What’s a Smurfette? That’s the question that frames the narrative of the Smurfs: The Lost Village movie. In the film’s backstory (rooted in the Smurf mythology from the comic books and the 80’s television show), Smurfette – the only girl Smurf we’ve ever known (and in Lost Village, she’s voiced by Demi Lovato) – was created by the wizard Gargamel out of blue clay to infiltrate Smurf Village and help Gargamel in his quest to find the Smurfs and steal their Smurf essence.
In other words, Smurfette isn’t really a Smurf – she wasn’t born, she was made (and not in the way Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir would approve). Even her name isn’t a real Smurf name, because, as Papa Smurf points out: “it doesn’t tell us anything about her, it doesn’t tell us who she is or what she does,” at least not like Brainy Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, or Hefty Smurf. So, what or who is she?
What’s significant is that beyond the surface of the obvious message for the target audience (which celebrates diversity and suggests that we can be anything we want to be) is an existential debate on the nature of identity. Where does our identity come from? Are we defined by labels and names?
As Gargamel sees it, Smurfette can never be a real Smurf. In his eyes, she will always be his creation – which, for Gargamel, means that her nature is evil, as he made her to serve him. As he tells her at one point, “You can’t escape your destiny.” But, for all the Smurfs in Smurf Village (who happen to all be male), Smurfette is one of them. They can’t define her – she has no clear identity other than being female – but they nevertheless accept her and consider her part of the group.
While we might agree with the Smurfs on this, it’s not as easy as it seems. This is because Papa Smurf (who has the ability to wield a little Smurf magic now and then) changed Smurfette’s nature when she was initially sent to their village by Gargamel. He changed her short, wiry dark blue hair to long, wavy blonde hair and he seemed to brighten her white dress and matching shoes and hat, resulting in a very stereotypical and patriarchal image of what a “good” female Smurf should look like. As he remarks about her “she glows.”
But her change wasn’t just physical, as her personality also changed from an aggressive nature to a caring nature. Although, she seemed to retain some of her assertiveness and willingness to break the rules, given that she takes the initiative to lie to Papa Smurf (or at least placate him with some feminine reverse psychology) so she can sneak out to trek through the woods to the Forbidden Forest – because she’d seen what appeared to be another Smurf from another village and she was too curious to just let it go.
Thus, she was created by Gargamel as a “bad girl” Smurf and then recreated by Papa Smurf as a “good girl” Smurf. And, because she was made out of clay and therefore was not a naturally existing Smurf, her identity was questioned. It’s a dilemma. But, from an existentialist perspective, the dilemma has a solution – because as Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Simone de Beauvoir might suggest, no Smurf is really definable until they choose to define themselves.
For example, Clumsy Smurf is indeed clumsy but that’s not really his identity, it’s just his name, his label. He happens to be very brave, following Smurfette to the Forbidden Forest and helping her in her quest to find the mystery Smurf – along with Hefty and Brainy Smurf. In fact, after the quartet of Smurfs finds a lost village (called Smurfy Grove) populated by only female Smurfs, Clumsy Smurf helps Smurf Storm (a warrior Smurf voiced by Michelle Rodriguez) and displays a keen ability to pilot a dragonfly (named Spitfire) and help Smurf Storm elude Gargamel’s giant predator bird named Monty.
Had it been a Tolkien story, Clumsy Smurf would’ve been renamed to something cool like Urúvion, which means fiery in Sindarin Elvish – because Clumsy rode a fire-breathing dragonfly. For Tolkien, names absolutely define a character (it’s why Aragorn has seven other names).
But the Smurfs aren’t Hobbits or Dwarves (or Dúnadan men of the west) and their names don’t change, regardless of how they act. Yet, for Smurfs, names are both a label and an identity. For most of us, they’re just a label. We don’t earn our names, we don’t change them, and they don’t really have anything to do with our nature. They’re just something assigned to us by our parents and the closest we come to earning a name is when we’re called something beyond the standard Joey and Jenny shortenings of Joseph and Jennifer, like Katniss becoming The Girl on Fire or The Mockingjay in The Hunger Games.
