The Smurfs turn 50 this year and this week the first season of the U.S. television series was released on DVD.
Over the years, the little blue creatures have been criticized by feminists, embraced as Communists, and even used by UNICEF in a shocking ad campaign.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week marks the release of a DVD boxed set of the first season of the Smurf cartoon show 27 years ago. This year marks the creation of The Smurfs for a Belgian comic strip called Johan and Peewitt 50 years ago.
The society of blue beings was created by the cartoonist known as Peyo for a one-time appearance, but in this case the bit parts overshadowed the stars and earned their own comic, their own action figures, and, finally, their own long-running TV show in the U.S.
Legend has it that the show was born in 1980 when an NBC program exec was walking with his daughter in a mall and she cried out for a Smurf doll. Thus was born the first animated network series inspired by a toy. Yes, it was the first, says Heather Hendershot, a professor of media studies at Queens College, but it was by no means the worst. HEATHER HENDERSHOT: On He-Man or She-Ra or Thundercats, the toy executives would create, say, a new vehicle or a new weapon and then they would tell the cartoonist, incorporate this into a storyline.
And with Smurfs, the stories weren't centered around new products or new toys. They were centered around, oh, kind of interpersonal relationships, things that made parents happy, made the Emmy people happy. So it was this kind of warm, fuzzy, softer way of selling toys. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] NARRATOR: Long, long ago, deep in the forest, there was a hidden village where tiny creatures lived. They called themselves Smurfs. They were good. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Smurfs were each identified by a single trait – Hefty Smurf, Farmer Smurf, Brainy, Handy, Greedy, Grouchy and Clumsy Smurf, presided over by the 542-year-old Papa Smurf, all living harmoniously together in a village of mushroom cottages.
Among the unsolved mysteries – how many were there? Why were there no girl Smurfs? And, most mysterious of all, why were they so popular? THIERRY CULLIFORD: There's a lot of reason and there’s no reason. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thierry Culliford is the son of the cartoonist known as Peyo. THIERRY CULLIFORD: I think the popularity of the Smurfs is because they are cute, because they are blue – that’s original – because they are small. And when you are a kid, you love a story about world smaller than you.
Another thing, everybody knows a Greedy, a Brainy or a Jokey Smurf. Maybe it’s yourself. And then everybody can recognize himself or his community in the Smurf village and then in the Smurf adventure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, I think you probably hit on something there with the sort of recognition factor. You know, you have Hefty Smurf and Handy Smurf and Brainy Smurf. THIERRY CULLIFORD: Yes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you have Papa Smurf, who some people say bore a suspicious likeness to Karl Marx. THIERRY CULLIFORD: Yeah, yeah. And they say my father was part of the Communist Party in the '50s and The Smurfs is the apology of the Communist world. And, of course, that’s the reason why Papa Smurf has a big white beard like Karl Marx, and he has a red bonnet and the red pants. It was very funny because my father wasn't interested in politics at all. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did the blue Smurfs pose a red menace? The idea caught on among a few critics and students in the early '90s. And when you think about it, there was a certain pinkness to the Smurf political economy – a from each according to his own ability to each according to his need kind of thing.
More persistent, though, were the charges of sexism. There were no girls in Smurf Village until one is cooked up in a caldron by the evil Gargamel to seduce and destroy. Yeesh. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] GARGAMEL: [LAUGHS] This magical lump of blue clay will become the first female Smurf, a beautiful but evil Smurf to lead all the others straight to me! [BUBBLING SOUNDS] [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: After Smurfette nearly destroys the Smurf village, Papa Smurf takes her into his cottage, which doubles as a lab, and makes some alternations. Along with eradicating her dark side, he makes her a blonde and magically supplies a prettier dress and high-heeled shoes. In short, Smurfette becomes an upstanding member of Smurf Village when she becomes Barbie. THIERRY CULLIFORD: Yeah, exactly. It was a cliché – you know, the poor little girl with the black hair and nobody wants to look at her, and she felt pretty alone. And then Papa Smurf decide to transform her into a bimbo. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Heather Hendershot. HEATHER HENDERSHOT: In some myths, the creation of woman is deeply sort of sexist and in other, more maternally-centered cultures, is less sexist. And that clearly sounds like a sexist [LAUGHS] creation, that there is just nothing really positive you can get out of that, right? BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Smurfs may forever remain a pop culture mystery. Look online at the discussions of the upcoming Smurf movie and you'll find lots of potty-mouthed spewing about The Smurfs and numerous X-rated aspirations with regard to Smurfette. That’s usual for the Net but it surprised me just the same that a product so bland could spark reactions so intense.
It wouldn't have surprised the United Nations, or at least UNICEF. A few years ago it produced a 30-second commercial pitching peace. Specifically it was intended to jolt the Belgian public into supporting fundraising efforts for ex-child soldiers in Africa.
Now, usually when UNICEF is trying to raise money for children, it uses images of real children. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER – THE SMURFS THEME] But this time, it used Smurfs. Happy Smurfs, going about their happy business, until their village is carpet-bombed – [SOUND OF BOMBS FALLING] - leaving the Smurfs hysterical – [EXPLOSIONS AND SCREAMING] - bloodied – [EXPLOSIONS AND SCREAMING] - and dead. [COMMOTION/HUBBUB/CRYING] Thierry Culliford. THIERRY CULLIFORD: And everybody in the world saw this animated cartoon and everybody was shocked. And few days later, the people say, you were right. We have a big problem in our civilization right now that we were more shocked to see a Smurf wounded than a real child wounded. Maybe a Smurf is closer. I don't know why. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Queens College professor Heather Hendershot doubts that people are less moved by images of real dead children than dead Smurfs, but she can see why they would shock. HEATHER HENDERSHOT: I think it’s shocking to see any image that you grew up with, that’s mythical, that’s close to you, whether it’s Bugs Bunny or the Smurfs or My Little Pony or whatever, to see that image in some way degraded or changed or attacked. You know, Disney seems to control every image that’s created. How could Mickey Mouse suddenly be smoking a joint on YouTube [LAUGHS], you know? It seems impossible. When you see a corruption of this corporate-controlled image, it seems so strange. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Smurfs, created in mid-20th-century Belgium, have been remarkably resistant to change over the decades. But the new movie, or rumored trilogy, slated for release this year, will make use not only of high-tech computer-generated imagery, The Smurfs will reportedly appear in 3-D. Whether that will apply to their characters is an altogether different question. It could be harder to swallow the idea of a Smurf with a 3-D personality than a Smurf smoking a joint – or even a Smurf flattened by a bomb. [CLIP] [MUSIC – THE SMURFS THEME] MAN: Smurf along with me! Simple as can be. GROUP SINGING: Next time you’re feeling blue, just let a smile begin. Happy things will come to you – SMURFETTE: So Smurf yourself a grin!