Over the school summer holidays you have to take your intellectual inspiration where you can find it. So like thousands of other parents I was dragged along to the local multiplex to see Smurfs 2. The film is pretty bad and really should trouble you unless you either have kids under the age of ten or are forced at gun point to choose between that pile of corporate Hollywood nonsense and the even worse Despicable Me 2 which I also had the misfortune to see. However as my daughter has talked smurfs pretty much 24/7 ever since I’ve given them a little more thought than they really deserve.
The Smurfs are a Belgian comic creation which has survived the translation to TV and later Hollywood film with its core ideological message fairly intact. The Smurfs are based on three key values. Firstly and most predictably everyone in Smurf society is basically good and attempts to do their best at all times. This underpins a society in which co-operative living with no money is possible. Smurfs do not try and get one over on their fellow Smurfs. Greed is certainly not Smurfy (with the obvious exception of Greedy Smurf). Although there is some mild romantic competition for the attention of Smurfette, who embodies the Smurfs difficult relationship with feminism – but that’s another post – nonetheless, Smurfs are essentially chaste and lacking in testosterone fuelled drive and so the Smurfette factor never upsets the unity of the community any more than the primitive communinism that rules Smurf village.
Secondly, Smurf society is one in which harmony is predicated on the existence of a natural order presided over by a benevolent dictator (Papa Smurf). There is a place for everysmurf and everysmurf is in their place. The Smurfs, is essentially a reactionary rural idyll in which power is unchanging and there is no process of contestation or change.
Finally, Smurf socieyt is one in which there is both a very sharply observed seperation of occupational and social roles and a faultless process of identification of individuals competence and aptitudes for particular roles. Brainy Smurf and Clumsy Smurf are never going to develop themselves beyond their definitional characteristic any more than Tailor Smurf or Miner Smurf are going to take up a new occupation.
In the latest film, Hollywood plays its normal postmodern games with the values of the Smurf franchise. The primitive communism and idealised humanism is ridiculed of course, but so too is the idea of fixed personalities and clear cut vocational destiny. The Smurfs is appealing because it sets out a world that is very different from the dynamic, complex world in which we live. People aren’t always at their best, power can’t be trusted, our personalities aren’t fixed, and we can’t expect to perform the same social role throughout our lives. The Smurfs might be what we wish society was like, but it is very clearly not a blueprint for social reform.
However, there is too much that seems a bit Smurfy about the career guidance world to me. The idea of stable personality traits, discoverable at a young age and matchable to a social and economic role still get an airing in the popular and policy discourse. I’ve heard lots of people talking about young people being sent to do the “wrong” course or get the “wrong” job, as if there is an absolutely right one out there for them. Of course this isn’t possible, unlike the Smurfs we are adaptable and changable and more importantly we can learn from our mistakes. Further more, and perhaps more seriously career guidance rarely helps its clients to understand or build a critique of the structures of power that exist within work and society. We let people assume that like the Smurf village the political economy is stable, when it is ever changing and highly contestable by its participants, we also let people assume that they will find Papa Smurf when they walk into the world of work. This is unlikely to say the least.
The Smurfs has its value. The call for us all to be a bit nicer is not a fundamentally bad one. But when we notice that some of our rhetoric and practice would work better in the Smurf village than in Surrey or Solihull then it is time to take a long hard Smurf at ourselves!
Do you Smurf what I’m getting at?