What to make of the lone female in a village of 100 Smurfs
In the Smurfs movie, we first meet the perennial Smurfs villain Gargamel in classic bad-guy form: holed up in his lair, mocking his adorable little blue enemies. "I'm Papa Smurf," he sneers, waving around a figurine of their red-capped leader. "I have 99 sons and one daughter--nothing weird about that!"
Gargamel isn't the first to notice the 99-to-1 gender ratio: For a long time, people have been saying there's something odd about Smurfette, the lone female smurf. Sarah Silverman tweeted about her just the other day. In 2007, Geena Davis brought her up during a talk on women in the media. Ten years ago, the characters from Donnie Darko profanely debated why the character exists. And in 1991, a New York Times Magazine piece by essayist Katha Pollitt laid out "The Smurfette Principle" when lamenting the children's-programming tradition to depict "a group of male buddies ... accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined."
In Smurfette's case, the explanation for why she's the only girl in town came when she debuted in a 1966 Smurfs comic strip. It's like this: Gargamel is always looking for ways to capture the Smurfs. Recognizing that his enemies live in an all-male community, he creates a girl version "with a big nose and wild hair," who "didn't originally look like much" (from Smurfette's official bio) to spy on the Smurfs and cause jealously among them. The plan backfires, though, when Smurfette decides she wants to become a real Smurf, and Papa Smurf casts a spell that transforms her into the blond, "charming Smurfette that melts the hearts of the other Smurfs." As the bio further explains, "She's one of a kind, full of feminine grace and frivolous. She can also be very much a woman, playing with the feelings of her sweethearts."
In Smurfette, "you have the virgin/whore dichotomy, the Cinderella/Evil Old Witch dichotomy," says one philosophy professor.
If Smurfette's backstory seems familiar, it's because it is, says Linda Martín Alcoff, a philosophy professor at the City University of New York.
"You have the sort of virgin/whore dichotomy, the Cinderella/Evil Old Witch dichotomy," says Alcoff, who has written extensively about feminist theory. "You have the idea that she would sow dissension by using her feminine wiles. And that's an interpretation of the Genesis story, of course--that just her essential female dispositions would create jealousy."
So Smurfette's existence--and the apparent tie between her goodness and her looks--is problematic from a feminist perspective, to say the least. And yet the the Smurfs, which began in 1958 as a Belgian comic by the artist Pierre Culliford (a.k.a. Peyo), have endured. Matt Murray, author of the new book The World of Smurfs: A Celebration of Tiny Blue Proportions, chalks up the Smurfette narrative to being a reflection of its time and place.
"Let's face it: It's in the '60s," he says. "Anyone who's seen an episode of Mad Men, or actually lived through the early-to-mid-'60s, knows that it wasn't exactly the best time to be a woman. And we're also talking about Belgium, and the whole Jacques Brel culture of celebrating your love through misery."
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The Smurfs did introduce two female characters to the hit Hanna-Barbera animated series, which debuted on NBC in 1981, but only halfheartedly. The first was Sassette, the Skipper "kid sister" figure to Smurfette's Barbie. Nanny Smurf, a stereotypical grandmother, is the other. She appears out of nowhere in one of the cartoon's final episodes.
"I'm sure if [the show] had lasted another season or so, maybe they would have gotten around to explaining [Nanny]," Murray says. "But they never really did."
To Hanna-Barbera's credit, the the '80s Smurfette did come across as an active, integral member of the Smurf community. Sure, she loved brushing her hair, looking in the mirror, and picking flowers. And she wore heels despite the fact that she lived in the forest. But she had some agency. In the episode "King Smurf," she spearheaded a mission to help Jokey escape from captivity in Gargamel's lair. On long treks through the countryside, she usually marched near the front of the line. She often suggested courses of action. She was tough, too. In "The Astrosmurf," she lugs around the huge propeller of a dismantled spacecraft.
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Smurfette's new spirit carried over into the printed comic, which is still in production. "In later comics featuring the character, you find her as a more independent contributor to society," Murray says. In an April 2010 story, "La Grande Stromphette," she even becomes the leader of the village.
But as some see it, as long as Smurfette is the only girl in The Smurfs, modifying her character is not enough.
"There's a catechism these days among young feminists that to have gender parity, there needs to be more than two women characters who actually talk to each other," Alcoff says, referring to the Bechdel Test. "I would argue that they need to make a more realistic portrayal of any kind of playground society or village community. Then they could show good and bad, but variety, among female characteristics."
Katha Pollitt says that in the 20 years since she wrote "The Smurfette Principle" for The New York Times Magazine, not a whole lot has changed. She points out that in the recent J.J. Abrams/Steven Spielberg film Super 8, the cast features a group of boys and only one girl, played by Elle Fanning.