For existentialism, however, Clumsy Smurf isn’t clumsy unless he wants to be – and as his excursion with Smurf Storm reveals, he doesn’t have to be. As Jean-Paul Sartre states: “[man] is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing […] Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”
For Sartre, “existence precedes essence” because first we exist, then we define. It’s what Clumsy Smurf does and it’s what Hefty and Brainy do, too – in a more comical way, they adapt to the female Smurfs’ way of life, getting mud facials and massages while Clumsy is helping Smurf Storm. They forget about being hefty and brainy and, instead, focus on just being. In other words, Clumsy, Hefty, and Brainy don’t stay clumsy, hefty, and brainy. They experience other things and stray from their labels – though, to be fair, Brainy Smurf does explain that their labels simply indicate their dominant trait, suggesting that they have other characteristics.
Returning to Smurfette, existing and then defining is what she does, too. Although Clumsy and Smurf Storm did their best to thwart Gargamel, the wacky wizard eventually finds Smurfy Grove and abducts every Smurf, but he leaves Smurfette behind because she’s not a real Smurf (which, for Gargamel means she doesn’t have any innate Smurf essence he can use). After a good (existential) cry, Smurfette embraces the fact that she’s not a real Smurf and she uses her different nature to defeat Gargamel – somehow, she’s able to engage Gargamel in a wizard battle that results in her dying and becoming an inanimate lump of clay (they even hold a funeral for her before Smurf magic brings her back).
What’s important is that she decides this fate willingly and in doing so she defines herself as Smurfette, choosing to be a Smurf by giving her life for the sake of all Smurfs. It doesn’t matter that she was created as a lump of clay, what matters is that she identifies as a Smurf. Smurfette, then, isn’t a label and it isn’t an artificially created nature, it’s a choice.
For Nietzsche, this choice is what he calls the “causality of the will.” As he states, “Whether we believe in the causality of the will […] suppose, finally, we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one basic form of the will – namely, the will to power.” If we do succeed, as Nietzsche explains, then we are the authors of our own lives with the ability to determine the reality of our existence.
Where Sartre sees existence as preceding essence (we exist, then we will our identity), Nietzsche sees will as the causality of existence (first we will, then we exist). In either case, our existence and identity are dependent on our will and on the choices we make – before and after our existence.
What’s different for Smurfette (as opposed to Clumsy, Brainy, and Hefty) is that she is able to exist in both a Sartrean and Nietzschean sense. Initially, her existence was Sartrean, having been created, her existence preceded her identity. But after she makes her choice and dies, she is reborn as Smurfette – and while it’s the collective Smurf magic that brings her back at the end of the film, it’s significant that she’s reborn as blonde Smurfette. After all, she’d regressed to her initial clay form when she defeated Gargamel. Why return as blonde Smurfette and not dark blue Smurfette? Because, as Shakespeare’s Romeo might say, “Smurfette wills it so.” This, then, produces Smurfette’s Nietzschean existence, as it’s her will to power (her choice to be blonde Smurfette) that causes her to be reborn that way.
Smurfette also exists as de Beauvoir would advise (though de Beauvoir might not agree with Smurfette choosing blonde hair), because Smurfette remakes herself from her own will, not as society (or Gargamel or Papa Smurf or any other Smurf) wants her to be but as she wants to be. For de Beauvoir, our true nature is to be free, not just to exist unbound but to exist with the freedom to define ourselves, make our own choices, and be whatever we want to be.
As de Beauvoir observes, “the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite. And in fact, any man who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and real will knows quite well that he has no need of any outside guarantee to be sure of his goals; their certitude comes from his own desire.”
Of course, de Beauvoir is making a case to justify women being able to freely choose their lives as men often do, arguing that the only authority women need recognize is their own. She’s right and her observations echo those of Sartre (who happened to be de Beauvoir’s pseudo-husband for 50 years) and Nietzsche, helping to justify Smurfette’s decision to define herself. Yet, while Smurfette may define herself as (blonde) Smurfette, we still don’t know what her name means. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. But, here’s what we do know: Smurfette is the only Smurfette.
Every female Smurf from the Smurfy Grove is given two names like the boys from Smurf Village. Where the boys are named adjective first, like Brainy Smurf or Hefty Smurf, the girls are named adjective second, like Smurf Storm or Smurf Lily. But Smurfette doesn’t have an adjective. She’s not binomial, she’s suffixed and thus unique – not just in her name, not just because she’s made of clay, and not just because she’s the only blond Smurf (and the only Smurf who wears a white dress and heels). She’s unique because she’s the only Smurf who willed herself into being. Or, as Papa Smurf says right before she comes back to life: “She never thought she was a real Smurf. But, she was the truest Smurf of all.”
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
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