What to make of the lone female in a village of 100 Smurfs

smurfette 615.jpg


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."

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."

Story continues below

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.

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.

"And it isn't just that there's this gender imbalance, it's that the girl represents femininity," she says. "That's what she's there for. She starts out as a very dominant character, but in the end, she's kidnapped by the horrible alien monster and has to be rescued by this boy who looks like he's about 10. And it's very striking that [the others] represent this range of character types, but she is just everything female."

Pollitt says that the Smurfette Principle doesn't stop at youth-oriented fictions like Super 8 or Harry Potter or Winnie the Pooh. For example, take MSNBC's roster.

"There's one Rachel Maddow, and then there's that whole male lineup," she says. "There's Ed [Schultz], there used to be Keith [Olbermann], and Lawrence O'Donnell, and now there's going to be Al Sharpton. It's quite remarkable that there's only this one woman, and it's never equal."

Beyond Gargamel's sarcastic remark about the 99-to-1 ratio, the new Smurfs movie does try to address Smurfette's singularity. In one scene, a human character, Grace, asks Smurfette, who's voiced by Katy Perry, why she's the only female Smurf.

"I wasn't brought by a stork like the others," Smurfette tells her. "Papa saved me. He cast a special spell and made me the Smurf I was meant to be." (In Geena Davis's telling of the same tale in 2007, she peppered it with an exasperated "I'm not kidding")

In the film, the "one girl" meme is also mined for emotional substance. After bonding with Grace (they give each other a "high four"), Smurfette says wistfully, "I've never had a girlfriend before."

According the director, Raja Gosnell, inventing a new female Smurf for the screenplay was never on the table.

"No, no, not at all--I mean, we definitely wanted to stay far, far away from that," he says. "Part of [Smurfs creator] Peyo's creation is that there's one female Smurf in the village. We really wanted to stay true to Peyo's original creation, and the fact that there's 99 Smurfs and one girl is part of the lore. We didn't want to just say, 'Let's throw another girl Smurf in there, just because.'"

That's not to say the movie plays total fealty to the comic strip. For one thing, it's set in modern-day New York. The Smurfs play Rock Band with Neil Patrick Harris. And the filmmakers actually did throw a new Smurf into the mix: Gutsy, a stereotypical "angry Scotsman" character (typical line: "I was about to make Haggis with your innards").

"Our logic is this: There are 41 named Smurfs in Peyo's creation, but there's always 100 smurfs in the village," Gosnell explains. "[Gutsy] is the Smurf that's always been there but just hasn't been introduced yet. Why we created him is, we needed a character who was going to be that first-into-the-breach guy, that man of action, that jump-before-you-think type of a character. Gutsy became our guy. That's his name, Gutsy. He's always sort of leading the charge."

Interestingly, a silver-screen Smurfs sequel is already in the works--and it will focus on Smurfette's origin story and her relationship with Gargamel, say Gosnell and executive producer Veronique Culliford, Peyo's daughter. (Culliford adds that they're currently working on a three-picture Smurfs deal with Sony Pictures Studios).

And a new female Smurf isn't out of the question, says Culliford, who, incidentally, was the original inspiration for Smurfette.

"We never say no," she says. "If it's a good story, why not? The new characters, they're here, but they can go out, or they can stay in the story--it depends on the success that they have."

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.