You remember the Smurfs: Blue skin, white caps and three apples high. Wanton berry junkies. A 1980s pop phenomenon. The adorable masters of the Saturday morning cartooniverse are back, the computer-generated titular attraction in a new movie opening nationwide Friday. As Papa Smurf and friends re-enter the cultural atmosphere, there’s no dodging the question: Are the Smurfs now, or they have ever been … communist?
A red — and blue — menace?
A crypto-Marxist cel escaping from history’s dustbin of discarded lies to reinspire a glorious people’s revolution, one seemingly innocuous cinematic adventure for children of all ages at a time?
“They have a dictatorlike leader, and they all have defined roles,” said Technorati.com editor Curtis Silver, who wrote about the psychology of the Smurfs for Wired magazine’s website. “When it comes to their day-to-day life, they’re like a Communistic group.”
Created in 1958 by Belgian illustrator Pierre Culliford, the Smurfs have since achieved iconic status, conquering the globe with books, figurines, theme parks, video games and best-selling albums (1978’s “The Smurf Song” reached No. 1 in 16 countries). This time around, Smurfette has already inspired a copycat red carpet look from singer Katy Perry, who voices Smurfette in the film.
For millions of fans, “Les Schtroumpfs” are a cute, lovable diversion, stars of an Emmy-winning cartoon that ran for nine seasons and peaked with a 42 percent audience share.
Only don’t tell that to your search engine.
Google the phrase “Smurfs communist,” and you’ll find dozens of essays, blog posts and message-board discussions devoted to a more sinister proposition: The little blue men as surreptitious socialists, mini-Manchurian candidates, propagating subversive ideology beneath a veneer of harmless entertainment.
Three years ago, California resident Evan Topham posted a YouTube video titled “The Communist Smurfs?” The clip since has attracted more than 200,000 views, about 58,000 more than Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential-bid announcement.
Are Mr. Topham and company — gulp — on to something?
In a textbook communist society, all citizens are equal. They labor for the common good. Money is unnecessary. Individual liberty takes a back seat to the needs of the collective. There is no God but the state.
Now, consider life in the Smurfs’ village: Residents live in identical mushroom houses. Everyone dresses alike. They sing the same group song, over and over. They have no apparent deity.
More to the point, the Smurfs have no economy. Farmer Smurf doesn’t peddle his crops to Wholesaler Smurf, who then marks them up for lucrative resale to Grocer and Baker Smurf. Nuh-uh. Farmer Smurf just farms, the better for the other Smurfs to eat at a communal table.
Similarly, Painter Smurf only paints. Handy Smurf builds stuff. Within the village, societal roles are clear-cut. No deviation is allowed — in fact, a memorable episode of the cartoon saw the Smurfs switch jobs with bumbling, humbling results.
Pop quiz: Who uttered the famous maxim, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs?”
A) Karl Marx
B) Papa Smurf
C) Both A and B
The correct answer is “C” — which is one of the reasons Australian essayist and teacher J. Marc Schmidt once referred to the Smurf village as a “Marxist utopia.”
“The workers own all the capital equally, and there is no upper class of owners/capitalists to oppress them,” wrote Mr. Schmidt, author of the book “Secrets of Pop Culture,” in an email. “Unlike real-life Marxist countries, the Smurfs managed this feat without resorting to totalitarianism or repressing personal freedom, so it is a utopia.”
More evidence: The Smurfs replace everyday nouns and verbs with the word “Smurf,” creating a dumbed-down, thought-controlling Newspeak lexicon to rival that of the totalitarian state in George Orwell’s “1984.” Papa Smurf wears red — the only Smurf to do so — a possible sign of party devotion and doctrinal purity. He also sports a thick white beard, much like another famous father figure: German philosopher Karl Marx, the granddaddy of communism.
For his part, the bespectacled, nitpicking Brainy Smurf bears a passing resemblance to Stalin’s more intellectual rival, Leon Trotsky, and often is ridiculed in the cartoon. The subliminal message? Knowledge is dangerous, because it makes you a potential dissident.
Then there’s the Smurfs’ nemesis, the genocidal human wizard Gargamel. Like any good capitalist, he isn’t interested in the destruction of the Smurfs per se; instead, he’s interested in capturing the Smurfs so he can turn them into gold.
“[Gargamel] desired to exploit the ‘workers’ (i.e., the Smurfs) and get rich for his own selfish reasons, without any regard for their well-being,” Mr. Schmidt wrote.
Greed is good; profit, his only motive. In later seasons of the cartoon, the evil wizard wants to eat the Smurfs, a potential metaphor for remorseless industrial capitalism devouring the unwitting proletariat.
Oh, and who is Gargamel’s sidekick? Azriel, a voracious tabby with a similar taste for the delectable little blue workin’ class heroes.
In other words: a literal fat cat.
All of the above was more than enough fodder for Parisian academic Antoine Bueno, who in June published a treatise on the topic, the aptly named “Little Blue Book.” In its 250 pages, the 33-year-old university lecturer argued that Smurf society represents a “totalitarian utopia drenched in Stalinism”; in subsequent interviews, he claimed the Smurfs also were racist, and that Gargamel was an anti-Semitic caricature.
Popular reaction was swift. And fierce. The same Smurf fans who approved of a 2005 UNICEF television ad that depicted the Smurf village being bombed by fighter jets — the better to raise money for ex-child soldiers in Africa — called Mr. Bueno’s book a disgrace. Thierry Culliford, son of the deceased Smurfs creator, called the author’s take “grotesque.”
In his YouTube video, Mr. Topham does Mr. Bueno one better, noting widespread Internet belief that “Smurf” is an acronym for “Socialist Men Under Red Father.”
“How about ‘smoking monkeys under revolting feathers?’” said Mr. Silver of Technorati.com. “You can pull anything out of it. That’s a stretch.”
Added Mr. Schmidt: “Even if it were a genuine acronym dreamt up by some pop-culture infiltration department of the KGB, what would’ve been the point? People would have to know what the letters stood for [for] it to mean anything. How would they have found out?”
While the Smurfs are a popular target, they’re hardly the only well-liked fictional characters to draw deconstructive fire. The Vatican once claimed Homer Simpson was an unwitting Roman Catholic. (Show producers said otherwise.) On the Internet, Dora the Explorer has been portrayed as an illegal immigrant.
Two years ago, a Canadian professor was ridiculed for writing that Thomas the Tank Engine propagated a sexist, ultraconservative ideology. As opposed to being, well, a smiling choo-choo train.
“With any cartoon, you can make allegories, because they’re based in some way on real life,” Mr. Silver said. “But it can go too far.”
It’s tempting to conclude that the Smurfs are somehow more than they seem — that, for example, the ditzy, discord-sowing Smurfette, created by Gargamel from a formula including “a peck of bird brain” and “the vanity of a peacock” reeks of misogyny.
But, sometimes, Mr. Schmidt cautions, a Smurf is just a Smurf.
“It’s not strange for adults to use children’s media to advance all sorts of grown-up ideas,” he said. “But while the conspiracy theory idea of the Soviets trying to win over young Western hearts and minds is juicy, even plausible, it’s all just a coincidence. I don’t think Culliford was conscious of any of it.”
Maybe so. Or maybe the cartoonist was simply making too much money to notice. According to Time magazine, 6.5 billion jellied Smurf sweets have been sold in the past two decades, while roughly 3,000 products and services, including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, have used the Smurf brand image.
Perhaps the Smurfs aren’t communists. Perhaps they’re sneaky capitalists.
Hmmm. On second thought, how does “Savvy Marketers’ Unbelievably Rich Future” sound?