Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part I: Smurf Means
by Travis Hedge Coke
Are the Smurfs socialists? Communists? Libertarian survivalists? Royalist serfs? Are the Smurfs colonists or an invasive species? When are the Smurfs we love and know, living, and is it our Earth?
Brainy Smurf explains to a chicken and her chicks why she should give up the egg he wants, thusly: “If you take the long view, you can equate the overall social good with the needs of the many.”
The blue, little (“three apples high,” but those must be some small apples) people live in a small village of around one hundred persons, each largely contributing in their own way from their ability, and contributed to, in accordance with their needs. Mostly. Patriarchal, Papa Smurf is both a guardian of special knowledges and the final word on political matters, while also being absent-minded, forgetful, and often crankier than he needs to be. The Smurfs live in The Cursed Land, hidden behind forests and deserts and mountains, but they are able to access nearby monarchist nations by flight (using storks), and humans such as Gargamel live relatively nearby and just have difficulty locating the Smurf village if they try.
Smurfs live and work together. Grouchy Smurf may hate work, but he works. Greedy Smurf may be a greedy Smurf, but he works. Lazy Smurf sometimes works and sometimes pretends he was working but really he was sleeping. When the Smurfs have temporarily a robot who can do a great deal of work for them, no one monetizes or capitalizes on the robot, they just have the robot do the work and they chill.
Smurfs, in comics and cartoons, are both an independent nation/village and subject to nearby royals, but the exact nature is never detailed. Their subjection to prices and princesses and kings might simply be one of polite deference or a desire to take the easiest route in a debate.
Smurfs subsist primarily on sarsaparilla leaves or berries, depending on the version, a Western Hemisphere plant not really introduced to Europe or Asia until relatively recently in history. Are the Smurfs indigenous to the Western Hemisphere?
Neither the Smurfs nor the arrangement of stories of the Smurfs are greatly concerned with these geographic or political relations. Smurf focus is on Smurf Village, Smurf life, and on Smurfs. Smurfs are so Smurf-centered that they frequently replace words in sentences with the word “smurf,” and always words that would otherwise be easily anticipated or guessed. If everyone understands that the idea is, for example, to climb up the tree and have a nice look around, the Smurf way to say it might be, “Smurf up that tree and have a nice smurf around.”
This leads to confusion amongst non-Smurfs who may understand the language, in general, but not the substitutions or how they are decided upon, but even amongst Smurfs, to the degree that their small town has regional dialects and complications/frustrations arise as to whether you should say, “corsksmurf” or “smurfscrew,” for corkscrew, or if “smurf green” or “green smurf” is correct. Satirizing real life dialectal disagreements, such as those with Smurfs-creator, Peyo’s, own Belgium, and the French/Dutch divide, the incredibly small population of Smurf Village and their tendency to create passionate, committed personalities around single, blunt tropes (Brainy Smurf, the smart one; Smurfette, the girl; Handy Smurf, Lazy Smurf, Papa Smurf…), the aggressiveness with which choosing, “a crock of smurf” or “a smurf of butter,” tightens the satirization to the point where national concerns are almost an obscene, or at least an absurd version of local, and local is what takes precedent.
Smurfs remind us to tend our own gardens, to watch our own streets, to wash our own backs. That being true to oneself and knowing oneself is important, but that even as actualized individuals, who understand both our strengths and our limitations, if we live in a society, we have to live in a society. That’s right, the Joker of memes and George Costanza of Seinfeld are Smurfs. They think by owning up to their self-identified strengths and faults, and by playing inside baseball they assume everyone is in on with them, they are, “living in a society.”
Unlike Joker and George, Smurfs do not murder anyone. That I know of. However, Smurf behavior, Smurf cultural tendency and socialization will get you killed. Smurfs are the best of communism and the worst of libertarianism. A solecism in socialism. A battle hymn for a republic. Smurfness and individuated-smurfness make cannon-correctable problems out of everything because the Smurfs have at their core, a cannon called “smurf.”
