Screenshot: Bah humbug! Or, why holiday movies aren't really a gift to women

Oh, it's a dark time of the year for television-watchers -- cable series that debuted in the summer or fall are winding down, network series are taking a post-sweeps nap and, most insufferable of all, 'tis the season for holiday movies.

A few years ago, my husband and I decided it'd be amusing to riff on the twelve days of Christmas with twelve different holiday-themed movies culled from the Lifetime and Hallmark channels. These movies are generally structured along a really simple plot arc: Through a series of circumstances beyond their control, self-centered people have a Magical Holiday Experience that shows them the true (albeit focus-group-derived secular) meaning of Christmas, the sleigh bells ring out, the credits roll.

Two movies in, I thought I noticed some invidious little jabs at a certain stereotype of woman. Six movies in, definite themes were beginning to emerge. By movie number nine, I had to admit defeat. Made-for-TV Christmas movies drained me of all Christmas spirit.

Why? Because in these movies, women with careers are morally blinkered and need a lesson about what really matters in life (Hint: All accomplishments are invalid unless they're framed within the context of serving as daughter, wife or mother. Individual achievement is for monsters!). These women are punished with ghostly visitations, or weddings gone awry, or caricatured depictions as shallow hussies. (Yeah, I said hussies. These are the kind of movies that turn the word into an epithet.)

In these Christmas movies, women who enjoy sex end up killed in freak accidents and put on divine probation until they can demonstrate sufficient maternal selflessness. In these Christmas movies, women are not allowed to have reasoned stands against the orgiastic material excesses or emotional blackmail that comes along with the season -- any character who rolls their eyes at someone's wheedling "You can't do this! It's Christmas!" guilt trip is not a woman practicing healthy emotional boundaries, but a heartless shrew who doesn't care enough about putting aside her preferences and making other people happy.

In these Christmas movies, women who gripe about the hassles of holiday shopping, decorating, cooking and child-corraling are the ones who have their priorities out of whack. There's a bizarre ethos that the best holiday is the one where a woman gives everyone the gift of walking all over her. Then -- and only then -- has she earned the right to have a merry Christmas. At long last, she loves Big Santa.

There are aspects of Christmas that are already pretty bizarre and obviously engineered to inspire nostalgia for something that never existed. What is both fascinating and infuriating is that this commercialized emotional manipulation thrives on cable networks who are allegedly serving the audience they're bludgeoning with messages about reverting to the type of Christmas Daughter/Wife/Mom nobody ever was in the first place.

by Lisa Schmeiser
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Interesting. I'll have to

Interesting. I'll have to keep an eye out for this theme.

My family has the tradition of watching "It's a Wonderful Life." Which has Mary turning into an old spinster librarian when George isn't there to marry her. Ugh.

Mary Bailey

Aw, I love me some It's A Wonderful Life! And I never saw that as being particularly sexist. Just that George was the only man she could really be happy with. If he didn't exist, she was just happier alone. I think it would be more sexist if she had just married someone because she thought she had to or something.

My personal holiday movie choice is A Charlie Brown Christmas, however.

I'm studying to be a

I'm studying to be a librarian, and whenever that scene in "It's a Wonderful Life" comes on, my roommate shouts, "If he never existed, she'd have your life!"

While the scene in and of itself doesn't seem particularly offensive, both George and the angel look more than a bit shocked (putting it mildly) at the thought of a single, educated, working woman...

a single, educated, working

<blockquote>a single, educated, working woman...</blockquote>

Oh a fate worse than death, to be unmarried and supporting yourself in your 30s, the poor poor spinster!

And as if somebody who looks like Donna Reed wouldn't be getting dates left and right.

out w/ the old

You know, I was right there with you when the other night my boyfriend wanted to watch his fav christmas movie 'a christmas story'. I kept thinking things like; why don't you let them get their own food so you can have a hot meal?? and for goodness sakes tell him you don't like that lamp already! I understand this is a period piece and certain things just wouldn't have worked artistically, for the stories sake, but yeah, couldn't she have at least left the house on her own at least once or twice?

lifetime and hallmark

It seems to me this is presented on these channels at all times not just in holiday movies. Just a point though you only get a holiday after working your butt off, woman or man.

Hmm. I actually think the

Hmm. I actually think the typical holiday movies push family values for men and women. I mean, I don't watch Lifetime frequently, but the few holiday movies I've seen do emphasize the importance of a significant other and a child for all.

Even the holiday classic, A Christmas Carol shows the audience Ebenezer's former love interest and the idea that because he put ambition before love, he was miserable for the rest of his life. I'm actually pretty reluctant to label holiday movies as inherently sexist. You have to always remember the "Scrooge Factor."

So I'm a big fan of

So I'm a big fan of Christmas movies. Like the claymation movie "Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer". I've seen it every year since birth. This year though, I noticed for the first time some themes that made me really unhappy, and almost unable to enjoy it entirely. For instance, the girl-reindeer don't play reindeer games, don't ever pull Santa's sleigh, and don't aspire to. It's not that there is an example of a girl-reindeer who tried and was rejected, they just don't have that ambition. They just look pretty and praise the boy-reindeer when they perform well. Also, they don't ever do "man's work" (quoting Donner?) like going out to search for their runaway children (however, the two lady-deer in question disobey Donner's order and go out anyway, perhaps putting all three in a situation where they are almost eaten by the Abominable snowmonster.) It sounds silly to have words like "Abominable snowmonster" in a comment critiquing misogyny in claymation holiday specials, but there it is. I was saddened to see that only male characters ever had individual aspirations and ambitions. Of course, they themselves are treated as outsiders for having them, but at least at the end, everyone acknowledges their value.

I wondered why I hadn't ever noticed these obvious details before. As a little girl, didn't I search for a reflection of myself in this, one of my favorite cartoons? And I realized, of course, little girls don't have a mental block that bars them from relating to male characters the way little boys are taught to--it's the same way young girls are willing to read books with male protagonists, whereas books with female protagonists are frequently rejected, as there is "no market" because boys won't read them--because male is neutral, default human. I want girls to have their own stories! I don't want girls to be divided by their aspirations (I want to be pretty like the girl-reindeer and compete and have adventures like the boy-reindeer!) Also, is it weird that the girl-reindeer has the voice of a sexually mature woman (20s+ definitely) while Rudolph has the voice of a child the whole time? How does one deconstruct that?

Love this article! The idea

Love this article! The idea that women who have careers have their priorities out of whack is so pervasive in our culture. I've seen it played out in so many movies....way too many.

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