In Theory: A Response to Socio-Political Themes in The Smurfs
J Marc Schmidt’s essay, Socio-Political Themes in The Smurfs has been attracting the attention of cultural theory fans since it was written in 1998. Since it has been published on Pop Cultured, Schmidt’s essay has become one of our most popular and provoking articles.
In this essay, I do not attempt to argue against Schmidt’s overall claims. His essay raises numerous valid theories that can be backed up with textual evidence, and despite a select few points that I believe deserve rethinking and even correction, Schmidt’s argument is relatively sound. My issue with Socio-Political Themes in The Smurfs rests on the nature of cultural theory built on textual observation. It is an argument against the particular type of cultural analysis employed in Socio-Political Themes in The Smurfs. By offering a variety of theoretical readings of The Smurfs, I aim to demonstrate the fallibility of smothering cultural texts with blanket theories and false allegorical status.
The Smurfs and Marxism
Socio-Political Themes in The Smurfs is not the first, nor will it be the last piece of cultural theory to claim that The Smurfs represents a Marxist state. The theory fits. Schmidt explains the Smurf village as a utopian, Socialist collective. The village and its lands are shared evenly and harmoniously with all of the Smurfs working together in the common pursuit of a shared wealth, Smurf berries. This is indeed a basic idea of Marxist-Leninist Socialism, a workers utopia where all labour, all production is returned equally to the workers. Schmidt notes that Papa Smurf is “not so much the leader of the Smurfs as an equal revered by the others for his age and wisdom.” This fits well into the broad Marxist ideal of decentralised leadership and control. While this Socialist ideal never really works out in reality with one pig always winding up more equal than another, it seems to be a successful social structure in the Smurf village.
Gargamel and Capitalism
Schmidt claims that the Gargamel as the antithesis to the Marxist ideal that is the Smurf community represents Capitalism. “He embodies everything bad about Capitalism. He is greedy, ruthless, and his only concern is with his own personal gratification. He is what happens when the individual makes himself more important than the society he lives in.” Indeed, Gargamel is out to destroy the Smurfs. His actions and motivations are cruel and selfish, and he is largely driven by the pursuit of goods and wealth – he wants to eat the Smurfs, and also needs the Smurfs to make an alchemical ingredient for turning base matter into gold.
According to Schmidt, Gargamel in this sense represents a devouring of Socialism reminiscent of the West’s encirclement tactics against the USSR in the Cold War, and also the sheer Capitalist pursuit of wealth against all moral considerations. It is in the observations of Gargamel that Schmidt’s argument develops its weakest points. Superficially, Gargamel is indeed a Capitalist and sticking with the idea of the Smurfs as Marxists, he is a Capitalist out to destroy Socialism. This is theory, and the observations made of Gargamel are flawed in a number of ways.
“As the ultimate Super-Capitalist, [Gargamel] is more concerned with his own wealth than with equality and fairness. Like any Adam Smith style capitalist, it is his ‘natural’ state to want as much money as he can get.
Gargamel is a cold, bitter and ultimately empty man. This is because he has nothing else in his life but a soulless quest for wealth and possessions. A definite statement about the anti-social effects of economic rationalism.”
While cold and bitter, Gargamel is not an ultimately empty man. He loves his cat, Azrael and is wholly devoted to him. Even though Gargamel is often harsh to his pet, and the sentiment returned, there are numerous episodes where Azrael runs away, his absence upsetting this wizard, and other instances where Gargamel begs for Azrael’s life, or rescues his beloved moggy from danger. Gargamel was also a type of benefactor as he was the only wizard who agreed to teach Scruples when he was expelled from magic college. As such, Gargamel is not wholly obsessed with capital as Schmidt suggests. His hatred of the Smurfs is a vow of revenge against his humiliation at being bested by them in his first appearance in the original comic strip, further evidence of his emotional investment in his battle against Smurf life and one that has little to do with his pursuit of capital gain.
Admitting that Gargamel does have comparably Capitalist traits, he is most definitely not an “Adam Smith style capitalist”. While Smith’s economic theory does advocate that Capitalism in the most logical and effective means of social organisation and advancement, Smith insists on a moral and ethical underpinning to all Capitalist ventures, something that Gargamel lacks.
The Smurfs as Capitalists
In a sense, the Smurfs themselves are more representative of Smithian Capitalism than Gargamel. The Smurfs are all individualised, a most un-Communist feature. Each Smurf has his or her identifying objects – vanity and his mirror, handy and his overalls and pencil. They all have distinguishing names, and they each have their individualised roles in the community in accordance to their individual traits. Brainy handles the academic work, Handy takes care of construction, Barber Smurf, Cobbler Smurf, Chef Smurf, Tracker Smurf, Poet Smurf… their social roles are obvious. The Smurfs are a perfect example of Smith’s Division of Labour theory as each Smurf with his unique labour role enables the effective functioning and advancement of the society. Further exemplifying their Smithian traits, the Smurfs pursue their capital gain with a strong moral centre and strict ethical code.
