masculine" roles (at least during emergencies), but only temporarily.

 

Smurfette's role and identity in the Smurf Village is ambiguous. While many of the Smurfs have specific duties and/or characteristics, it is unclear what, aside from simply being female, hers are. In one episode, "Willpower Smurfs," several of the Smurfs attempt to go for twenty-four hours without doing their "thing" (i.e. Lazy Smurf cannot sleep, Vanity Smurf cannot admire his reflection, etc.).(20) At one point Harmony Smurf (who plays the trumpet) laments, "Harmony Smurf without music is like Papa Smurf without fatherly advice - like Smurfette without beauty." It seems that her most important characteristic is her beauty - which, unlike characteristics of other Smurfs, is passive rather than active.

Smurfette does, however, participate actively in the Smurf Village. Her service to the community appears to consist of a combination of cleaning, nursing, and gardening. Often she is seen sweeping both her house and Papa Smurf's laboratory. In one episode when Vanity Smurf is injured, she helps to nurse him back to health. Her "gardening" is comprised mostly of watering flowers. In "All Work and No Smurf," several Smurfs work so hard that they are transformed into the tools of their jobs (i.e. Handy Smurf becomes a hammer, Farmer Smurf becomes a plow, etc.).(21) Smurfette is turned into a watering can.

Aside from being the maid/florist/nurse of the village, she is also the object of the other Smurfs' affections. The male Smurfs, with the exception of the parental Papa Smurf, are constantly vying (and competing with each other) for her attention. A kiss from Smurfette is considered one of the greatest prizes available to them. In "Smurf on Wood," Clumsy Smurf wishes to himself, "Golly, I wish I could get a kiss from Smurfette."(22) When he trips and hits his head, Smurfette comes and kisses him to make him feel better. "My wish came true!" shouts Clumsy as the love theme from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet plays in the background. In "Jokey's Funny Bone," Jokey Smurf (the practical joker) becomes envious of the attention that the injured Vanity Smurf is receiving from Smurfette.(23) In an attempt to receive similar treatment, he feigns injury. When the other Smurfs discuss whether or not surgery will be necessary, he says, "a few kisses from Smurfette would cure me." Despite the "innocence" of a children's television show, the constant desire for Smurfette's attention is a recurring source of sexual tension within the weekly episodes.

In "Smurfette For a Day," a group of Smurfs, including Smurfette, encounters a "Gnome" who cannot see very well above ground.(24) After talking to the other Smurfs, he asks Smurfette what kind of creature she is. "Why I'm a Smurf, too," she replies. The Gnome insists, "You don't sound the same. You smell different, too," (apparently, Smurfette either wears of some kind of perfume or simply emits an odor that male Smurfs do not). He quickly falls in love with her and tries to steal her away with him. Although she does not want them to, the other Smurfs try to protect her (she tells them she can take care of herself). They eventually trick her into leaving the village for her own safety. After she is gone, Hefty Smurf dresses up like her in order to trick the Gnome. His "Smurfette" costume sheds light on what the Smurfs perceive gender differences to be. He wears a dress and pumps like Smurfette, but his blonde wig is teased, almost to the point of looking "trashy." He puts on both lipstick and cheek blush, neither of which Smurfette appears to wear. His exaggerated "trashy" appearance makes him look much like a drag queen, all the more ironic because of his traditionally "masculine" image. Although the Gnome is fooled, the Smurfs are not (nor is the audience). Hefty's inability to appear "feminine" like Smurfette is similar to how, with her eyelashes sticking out, she could not appear "masculine" as "The Lone Smurf." Once again, what could be construed as a bending of "traditional" sex roles merely reinforces them.

Of course, Papa Smurf's sex should not be overlooked. He is the "father" of the Smurfs, but there is no mention of a mother. The trend of "motherless' families occurred among countless prime time television series in the 1980's, such as "My Two Dads," "Trial and Error," and "Full House."(25) There are no references to the Smurfs actually being "born." Smurf literature holds that "some scholars think [that they] dropped out of mushrooms, while others are sure they just Smurfed out of nowhere."(26) Yet Papa Smurf often makes references to being much older than the other Smurfs. The appearance of Grandpa Smurf in the 1986-7 season further complicates this. In any case, there is a complete absence of any kind of mother-figures.

Since Smurfette, the first female, is "born" long after the other Smurfs have been alive, she has no history with the village. Her character has not developed over time, as those of all the other Smurfs have. In "Papa's Family Album," Papa Smurf tells the story of an adventure that took place when the other Smurfs were just "Smurflings."(27) Smurfette, of course was not present. The Smurfs apparently existed for hundreds (if not thousands) of years before she was even created. It is implied that not only are women merely peripheral, but that they have played no part in the creation and development of society.

One episode, "Sister Smurf," is a direct attack on the values and intentions of the feminist movement.(28) One morning, Smurfette excitedly puts on her "Smurfy new dress." When none of the other Smurfs pay any attention to it or to her, she exclaims, "Smurfs - who needs them? They don't understand me at all!" (once again calling into question whether or not she really is a "Smurf") and wanders off into the forest . There she finds a human girl named Laura, who, as a girl, feels alienated from her brothers who are playing in the forest. The two "girls" bond instantly (although they have little in common other than biological sex) and wander off together. They come across an old, abandoned-looking house, and decide to make it their "no boys" club. They begin to clean up the building, bonding with each other over housework. Yet soon the witch who owns the house comes home and traps them, keeping them as slaves. Eventually the other Smurfs, along with Laura's brothers and father, come and rescue them. The episode suggests that women cannot sustain a viable community without men. When the "girls" become separatist and try to exclude the "boys" from their lives they only get into trouble - requiring the "boys" to come and rescue them. Made in the same year as the "death" of the ERA, "Sister Smurf" (the phrase is never actually used during the episode), is an obvious attack upon the 1970's feminist movement.

