On the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of Friendship between Belgium and Thailand and after introducing the Belgo-Palombian character Marsupilami in graphic narratives to denounce a case of black panther poaching in Thailand (see students’ comics HERE), students were invited to revisit another famous -and much scrutinized- Belgian comics character: Smurfette(or Schtroumpfette in the original version)!
Thai (and foreign) Chulalongkorn students from the two courses mentioned above were asked to create short graphic narratives (2 to 4 pages) on imposed topics related to the Critical Tradition which challenges “the control of language to perpetuate power imbalances by exploring the way communication establishes, reinforces and maintains power structures in society” (see Denis McQuail, McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, Sage Publishing, 2002). With a vast majority of Asian and female students in my courses, the Smurfette Principle and Whitewashing in Film topics seemed to be appropriate and meaningful choices. The latter topic addresses the under-representation of minorities in the media, and more specifically the Hollywoodian habit of casting white actors to play non-white characters while disregarding the -mostly comics- source material (see articles by Steve Rose and Keith Chow). Infamous recent examples include Tilda Swinton casted as a Himalayan mystic in Doctor Strange, Emma Stone casted as a Chinese-Hawaiian character in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese cyborg in the live-action feature Ghost in the Shell, or British actor Ed Skrein who decided to step down from his (half-Japanese) Ben Daimio’s role in the upcoming reboot of Hellboy. Criticism on cultural appropriation and whitewashing has also been raised towards Wes Anderson’s latest feature Isle of Dogs (see here).
“In its original sense, ‘whitewashing’ meant covering or cleaning something up. In today’s cultural landscape, it is a stain that won’t rub off. Now, ‘whitewashing’ describes the habit of casting white actors to play non-white characters, often to shoehorn in a star, sometimes out of racial insensitivity, invariably to the detriment of people (and especially actors) of colour.” Steve Rose in ‘“The idea that it’s good business is a myth’ – why Hollywood whitewashing has become toxic”, The Guardian (source), 2017.
In line with the Feminist Critical Tradition which criticizes communication content and practices that perpetuate patriarchal hierarchies and ideologies, The Smurfette Principle was coined and defined by poet and essayist Katha Pollitt in 1991 in the New York Times as a practice in fiction to include only one stereotypicalfemale character in an otherwise all-male cast (see quote below).
“The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.” Katha Pollitt in “Hers; The Smurfette Principle”, The New York Times (source), 1991.
If Katha Pollitt bases her criticism on the Smurfs animated TV series, the Smurfette character was first introduced in Peyo’s A Smurf Adventure: The Smurfette serialized in Spirou magazine (Dupuis, Belgium) in 1966 and written by Yvan Delporte [1928-2007] and Peyo [Pierre Culliford; 1928-1992]. The Smurfette was created from clay by evil wizard Gargamel in order to launch a feud in the all-male Smurf village. The recipe’s ingredients (see Fig. 2; “Sugar and spice, but nothing nice… A dram of crocodile tears… A peck of bird brain…”, etc.) used by the wizard present themselves as an appalling and misogynistic list of personalilty traits. Let’s point here that the recipe is accompanied by an asterisk leading to a footnote (see Fig.1 ). In the French edition (but I don’t know if the footnote was already in the first serialized publication), the footnote reads “This text only represents the views of the author of the grimoire ‘Magicae Formulae’, Beelzebub Publishing” (my translation). The 1976 English further relieves Delporte and Peyo of any responsibilities which are rejected on the “Male Chauvinist Pig Wizards” Incorporation…
Nevertheless, the Smurfette’s origin story raises more criticism. Smurfette first appears with unruly black hair, a large nose, basic dress and slippers (see Fig. 3). Feeling miserable because of her physical appearance and lack of attractiveness, she undergoes an “operation of plastic smurfery ” [sic] at the hands of Papa Smurf to become a blonde Smurfette -inspired by French actress Brigitte Bardot- with shortened nose, curled eyelashes, gown and high heels; she is now “one of a kind, full of feminine grace and frivolous. She can also be very much a woman, playing with the feelings of her sweethearts” (from Smurfette’s official bio quoted in Jason Richards’ The Problem With Smurfette). Turned into an “object of desire” and with stereotypical feminine personality traits, Smurfette -and the male Smurfs themselves by competing for her attention- will bring even more trouble in the village soon to be flooded. Let’s add, to be fair, that Delporte and Peyo do not depict the male Smurfs from their best angle either; they do not save the day (except for the more tempered Papa Smurf) and are made laughable -and “identical”- by their hazardous and idiotic behaviour.
