Dear Straight Dope:
When I was an undergrad, I had a conversation with a grad student about our favorite cartoons. When I mentioned the Smurfs, she flipped out, said they were anti-Semitic, advocated Communism, and gave me the cold shoulder for the rest of the semester. What gives?
SDStaff Gfactor, with an assist from Valteron replies:
“Papa Smurf” character (Mark Quirk): [The Smurfs have] got their little colony group together where everybody hangs in their one little group and everybody’s right together and everything flows real well. But anytime any one of them tries to take off and do their own little individual trip … that’s when Mr. Evil comes down off the hill and puts the stops on them.
“Scooby Doo Philosopher” character (R. Malice): Smurfs are blue and … Smurfs are getting kids used to seeing blue people … kids see blue people, they like, relate to Smurfs, and they relate to blue people when Krishna comes about. —Slacker (1991)
A semiotic tour de force if we’ve ever seen one. There are several conspiracy theories about the Smurfs but none of them makes much sense. Do you suppose the Smurfs-are-anti-Semitic bit was the grad student’s way of … dumping you?
We might as well start at the beginning. The Smurfs were born in 1958, when cartoonist Pierre Culliford, known as Peyo, gave them a cameo appearance in his popular medieval cartoon series “Johan et Pirlouit” in Le Journal de Spirou. The episode was entitled “La Flûte à six Trous.” According to his publisher’s website, the Schtroumpfs, as they were called, were intended to be “secondary characters who were only to appear in the single episode.” Peyo had introduced the Johan character in 1952 and added Pirlouit (Peewit in English) in 1954. So the series was pretty well established by 1958.
The Schtroumpfs caught on and eventually got their own series. Peyo, who had other successful cartoons, eventually hired family members to run his empire. In America, the Schtroumpfs became the Smurfs and turned into the worldwide phenomenon we know today, with licensed Smurf merchandise in the 1970s leading to the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series that began airing on NBC in 1981.
OK, so what are the theories?
The indie-cult-classic movie Slacker (1991) depicts college students interpreting the Smurfs as either a totalitarian utopia or a method of preparing children for the arrival of Krishna by introducing them to blue people. This is probably the first Smurf conspiracy theory and was pretty clearly intended as sophomoric crap. The actors who explain it were, in real life, so drunk they could barely spit out their lines.
Another theory, eloquently explained by Victor Fuste in the Stanford Daily – you’ll notice how most of this stuff originates with college students – has the Smurfs as “a child-oriented representation of a Marxist community.” The evidence for the theory includes:
Papa Smurf looks like Karl Marx and wears red. The Smurfs live in an egalitarian community where property is communal. Gargamel as an example of the “other” life. “His quest to eat the Smurfs – hardly a good source of nutrition – shows how capitalists find nothing as gratifying as annihilating a truly idyllic commune.” S.M.U.R.F. stands for either “Socialist Men Under Red Father” or “Soviet Men Under Red Father.” That last one ignores the fact that they didn’t start out as Smurfs; they were Schtroumpfs, which has a few extra letters. Beyond that, there’s no evidence the apparent allusions were intentional. The closest we could find was in Peyo’s biography. Apparently, when Peyo was negotiating with NBC and Hanna-Barbera for the production of animated Smurfs on American TV, he said he didn’t want them “Americanized” into “gum-chewers and Coca-cola drinkers.” That may indicate some contempt for American popular culture, but it hardly qualifies him as a Communist.
Another set of theories has the Smurfs as a source of anti-Semitic commentary. The wicked Gargamel is said to possess characteristics stereotypically attributed to Jews – he has a hooked nose, for example. But Peyo couldn’t have intended to vilify Jews when he created the Smurfs. Remember, he only intended to do one episode with the Schtroumpfs/Smurfs, and Gargamel wasn’t in it.
Yet another theory proposes that the Smurfs are a front for the Ku Klux Klan – supposedly they’re wearing KKK hoods. But no European would associate the Smurfs’ caps with the Klan. They’re Phrygian caps, a symbol of liberty in the French and American revolutions that can still be found in the seals and patriotic images of both countries. The caps don’t look much like Klan hoods. Moreover, the Klan is a white supremacist organization. It would be odd for the Klan to make blue people the good guys in its propaganda.
One theory does stand up. The character Smurfette undeniably embodies some unflattering female stereotypes, and does so on purpose. In a recent biography of Peyo, Hugues Dayez relates a story about the cartoonist’s negotiations with NBC for the upcoming Smurf animated series. Peyo apparently spoke little or no English. When the discussion turned to Smurfette, Peyo’s interpreter explains:
Peyo began by saying that she was “very feminine.” They asked him to be more specific, so he went on to say: “She is pretty, blonde, she has all the characteristics of women…” Knowing the feminist spirit in the U.S.A., I diplomatically translated this as “all the qualities.” I was banking on the fact that Peyo did not understand what I was saying (in English) and the others did not understand what he was trying to say. So naturally they asked him to expand. So he kept on going with: “She seduces, she uses trickery rather than force to get results. She is incapable of telling a joke without blowing the punch line. She is a blabbermouth but only makes superficial comments. She is constantly creating enormous problems for the Smurfs but always manages to blame it on someone else.” I did my best to minimize the sexist nature of this description, but one of the participants at the meeting asked: “Would she at least be able, when the Smurfs are in danger, to take a decision that can save them?” When I translated this to Peyo, he looked astounded. “Come on now, do they expect me to make her a (female) gym teacher?” I obviously did not translate this remark. [Translation by Valteron]
That’s pretty damning if you ask us. The stuff about Marxism, anti-semitism, and the KKK lacks similar support.
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