The theory of the Smurfs as Capitalists can be furthered by the observation that all of the Smurfs wear Phrygian caps, symbols of liberty and freedom, perhaps a free economy. Therefore, if we follow this argument the Smurfs are just as much capitalists as Gargamel himself. So where does this leave the argument that Gargamel, the capitalist, is out to destroy socialism? Perhaps we can now see him as being bent on destroying the capital competition as per any free market economy.
The Smurfs as Marxist Caricatures
A popular argument in Smurf Marxist theory is that Papa Smurf bears a striking resemblance to Karl Marx. Schmidt makes this point, and continues to draw a parallel between Brainy Smurf and Leon Trotsky. He states: “[Brainy] is the only one in the village who comes close to matching Papa’s intellect – he is a thinker. With his round spectacles, he could also be a caricature of Trotsky. He is often isolated, ridiculed or even ejected from the commune of the village for his ideas. And of course, Trotsky was banished from the USSR.” I agree with this. To a degree. Papa Smurf does resemble Karl Marx. Brainy Smurf does resemble Trotsky, but no more than he resembles Noam Chomsky, Jean-Paul Sartre or any other bespectacled thinker, and countless intellectuals have been ostracised from their communities for generating and expressing ideas against the popular opinion. Schmidt’s theory is on tenuous footing.
Papa Smurf also looks like Santa Claus. He also looks like Charles Darwin. Does this follow that the Smurfs are all Darwinists too? Given Smurfette’s Creationist origins, probably not.
The Smurfs as Christian Allegory
In Smurfette we stumble upon another applicable theory. Christianity. Smurfette was created by Gargamel to infiltrate the Smurf Village. Papa Smurf then magically turned her into a real Smurf, much like God creates Eve from Adam’s rib. It follows then that Papa Smurf is a representation of the Christian God, even to the point of resembling a popular image of God. The Smurf village then represents heaven; Gargamel, the Devil and Azrael is named for the Islamic Angel of Death which has numerous connections to Christian traditions.
The Smurfs as Nazi Allegory
If one does not agree with the idea that The Smurfs represents a Christian ideal, then might the Smurfs be Nazis? They are, after all, identical citizens living to the exclusion of all other races. Does Brainy Smurf not represent Heinrich Himmler? Did Papa Smurf not turn Smurfette’s hair from black to blonde, creating the ideal Aryan Smurf? We see where this is going.
The Problems of Cultural Theory and False Allegory
The weaknesses of an absolutist cultural theory like Marxism blanketed across a text like The Smurfs has been demonstrated. While Schmidt’s essay does begin by justifying itself as a discursive analysis and a collection of observations, its downfall is the turnaround to an analysis of themes in such absolute terms. Schmidt states the main concern of his essay is to argue that The Smurfs is a Marxist fable. Fables are stories with an underlying lesson. Anything categorised as a fable needs to have been created with the intention of delivering a message, a lesson, a truth or theory. The Smurfs is not a fable. Pierre ‘Peyo’ Culliford, the creator of The Smurfs did not construct the show with any agenda, social, political or otherwise. In 2011, French theorist Antoine Buéno, published Le Petit Livre Bleu (Little Blue Planet) a book of controversial Smurf theory which shares some of Schmidt’s ideas. In reaction to Buéno’s work, Thierry Culliford, Peyo’s son stated that there is no agenda to The Smurfs, that it is first and foremost children’s entertainment and that if anything, his father was apolitical. Indeed, Buéno states: “A work can channel imagery that an author, in good faith, does not support, thus The Smurfs could be more a reflection of the spirit of the times than the mind of their creator.”
While this does not mean that theories cannot be read into the text, I am however not convinced that, as Schmidt writes: “The Smurfs should be praised for using metaphor and the device of the fairy tale to introduce children to political themes.” If The Smurfs was a direct allegory, or a true fable, then perhaps this might be true. The show did teach social, moral and ethical values to children however the direct attribution of specific social structures and political themes is purely inference and conjecture on the part of the theorist. In this sense, the style of cultural theory Schmidt applies in his essay fableises The Smurfs creating a false allegory.
Applying a blanket of theory like Schmidt and countless others have done to a source such as The Smurfs endangers the text. By all means texts should be analysed, parallels should be drawn, observations made, and theoretical frameworks applied. The danger is confusing these secondary analyses as being a core part of the text itself and creating that false allegory.
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