* A version of this article has been re-written and published in The Forward.
As a youngster growing up in Israel, the Smurfs rocked my world. I watched every episode, read every book, bought every little figurine and spent my days drawing Smurfs on my notebook. I loved the Smurfs so much that I quite my Karate class because of scheduling conflicts.
This month the Smurfs are celebrating a 50-year anniversary. The cartoon, which was the brainchild of Pierre Culliford (better known as Peyo), began in 1958 as a comic in the Belgium magazine Le Journal de Spirou. It was adopted into a cartoon in the United Stated in 1981, and inserted into NBC’s Saturday Morning Lineup where it successfully stayed for eight seasons. Internationally, the Smurfs established itself as one of the most successful and beloved cartoons in television history.
In honor of their 50-year anniversary, I decided to re-visit my little blue friends. I was happy to see that the show still contained its magic: From its opening music, enchanting illustrations, and feel-good uplifting lessons, the Smurfs did not disappoint.
However, watching this show with grown-up eyes has yielded some unexpected surprises.
Surprise number 1: The Smurf’s village is a kibbutz.
In the Smurfs’ collective, every-body works, there is no alienation and exploitation, and the means of production seem to be in the hand of the workers. All the Smurfs look the same – white clothes, and hat – and live in the same mushroom-shaped houses (a classic example of communist architecture). The only exception is Papa Smurf – but he wears a Marx-like white beard and is dressed in red! Like the socialist use of the term “comrade”, in the Smurf’s universe everybody is recognized by the same title “Smurf”: Handy Smurf, Brainy Smurf, Jokey Smurf, and Papa Smurf.
Fittingly, there is no religion in the world of the Smurf. Nor is there a “Rabbi Smurf” either. This is in line with the communist’s rejection of religion as an illusionary by-product of economic exploitation. In a world without exploitation there was no need for religion to function as an existential palliative. If there is anything that actually resembles religion it is a vague type of naturalism – led by figures such as “father Time’ and “Mother Earth”.
The enemy of the Smurfs is the evil wizard Gargamel. Within this communist allegory he clearly represents the greedy capitalist. This is further strengthened by the fact that he wants to capture the Smurfs and turn them into gold. Likewise, his cat Azriel, who symbolizes the capitalist “fat cat”, is obsessed with capturing and devouring the little blue workers.
The irony of the Smurfs as a communist narrative was that while capital did not exist in the Smurfs’ economy, the show was one of the most lucrative cartoons in history. According to Time magazine, aside from its success as a cartoon, the show managed to sell over 300 million Smurf figurines, and market its brand name to over 3,000 products (including Coca-Cola and McDonalds.)
Surprise number 2: Creator of the Smurfs was a Misogynist.
It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize Peyo’s disdain for women. After all, his original utopia was made up exclusively of male figures, and the one figure that he did eventually create, Smurfette, did not embody the best qualities young girls ought to aspire to. (Note: two other female figures were added toward the end of the show).
While it is not clear how the Smurfs were created in the first place (apparently not through biological procreation), we do know that Smurfette was manufactured by the evil villain Gargamel. In the episode of her inception, Gargamel concocted Smurfette for the purpose of bringing disorder, envy, and jealousy to the communist haven: “A ruthless curse that will make them beg for mercy.” Smurfette’s ingredients were as follows:
Sugar and spice but nothing nice…A dram of crocodile tears…A peck of bird brain…The tip of an adder’s tongue…Half a pack of lies, white, of course…The slyness of a cat…The vanity of a peacock…The chatter of a magpie…The guile of a vixen and the disposition of a shrew…And of course the hardest stone for her heart….
In using the motif of woman as seductive agent of discord, Peyo was recycling an old story. In the Bible it is Eve, the first woman, who tempts Adam and brings about the fall of humankind. Likewise in the Greek myth of Pandora, Zeus orders the creation of the first woman as a punishment for mankind’s hubris (punished for accepting the gift of fire from Prometheus). Pandora is made up of such qualities as “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” and it is through her and her box that great evils are unleashed onto the world.
Like Eve and Pandora, Smurfette tries to bring about the downfall of the Smurfs, but unlike her mythological predecessors she fails to do so. In the end, Smurfette is transformed by the goodness and generosity of the creatures she tries to destroy. Her transformation is semi-complete when Papa Smurf magically turns her hair from black and stringy to blond and wavy. However, she only becomes a true Smurf when she commits an altruistic act and saves the Smurfs from Gargamel’s trap. From then onwards (despite moments of bravery), her character, whose special feature/function seems to be her beauty, becomes the ditsy object of desire of every Smurf in the village.
A final insight into the nature of Smurfette comes to us form a biography of Peyo. In it, his translator tells a story of how the animator sold the character of Smurfette to NBC.
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.
Surprise number 3: Gargamel was the anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew.
Looking at the image and symbol of Gargamel it is apparent that the Smurfs invested their villain with anti-Semitic stereotypes from both the Christian and Communist traditions.
First off, the names Gargamel and his cat Azriel, sound a lot like Hebrew. In fact, Azriel’s name in Hebrew actually means “God will help” (it is interesting to note that in Israel he was simply called “Hathattol” which means something like “caty”). In both Jewish and Muslim tradition, Azriel is the name of the angel of death. In addition, Gargamel’s Godfather was named, Balthazar (another version of God will help – albeit the God “Baal”).
Second, Gargamel looked like the stereotypical image of the Jew. He is old, bolding with unkempt hair, big-nosed, hump-backed, and wears raggedy black clothes. The only thing that Gargamel is missing is a beard and kippah. He is, in short, in the tradition of Charles Dickens’ Fagin, a classic example of the ugly old Jew.
Third, Gargamel is a miserly, two-faced, and diabolic sorcerer who obsessively plots against the Smurfs, and uses his magic powers to capture them so that he can either eat them or turn them into gold.
Gargamel’s personality and occupation are in line with the medieval Christian belief that the Jews possessed malevolent magical powers (originating in the New Testament assertion that the Jews were children of the devil), and that they would employ those powers in order to capture Christians and use their blood for ritualistic food. Similarly, Gargamel’s desire to turn the Smurfs into Gold is in accord with the Communist belief that the Jewish capitalists (whose God was money) sought to exploit the worker.
Finally, the size of Gargamel’s body in comparison to the Smurfs (who stand at three apples high) also adds to his image as the all-powerful Jew. Although in the mind of the medieval Christian and communist the Jew was not known for his/hers impressive physical dimensions, the Jew was understood symbolically as a larger than life figure (who else could have committed Deicide or oppressed the masses?).
In the end, it is clear that in name, appearance, character, and deed, Gargamel comes across as the archetypal Jewish Villain.
What is one to do with this knowledge? Well, considering that most of the harm in this show is to be found in its latent content (the only exception being the figure of Smurfette), one can only hope that by the time the Smurfs makes it into the movie theaters (Paramount Pictures scheduled for 2010), some of the wrongs of the original show will be corrected.
And there is good reason to hope. In a recent news conference, Hendrik Coysman, head of Smurf rights holder IMPS, said:
There have been dramatic changes in socio-cultural values in the past 20 to 25 years. One of these is girl empowerment. So, there will be greater female presence in the Smurf village and this will, of course, be a basis for new stories and this will probably turn upside down certain traditional situations within the village.
That said, the Smurfs remains a show that champions values such egalitarianism, cooperation, environmentalism, naturalism, peace, and love. Despite everything, I would still quite my Karate class if it interfered with my beloved blue show – and that is the smurfing truth!