As Smurfs 2 opens this week, and everyone under 12 will see it and not a single person over 20 will go without a kid in tow, it’s time to look back at the real Smurfs, i.e. those of the Hanna Barbera cartoon that ran from 1981-1990. (If you’re about to correct me about the earlier Belgian cartoons, check yourself, would-be cultural imperialist: those were about the Schtroumpfs.)
The Smurfs first reached American shores in the 1980s, and in some lights the country has never been the same. Alongside Star Wars, the show gave birth to the modern phenomenon of merchandising. So craven were the commercial overlords in their pursuit of the toddler’s buck that the public found itself moved to fight back. The Action for Children’s Television filed a complaint about the Smurfs with the FCC in 1983, claiming that the Smurfs was no more than a commercial for Smurf toys. This, the body said, constituted a violation of children’s “rights to entertainment.”
The complaint never amounted to much, obviously. It did, however, make the kerfuffle that arose two years back, when a French academic wrote a “Little Blue Book” accusing the Smurfs of being Nazis and Socialists, all the funnier. And then there’ve always been those rumors that Gargamel was a secret Jew. Consumerism, communism, anti-Semitism: name a vice, and the Smurfs probably stand for it.
But all these years later, we feel it necessary to disagree that the Smurfs was nothing more than one long lunchbox commercial. Or if it was, it certainly had a strange and scary way of luring the kids in.
Never mind the whole allusion to the woman-made-of-Adam’s-rib stuff — the gender politics in Hanna Barbera’s Smurfs were screwed up from the get-go. In “The Smurfette,” they indoctrinated a generation of girls into believing that blondes don’t just have more fun, they are actually more virtuous than brunettes. When originally formulated by Gargamel, Smurfette had a cute black bob. Fast forward to when she’s blessed by Papa Smurf, thereby becoming a “real Smurf” (disturbingly close to “Real Girl” of Lars and fame, isn’t it?), and she emerges with angelic blonde hair.
Sometimes the Smurfs moves into territory best left to safe-sex prevention commercials. In “Smurf the Other Cheek,” Hefty Smurf catches something like acne (hmm) from an unnamed woman in the woods. It creates a large offending blemish on the tip of his nose. It can only be removed if someone kicks him, but then the kicker contracts the blemish from the kickee. After some shenanigans, finally, Papa Smurf kicks Hefty and heads off into the woods to give the blemish back to the woman.
Continuing on the theme of “Papa Smurf is really kind of a creep,” in a first-season episode called “The Astrosmurf,” Dreamy Smurf wants to go into space but lacks the skill to build a functional space rocket. In an effort to “comfort” him, Papa Smurf drugs Dreamy and then, when Dreamy awakes, the Smurfs have all transformed themselves — via another of Papa Smurf’s “potions” — into green creatures they call the “Swoofs” to trick him. When Dreamy eventually elects to leave the Swoofs and return to Smurf Village, they simply switch back while he’s asleep. So: Dreamy lives his life believing in a lie. Nice, Papa Smurf.
Throughout the “Smurfic Games” I remember worrying that the torch was secretly a sacrificial vessel. (I routinely sacrificed my toys as a child. It’s possible I’m imposing my own narrative here.) It didn’t help that the circle dance the Smurfs did in the name of unity bore a significant resemblance to ancient ritual sacrifice.
In what is probably the most universally-agreed-to-be-scary Smurfs episode, the Smurfs contract a virus from a fly that bites them. It turns them into “Purple Smurfs,” who can only utter the word “GNAP” and are angry little beasts. People have made hay of the fact that in the original comic books, the Purple Smurfs were actually, er, Black Smurfs, which does carry uncomfortable racial overtones, not least because the Black Smurfs were created by a man whose country was still pulling out of Rwanda. But in fact the Purple Smurfs were scary all on their own. It is their particular gift.
In “Gormandizing Greedy,” Greedy Smurf spends an entire episode being fat-shamed by the entire Village. His humiliation begins when he breaks a swing. Papa Smurf ends up confiscating his food — don’t try this at home, parents — which only leads Greedy to binge in the storeroom. At the end of the episode, after escaping a lobster-style death in a stew pot, Greedy comes to realize that he should pass over dessert. Throughout the episode, Greedy looks the same shape he always does. Encourage body dysmorphia, just go ahead, Papa Smurf!
And last but not least: the Freudian episode. We get to see why Gargamel hates the Smurfs so in “Gargamel’s Time Trip,” and it’s a tale many have told their analyst. It turns out that Gargamel is the son of a demanding mother, like so many of us, who told him as a tiny baby that he would have to do spectacularly at wizarding school to support her. And when the Smurfs escape from him — the elusive ingredient in a potion that would make gold from, well, Smurf — he had to disappoint her.