The character of Smurfette evolved positively -albeit quite slowly- over the past decade; becoming the leader of the Smurf village in the 2010 adventure La Grande Schtroumpfette, or an airplane pilot on the outside paint job of some Brussels Airlines’ Airbus A320.
The imposed format was “knowledge (or educational) comics” in order to explore the ability of text/image (multimodal) narratives to condense and convey a large amount of information in a limited space of only a few pages. See quote below.
“Just like diagrams, info-graphics, and other forms of science visualizations, comics use words and pictures to convey information, however they also divide the information into panels [McCloud, 1994] which can facilitate the reading experience and highlight important information, such as parts and processes [Mayer and Gallini, 1990]. Furthermore, comics not only break down the information into more digestible units but can also reassemble them into meaningful compositions […]. As summarized by comic scholar and educator Nick Sousanis: “the spatial interplay of sequential and simultaneous, imbues comics with a dual nature — both tree-like, hierarchical and rhizomatic, interwoven in a single form” [Sousanis, 2015]. In other words, comics can be read linearly, panel by panel, but also lend themselves to non-linear explanations, encouraging the reader to constantly reassess earlier panels in the light of new information. Similarly, science often requires readers to make connections between multiple scales and domains of knowledge, not necessarily arranged in a hierarchical, linear order. In conclusion, while comics are often perceived as an easy and playful format, they may be exquisitely suited at presenting complex information in a rigorous yet accessible way.” Matteo Farinella, “The Potential of Comics in Science Communication”, in JCom Journal of Science Communication 17/1 (source), 2018.
Examples of “knowledge comics” provided to the students included the excellent series La Petite Bédéthèque des Savoirs (Le Lombard, Belgium) which presents itself as “pocket-sized hardcover educational books on subjects as varied as artificial intelligence, sharks, heavy metal, and the history of prostitution. Each volume in the series is written and drawn by a different writer and artist pair. Internationally-renowned experts in the fields work with comics luminaries for a unique alchemy every time” (source). Some volumes are available in English by IDW Publishing under the series title “The Little Book of Knowledge”. Other references were Nick Sousanis’ doctoral dissertation in comics form Unflattening, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing by Elizabeth Losh, Jonathan Alexander, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon.
Page from “The Little Book of Knowledge: Tattoos” by Jérôme Pierrat (author) and Alfred (artist). IDW Publishing/Le Lombard.
Page from “The Little Book of Knowledge: Heavy Metal” by Jacques de Pierpont (author) and Hervé Bourhis (artist). IDW Publishing/Le Lombard.
Page from (upcoming in English) “The Little Book of Knowledge: Sharks” by Bernard Séret (author) and Julien Solé (artist). IDW Publishing/Le Lombard.
Page from “La Petite Bédéthèque des Savoirs #18: Le conflit israélo-palestinien” by Vladimir Grigorieff (author) and Abdel de Bruxelles (artist), Le Lombard.
The Smurfette Principle and Whitewashing in Film Knowledge Comics by Chula students
The Smurfette origin (exploring elements from the Semiotics lessons: symbol, icon, connotation…).
A satirical take on the Smurfette Principle starring Pepper Potts and Tony Stark (aka Iron Man).