Wow, whatever happened to sugar, spice and everything nice? That panel is from Peyo and Yvan Delporte’s story La Schtroumpfette , recently translated and published by Papercutz in their fourth Smurfs collection, The Smurfette.
Now, as a reader and as a critic, I think it’s always important to consider the context a work was originally created in, and, at least as a critic, not to judge by the standards of the days. The Smurfette comic was made in 1966, in Belgium (a country whose mid-20th century culture I know exactly nothing about), so I’m reading it from 55 years in the future.
Additionally, the Smurfs comics aren’t terribly complex in their characterization. The majority of the characters introduced into the series so far all have exactly one character trait a piece, which they are named after—Grumpy is grumpy, Lazy is lazy, etc–and the most complex seem to be the ironically named Harmony and Brainy, who are named for traits they think they possess but are actually the opposite.
Even still, it’s hard to read The Smurfette and not wonder if Peyo and Delporte were coming out of terrible relationships when they made this comic or what. The above panel, in which the wicked sorcerer Gargamel follows a spell to create a female Smurf, is part of his plan to wreak a terrible vengeance on the Smurfs. Apparently, the existence of a female in their all-male world is all he thinks it will take to make them all completely miserable.
And he’s right!
The spell ends with a footnote, which appears along the bottom of the page as a disclaimer, “This text is the sole responsibility of the author of the spell-book ‘Magicae Formulae,’ Beelzebub Editions”, so readers won’t blame Papercutz for the portrayal of females.
The recipe is actually pretty kind in its portrayal of females, at least relative to what follows, as the bulk of the story is devoted to depicting the Smurfette’s horrible behavior and the way she ruins the idyllic life of the smurf village—at one point almost literally destroying it by seducing a Smurf into opening a dam and flooding it—just by being there.
One could argue that her many, stereotypically female faults and the disruptions they cause are the result of her being created by an evil wizard for the specific purpose of being evil, but there are two events in the story that dampen that interpretation, including the part in which Papa Smurf takes “ownership” of Smurfette’s behavior by shutting himself in his lab with her for several days and giving her a radical, magical makeover.
Both Gargamel and Papa Smurf’s Smurfettes are horrible, just in different ways.
Gargamel’s Smurfette looks just like the boy Smurfs, save for long black hair and eye-lashes. She’s found by a Smurf crying in the forest, and brought back to the village, although she needs to be carried. She’s vain, lazy, frivolous, flighty, needy, helpless and she screws up everything she tries to do . She gets underfoot when the Smurfs are trying to work, she messes up when she tries to help, and, after forcing them to have a party in her honor, she takes forever to get ready and delays the whole affair by two hours.
Fed up, the Smurfs launch an insidious plan to get revenge on the Smurfette and put her in her place—trick the Smurfette into thinking she’s getting fat, not only by talking about how fat she’s getting when they know she’ll overhear, but also by messing with her scale, stitching her dresses so they’re too small and installing a trick mirror.
When things get so bad she stops eating and Papa Smurf, who had no part in the shenanigans, thinks she might have killed herself, he decides to intervene.
Though “there’s nothing wrong with her,” he decides to give her long, thick blond hair, a new nose and some new clothes anyway.
The New Look Smurfette is just as destructive, but now all the male Smurfs are in love with her, and this causes them to create their own problems, as they fight for her affections. When her origins are discovered, she’s ultimately put on trial, but instead of waiting for the results, she takes her sole positive action throughout the story, deciding to save the Smurf village by leaving it.
Having “a score to smurf” with Gargamel, Papa Smurf quickly consults his own spell books and hatches a plan to retaliate:
While none of this necessarily makes this a bad comic book—the art is still incredible, with line-work so fun I had to fight the urge to pick up a pen and try drawing Smurf hands and profiles while reading—it’s certainly a strange one to read as an adult in 2011.
If there’s a kind interpretation of the text and its view of females, I suppose a case could be made that the Smurfs should be thought of more as human children than as human beings in general.
And so, prior to the Smurfette, the Smurfs lived in a world without any awareness of gender or sexual differences, there were merely kids and parents, Smurfs and Papa Smurf. When Smurfette arrives, the Smurfs are introduced to the opposite sex, and go through a girls are different/girls are icky period, before Smurfette is transformed and they hit a sort of societal puberty.
The story ends not by the Smurfs coming to terms with these feelings and this new status quo (as the American cartoon adaptation of the story did, with Smurfette sticking around to be integrated into village life), but simply by returning to the previous status quo—The Smurfs don’t grow up, but reject this puberty and return to the idyllic world of pure and simple childhood.
This is basically what happens in the preceding volume, The Smurf King (the contents of which Joe McCulloch reviewed so thoroughly in 2009 that I didn’t think it necessary to review it here; I liked it though and you should totally read it). When Papa Smurf leaves the Smurfs on their own for a while, they decide to flirt with democracy in order to find a new parent/leader, one clever Smurf discovers politics and gets himself elected king, he immediately becomes a tyrant, and the village erupts into a war that’s only resolved when Papa Smurf returns just in time to stop the Smurfs from killing one another and return things to the status quo.
That’s certainly one way to read The Smurfette and not be totally aghast at it. Another way, I suppose, is to quit reading and thinking like a grown-up, and try to read it like a little kid again.
I don’t know that one can quit being an adult and become a kid again, but the last two volumes of Papercutz’ Smurfs collections certainly make a compelling case that life would be a whole lot easier and happier if one could.