Way back in the 17th century, certain members of my family left their home in France, hopped aboard a ship, and arrived at what would become Canada. They settled in Quebec and stayed there for a number of years.
As the years went on, different branches of the family spread out in different directions, including to parts of English Canada. In order to fit in better, last names were anglicized, a new language was learned and bits and pieces of their traditional French culture fell away. By the time I was born in a small town in Ontario in the 1980s, neither my mother, nor her parents could speak more than a few words of french.
I spent the odd summer vacation with relatives in Quebec, went to France in high school, and when someone asked me what my culture was, I always answered “French” or “French-Canadian.” But when it came right down to it, I couldn’t do much more than flounder when thrown into a conversation with a fluent french speaker. I also wouldn’t be able to tell you much more about my “culture” than what I learned in my History classes.
But then something a little unexpected happened. A new job opportunity arose just over six months ago and before I knew it I found myself moving to Quebec. The province that my family had left so many years before. So I’m seizing this learning opportunity.
Which is where comics, or bande dessinée, come into it.
Bande dessinée (B-D) are a big deal. After American and Japanese comics, they’re the third most popular comics in the world. The majority come from France and Belgium, but Quebec produces its fair share as well.
And they’re a fantastic way for me to simultaneously learn about French culture and improve my language skills. An experience I intended to document here on Women Write About Comics.
To kick off my adventure in B-D, I decided to read something classic, rather than one of the many modern french comics around today. I toyed with the idea of TinTin or Asterix but then I was reminded that one of my favourite childhood cartoons was actually based on a bande dessinée—Les Schtroumpfs (The Smurfs). These lovable blue creatures, with their tiny tails and Phrygian caps, were created by a Belgian comic artist named Peyo. They first appeared in a different comic series in 1958 and then in 1959 they were given their own series in Spirou.
Being a wildly popular classic and easy to access, Les Schtroumpfs seemed like a good choice to ease myself into reading in a language I’m still getting used to. As a children’s comic, it was bound to be a little easier to read and though it originally aired a little before I was born, I grew up loving the Smurfs TV show, so I was already familiar with the setting and many of the characters. It was also pointed out to me that since each Smurf was named after their dominant characteristic it would be a good way to learn adjectives in French.
Peyo wrote 30 issues of the Smurf comics, so after riffling through my options I settled on Les Schtroumpfs noirs (The Purple Smurfs), because it was the first one, La Schtroumpfette (The Smurfette), because she was always my favourite character, and Schtroumpf vert et vert schtroumpf (Smurf versus Smurf), because it was mentioned specifically in the Wikipedia article.
For someone trying to improve their French, The Smurfs are not a bad place to start. It did increase my vocabulary of adjectives, and the characters themselves are often quite repetitive. In Les Schtroumpfs noir, I stopped to look up “Il m’a mordu” (mordu here meaning bite, although it can also mean addict/junkie). Since this issue was about a fly going around biting the Smurfs this phrase was repeated frequently. Mordu is now firmly planted in my vocabulary.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was the presence of another language in the text—Schtroumpf. The smurfs use the word schtroumpf in a variety of ways. It can be a noun (I am eating a schtroumpf), a verb (He schtroumpfed all day yesterday) and sometimes even an adjective. You can usually figure out what they’re saying based on the context but it was occasionally challenge, especially when the smurfs themselves can’t even agree on what various intonations mean (which was the plot of Schtroumpf vert et vert schtroumpf.)
Bizarre language aside, I initially had a lot of fun reading Les Schtroumpfs. The stories are written for children, so they’re usually quite light and humorous, but that isn’t to say there isn’t some deeper analysis to be made. In the first few pages of we’re introduced to what I interpreted to be a bit of a socialist utopia. Their economy is a cooperative. Everyone chips in and helps with the work in whatever way they are able, everyone owns the land together and in exchange they are provided with shelter, food, and a community. In Socio Political Themes of the Smurfs, J Marc Schmidt even argues that Gargamel is a symbol of capitalism as he “is what happens when the individual makes himself more important than the society he lives in.”
However, I also found a number of different arguments for the true meaning of the text. This included a completly opposite analysis of the Smurfs as metaphor of totalitarianism, with strong Nazi influences, such as Gargamel playing the part of the evil Jew and Smurfette the Aryan princess. Peyo never claimed that his stories were anything more than children’s tales, but considering the time they were produced, both options are possible. They were created in the aftermath of the Second World War, and continued on through a time when French socialism grew to be quite popular.
But while whether socialism or totalitarianism (or both) influenced the Smurfs is up for debate, what was more troubling to me was the problem of Smurfette. Smurfette is one of only three female smurfs to ever appear in the comic or the TV show. I mentioned earlier that she was my favourite character but I never knew her origin story until I read La Schtroumpfette. When I watched the show, she was simply there.
Smurfette is not like the other smurfs, and not just because she’s a girl. Smurfette was actually created by Gargamel. He made her out of clay in order to try and disrupt the peaceful Smurf society. This issue started out alright. I got to learn fun terms like fossettes (dimples) and un toilette ravissante (a lovely outfit) which you don’t come across as often. But then the flaw in Gargamel’s plan was revealed and suddenly the issue didn’t feel so charming anymore.
Smurfette can’t lure the unsuspecting Smurfs into chaos because with her average smurf features and her black hair she is too ugly. She does disrupt the peace however because she is annoying. She asks too many questions and she always wants to have parties and picnics. The Smurfs are having trouble getting their work done, so they concoct a plan, which involves taking in the seams of her dress, switching out a mirror for one that makes her look fatter, and loudly gossiping about her cellulite.
I had to read it twice I was so shocked. These were smurfs. Lovable, children’s cartoon characters. They lived out in the woods and the only contact they seemed to have with humans was Gargamel (or Neil Patrick Harris that one time). And they had never encountered a woman before. Where did they even learn the word for cellulite?
But it didn’t stop there. Papa Smurf takes pity on the distraught Smurfette and brings her into his laboratory and performs an “opération de chirurgie esthétischtroumpf” which I can at best translate to “plastic smurfery.”
Now, blonde and beautiful, all the Smurfs fall in love with her and Gargamel’s plan finally comes to fruition. The Smurfs neglect their daily responsibilities as they compete for her attention, and eventually the worst happens—their village floods. In order to restore peace, Smurfette leaves the village and everything goes back to normal (as opposed to the TV show where she is a regular character).
As a children’s bande dessinée, the reading level of The Smurfs is appropriate to cut your teeth on and the nostalgia factor makes most stories quite enjoyable. However, there are a number of elements that just haven’t aged well and detract from the overall enjoyment of the series, particularly that of Smurfette. Peyo may not have been intending to make a political statement in terms of government system, but in what was only the fourth volume of his mega-popular series he didn’t waste anytime making a political statement about women’s bodies and their role in society.