The authorship and author-condoning of Smurfs is obscured in its way. Their creator and the maker of the first several collections of comics, Peyo, has been replaced by heirs and staff who also operate and publish under the pen name, Peyo. The majority of Smurfs audience, for decades, knew them as PVC figurines, not characters with stories, the cartoon of the 1980s overtook the comics popular imagination, the recent feature films have probably done the same with the television cartoon.
In the cartoon episode, Astrosmurf, Dreamy Smurf wishes on his smurfday cake candles that he could travel to a planet the Smurfs have never been to and repeat attempts he makes to reach outer space is met by both disappointment and the townspeople gathering around to laugh at him.
Lazy Smurf, who is so lazy it’s his name and defining trait, is chided by Papa Smurf for being lazy as if it is completely unpredictable. Papa Smurf, himself, is named Papa, not Smart Smurf or Good Smurf, or Guide Smurf, because he is the Smurf who will send Smurfette, Brainy, and “uh… Clumsy” on a rescue mission. He is not, at his center, too good or smart or worthy as a guide. He is patriarchal. He is Papa Smurf.
Dreamy’s wish of going to outer space? The Smurfs all agree that smurfday wishes always come true, this is both their lived experience and their cultural tradition. Still, when it comes to Dreamy’s wish, possibly because he is dreamy, they doubt him and they mock him. They also fake a rocket journey to a distant planet to appease him, but more honestly to reaffirm their tradition and to get him to stop trying.
The aliens that the Smurfs pretend to be in Astrosmurf, talk in a stilted, awkward pidgin, wear their black hair long, play drums and flutes, have big round-mouth lips, and generally portray an annoying caricature of indigeneity, but of course, that is what Smurfs think of outsiders. The Smurfs use this ruse to convince Dreamy that going other places is bad, that other people are bad, that other cultures are bad.
The Smurfs are never so smurfily smurf as when confronted with invaders from beyond the last row of homes in town. The Purple Smurf infection (renamed – and recolored – from the Black original, to avoid connotations of racism – on this, your mileage may vary) is a disease transmitted by insect and by Smurf-on-Smurf bites, making healthy and clearheaded Smurfs darker and angry and robbing them of their vocabulary and willpower, stomping fourth only to bite more Smurfs, to infect more Smurfs. Their nearest neighbors, human and otherwise, including Gargamel, Azrael, and fuzzles. Garagel, in our world, adheres to many antisemitic tropes that have also come to represent witches in general, but in their world these markers are not evidence of his wrongdoing or evil, because he has evil actions to demonstrate that. Rather than blood libel, in-world Gargamel is just inarguably intent on capturing the Smurfs and murdering them (for gold, for potions, for power). Azrael, the cat, would probably eat a Smurf as soon as turn one over to their owner, Gargamel. And, fuzzles are, while generally well-meaning, a complicated nuisance, because like Tribbles in Star Trek, puzzles keep eating and growing and growing and eating.
The world beyond a tiny little town of one hundred or so is frightening and deadly in the cosmogony of the Smurfs.
The world outside must be scary and bad because the world in town is judgmental, narcissistic, and cruel with smiles.
Vanity Smurf, who is affirmed and maintained in life by looking at himself in a hand mirror, has that mirror broken in a game of smurfball, and no one has any empathy. His team are upset that he cost them the game. The other team do not notice. No one cares. This is a nearly soul-crushing moment for Vanity Smurf.
Bringing us back to Costanza and Seinfeld, Smurfs learning nothing. They do hug. They do not grow. Growth is, as a general rule, stifled by conscious effort or proven by circumstance to be unhealthy. If Grouchy Smurf tries to be positive, the world will correct his path. He is Grouchy Smurf. If a circumstance cannot be corrected away, like the presence of new Smurfs, starting with Smurfette and Smurfette’s introduction to Smurf of gender and sexuality, the entire culture has to reestablish itself in such a way as to treat this new unavoidable element as eternal, perpetual, and naturally smurfy.
You can take any Seinfeld plot and replace them with Smurfs and the dialogue barely needs to change. You can take the characters of Seinfeld and put them in Smurf plots and the decisions and actions taken, the reactions of any Smurf character will feel absolutely in-character coming from George or Elaine.