The racial implications of "The Smurfs" also represents a conservative trend away from cartoons in the 1970's. While one might at first think that, as blue dwarfs, the Smurfs cannot be categorized in "human" racial terms, there are several factors that indicate otherwise, the most obvious being Smurfette's hair. In order for her to become "a real Smurf," her hair had to be blonde. While the male Smurfs appear to have no hair under their hats, Smurfette's hair change insinuates that, had they hair, it would be blonde. The mystical forest in which the Smurfs reside is clearly European. In "The Traveler," they discuss a Chinese wizard, saying, "He will be coming from the East."(29) In "Smurfette's Rose," Smurfette discusses things that are blue.(30) "The sky is blue. My eyes are blue. Bluebells are blue." In fact her eyes, as are those of all the Smurfs, are black, not blue. The fact that she does not mention that her skin is blue, but rather that her eyes are, takes emphasis away from her skin color, as well as that of the other Smurfs. Her blonde hair, which she needed to have in order to become "a real Smurf," would then suggest that the Smurfs, despite their initial appearance, are blonde-haired and blue-eyed - i.e. they are all Northern European.


Gargamel (with Azrael)

An analysis of race has dramatic effects upon the original "socialist-utopia" metaphor. Although it is never directly said, it seems subtly implied that Gargamel is Jewish. His abnormally long nose and balding head with unkempt black hair appears reminiscent of 1930's Nazi propaganda. Although his name is not especially Jewish-sounding, that of his sidekick cat, Azrael, is. In several episodes he meets with his uncle, Balthazaar (another Jewish name). To complete the stereotype, he has a domineering mother who constantly criticizes him for his inability to catch the Smurfs. In this light, one might interpret the Smurfs as being a "racially pure" community (Smurfette had to be blonde to enter), with Gargamel as "the eternal Jew" who wants to turn them all into gold.

Cartoons from the 1970's, such as "Josie and the Pussycats" or "Captain Caveman" featured characters of color who, while arguably tokenistic, provided a racially integrated environment. "The Smurfs," while ironically trying to deny the presence of race with their blue skin, projects the image of a racially homogenous community that will not accept any differences.

 

In conclusion, "The Smurfs," as one of the most successful Saturday morning cartoons of the eighties, is indicative of the "backlash" against the independent non-traditional female cartoon characters who had appeared in the 1970's. Katha Pollitt wrote of children's cartoons in 1991:

Contemporary 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.(31)

The "Smurfette principle" holds true for most of Hanna-Barbera's cartoons in the 1980's. Shows such as "Fonz and the Happy Days Gang," "Monchichis," "Mork and Mindy," "The Little Rascals," "Pac Man," "The Dukes," "Pound Puppies," and "Shirt Tails," all feature one (or occasionally two) female characters with enormous eyelashes who stand off balance. Pollitt explains the effects of such images on children.

The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls are types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.(32)

There have been cartoons, such as "Wildfire," about a twelve year old girl who battles evil in another dimension, that defied the trend, but they are very few and far between. For the most part, female characters in the 1980's were relegated to the sidelines of Saturday morning.

 

Notes:

(1) Tom Sennet, The Art of Hanna-Barbera. (New York: Viking Studio Books, 1989), p. 164

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Sennet, p. 166

(5) Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), p. xviii

(6) Tom Engelhardt, "The Shortcake Strategy," Watching Television: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), pp. 68-110

(7) Charles Solomon, Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation. (New York: Wings Books, 1994), p. 291

(8) Engelhardt, p. 72

(9) Engelhardt, p. 76

(10) Engelhardt, p. 75-6

(11) Lynn Langway with Peter McAlevey, "The Selling of the Smurfs," Newsweek. April 5, 1982, p. 56

(12) Ibid.

(13) Richard Greene and Ellyn Spragins, "Smurfy to the Max," Forbes. November 8, 1982, p. 67

(14) Langway, p. 57

(15) Greene and Spragins, p. 67

(16) Greene and Spragins, p. 68

(17) I found this on a list I received from an on-line Smurf collector's club.

(18) Solomon, p. 247

(19) "The Smurfette." story by Duane Poole, Tom Swale, Len Janson and Chuck Menville (1981-1982 season).

(20) "Willpower Smurfs." story by Sandy Fries (1983-1984 season).

(21) "All Work and No Smurf." story by Chris Otsuki and Kevin Hopps (1985-1986 season).

(22) "Smurf on Wood." story by Richard H. Fogel, Jr. (1984-1985 season).

(23) "Jokey's Funny Bone." story by Patsy Cameron (1984-1985 season).

(24) "Smurfette For a Day." story by David Wise and Tedd Anasti (1983-1984 season).

(25) Faludi, p. 143

(26) Greene and Spragins, p. 67

(27) "Papa's Family Album." (1985-1986 season).

(28) "Sister Smurf." (1982-1983 season).

(29) "The Traveler." story by Tedd Anasti and Mark Seidenberg (1984-1985 season).

(30) "Smurfette's Rose." story by Frances Novier (1985-1986 season).

(31) Katha Pollitt, "The Smurfette Principle," New York Times Magazine. April 7, 1991, p. 6

(32) Ibid.

 

 

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