How Christmas Movies Swap Gender Narratives
Christmas movies present a rare film trope, one that is hereto forth christened, dad shaming. What is dad shaming? It’s the guilt trip singularly featured in Christmas, the transferring of the mom treatment to dads. Moms constantly receive a guilt-trip from American media that perpetuates an incessant shaming of working women for failing at their responsibilities to their kids (or to not have them at all if they don’t). Dads usually get through movies unscathed; they work long hours and neglect their families and then are congratulated for it because they are fulfilling their societal role. Yes, for every rule there are exceptions — another film trope portrayed in Hollywood is the absent father whose son expresses feeling let down by the absence of a manly exemplary figure. This usually leads to some kind of father-son bonding testosterone driven retreat as the father returns to his boyish roots and rediscovers the importance of camping and objectifying women with his son.
Hollywood constantly portrays women as characters conflicted by the fact that career success means compromising their attention to their families and failing as mothers. Mom-shaming is everywhere, and it’s also often quite subliminal. It’s common, almost inescapable for a woman to fall into one of these three categories in film: a) the doting mother b) the hard-working woman who consequently forfeited any chances of creating a family and/or love life to foster a career — she’s usually a real bitch, too. Or c) the mother attempting, flailing, and failing, to balance her roles as mother and career-woman, constantly feeling guilty for hiring a nanny as a result of her oh-so selfish desires to pursue a career.
Men, however, often do not have the type c role, since a career man — a term never used, by the way, is not expected to fulfill an equal responsibility to his family. (They do however have the luxury of starring in innumerable ‘man-child’ movies that allows men struggling with adulthood to be a comedy whereas a woman struggling to live as an independent adult is too often a pitiful dramatic film.) That is, until Christmas season.
The first scene of a typical Christmas movie often takes place on or around Christmas Eve (what better time to precede the Christmas miracle that transforms a hardworking dad into an ol’ softie than on Christmas Eve?), when a dad is working late in the office. The movie starts in the office, where a dad belongs, because he’s a dad. But does he belong in the office around Christmas? NO! Christmas is the time for family gathering around a manger in a stable. Was it the three wise women who made their way to that little town in Bethlehem (well, first of all, nowhere in the Bible are the words ‘wise’ and ‘women’ ever found on the same page)? NO! It was the three men who were wise enough to know that they had to leave their work and head to the stable in order to properly celebrate the birth of Christ.
Let’s look at a couple Christmas classic examples.
Jingle All the Way: the movie starts and we see an office Christmas party, then we see Arnold Schwarzenegger, the manliest of men, working late. Arnold is working so hard that he doesn’t even realize when his own wife is on the phone with him and he ends the conversation with his customary: “and remember, you’re my number one customer!” Normally, this type of work ethic from a man would be lauded — heck, he could probably catch a drink with the guys if this were a comedy, psychological thriller, action movie or maybe even a rom-com. But since this is a Christmas movie, we are officially set up for major conflict in the film: how will this man prove himself as a dad? Next, Arnold is late to his son’s Karate match, all because of his workaholism. Finally, a movie poses the question: can a man have it all… On Christmas? Arnold is forced to repent for his sins by tracking down a Turbo Man doll which he was supposed to pick up for his son weeks ago. Spoiler Alert! The movie ends with Arnold Schwarzenegger not only buying the doll, but becoming Turbo Man himself! Talk about constructed masculinity: this man proves his ‘dadliness’ by becoming a real live muscly superhero, all for his karate-chopping son. The best gift is not actually the Turbo Man doll but the love from Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Santa Clause: This one also starts with a father at his office’s Christmas party — this time, he’s giving the toast as the boss of the company. This guy would be killing it as a man/dad/son in any other movie, but not in a Christmas movie. This time, he has to prove to his adorable son that Santa Clause is real! And guess what? The dad actually becomes Santa Clause in the end and therefore is the most amazing father to his previously neglected son.
Okay, so far we have had two films about hardworking men becoming fictional characters (both men) to prove to their sons that they are good fathers. The list of that particular plot in Christmas movies might end there, but there are still plenty of dad-shaming Christmas movies out there. Elf, of course, is a recent example — a grumpy, hard-working father discovers the joys of Christmas after meeting his formerly bastardized son who happened to have grown up in the North Pole among elves. The final scene of the film shows Mr. Elf Dad singing in public with his family, giving Santa’s sleigh enough belief-juice for him to fly out of Central Park above everyone’s head. Quite magical, really. But in what other movie genre would a film conclude with a dad singing with his family as a happy ending?
Hmm, dads singing with their families at the end of the movie… That sounds familiar, oh yeah! It’s a Wonderful Life. Let’s talk about that movie, as it is one of the best movies ever — not only Christmas movies. George Bailey hates his life. He gave up his dreams of traveling the world and ended up in shitty old Bedford Falls with a dreaded family and a desk job. He goes through a lot of stuff, has a bit of a Huckleberry Finn moment as he views the world in his perceived absence, and ends up pleading for his family. When he finds the petals in his pocket that his darling daughter Zuzu had given him, he sprints home with glee and kisses the family that he had never known he was supposed to feel grateful for in the first place. George Bailey is redeemed by his epiphany that family is important, and that is a true Christmas miracle.
The list goes on: A Christmas Story tells the tale of a detached father redeeming himself by buying his son a toy gun. National Lampoon Family Vacation… Well, we don’t need to go into that.
Of course, there are exceptions to the working-dad moralistic trope amongst Christmas movies. Miracle on 34th St., The Polar Express, Home Alone (let’s face it, Kevin’s dad doesn’t really care that Kevin is home alone and he doesn’t really get punished for his laissez-faire approach to fatherhood either), and more. But the portrayal of masculinity in almost all Christmas movies is something to watch for. The Grinch, for instance (which is somewhat of an iteration of A Christmas Carol) also deals with a masculine figure (“you’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch”) growing into a compassionate Christmas-lover after viewing a young girl’s childlike naivety. The Family Man is another prime example — the workaholic Wall street tycoon discovers what his life would have been like if he had chosen family over career, and he ends up seeing how much more fulfilling life as a father is than life as a lone-wolf multi-millionaire.
So what is it about Christmas movies that prompts such a softening of macho masculine figures? Is it simply because Charles Dickens created Ebenezer Scrooge in the 19th century and nobody has been able to come up with a different Christmas archetype since then? Or is it because the United States’s culture is built upon Puritanical values, and Christmas offers an opportunity for the family to come first, like every good Christian wants? For women in America, the family is almost always supposed to come first, but for American men, Christmastime is their big moment for familial bonding and compassionate feelings. Perhaps men are only allowed to show their softer sides when under the guise of Christmas supposedly affecting everyone’s behavior and allowing people to act lovingly towards one another. For men, this might be a bigger leap from their frequent machismo media portrayals, so making movies about a man’s character arc from ‘common working man’ into ‘loving and caring father’ offers more material for a movie. If only this did not have to happen by way of a Christmas Miracle, and men would be allowed to be devoted fathers more often.
Either way, whether it be working moms being shamed 364 days of the year or working dads being shamed on Christmas, parenting is likely an incredibly difficult task, and the film industry should probably just stop making everyone feel bad for likely doing their best as providers for their families.