The episode of Vanity’s broken mirror ends with the town bringing him a new hand mirror, a gift and apology. It is a joke mirror that shows his face distorted and drives him into a new panic. Cue the entire town laughing.
Yet, every episode of the cartoon series tells us that the Smurfs are “good.” That if you are good enough, you might be lucky enough to “catch a glimpse of the Smurfs.” A mere glimpse is treated as a special blessing. They have the inflated sense of a Jerry Seinfeld standup routine in an episode of Seinfeld, where he is and is not our world’s Jerry Seinfeld and character, Jerry Seinfeld who is a complete jerk. The Smurfs, arguably, exist somewhere adjacent to, and arguably a part of our world. We can catch a glimpse of them. But they are distanced as well, by a veil of allegory and the same anti-allegory as Seinfeld or absurdist jokes.
“Smurf-opener!” “Bottle-smurf!” “I was in the pool!”
So, is Smurf Village us? Is it us as we live? Is it us if we are protected by a distancing effect of story or celebrity? Of, only joking?
At our smurf. At our worst, and at our best.
And, not at all.
The Smurf’s insistence on limiting the range of women is the role of woman, from the manufactured – that is unnatural – Smurfette and Sassette, to the evil witch, Hogatha, to the flower-themed Smurf women of 2017 feature film, Smurfs: The Lost Village, women are defined by parodying feminine as an ideal. An ideal which is not ideal. Smurfette’s introduction to Smurf Village results in widespread confusion and upset. She worries about her weight, she wants men to dote on her, she is afraid of caterpillars and distracted by sparkly things. In a way, Smurfette’s range seems broader than male Smurfs, but only because male Smurfs do not need to be all masculine, all male things simultaneously. Hogatha, who carries herself like a drag emcee, covers a bald head with a wig, vamps and poses despite her fatness and her large nose, but she also laments that there is no gentleman to lay down a cape so she can walk over a puddle. Women, in this cosmogony, are disruptions for men and caricature for themselves.
Which is not for The Smurfs alone. This is a tendency not only, even, amongst children’s franchises, but any number of sitcoms or adventure series, as well. But, it means that, like other worlds where five to twenty men have only room in their society for one woman at a time, it cannot be our world. Hogatha disguised as cursed frog who might be a beautiful princess is enough to make Grouchy Smurf smile and flirt. Smurfette disrupts Smurf Village. Hogatha disrupts Gargamel’s plans and drags him and his cat around on her business. Sassette is a special kind of disaster. And, like Chlorhydris, they cannot interact too much or have too much influence beyond disrupting men.
When we consider that the Lost Village’s female Smurfs wear hats like Vanity’s, a male Smurf, I want that explored in some way other than the way homophobic or femmephobic, while knowing that remains unlikely.
What I do have, instead, is that Smurfette very clearly says, more than once, that she is not a Smurf. She is a Smurfette. Yet, Smurf is the default. Smurf is the thing. And, we don’t ever let that go.
The gender imbalance of the entire Smurf world highlights that, while the male-skewing ratios are not real world realities, they are a real/this/our world perspective. When tested, people from English-language countries, especially men but others as well, assume that women fill up a higher headcount in a group than they do. A minority count of women can still be seen as a majority or equal number. Nonbinary presence is almost universally wiped out in these counts, even by nonbinary people in English-language countries.
Children taking in Smurf-world, Smurf-world dynamics, have little reason to question them, and the regressive, sexist, narcissistic viewpoint the world seems to reward and cherish is, similarly, taken in unquestioningly. That lack of questioning can be treated as a defense of an essential harmlessness, but that would be a self-serving mistake.
The Great Smurf Dialect Wars leave us aware of the potency of language, of how we choose to speak, of colloquialism and of regionalism and regional bias.
It remains for us to decide which part is smurfy for us, what part we smurf and what part we leave. As adults, we can recognize the terrible behavior and opinions of fictional characters, we can recognize the skewed nature of a fictional world, and we can find in that humor, or tragedy, and we can find in their interplay, what is useful for us to hold to, and what is useful for us to push against.
Part I: Smurf Means
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