Christmas is typically a time of joy, family, and the spirit of giving. In the name of social justice, it is important to quash all those good feelings and instead find something at which to take offense.
Attention typically turns to the popular suggestive duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” whether the lyrics are romantic or indicative of assault, but this song is far from the only piece of classic Christmas media that creates a moral panic.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is widely considered to be one of the greatest Christmas films of all time, with a beautiful and timeless message about the importance of valuing life and community. Its perfect cast, excellent writing, and heartwarming message, however, do not save it from committing the cardinal sin of being made in the 1940s and representing associated cultural values.
While the courtship of George Bailey and his later-wife Mary leads to some of the sweetest moments ever put to film, he engages in creepy behavior toward her. After the pair fall into a pool during a dance, George and Mary are forced to change into bathrobes. As he walks her home, her robe catches on a branch and falls off, leaving her naked. She runs behind a bush and asks George to hand her the only means she has to cover herself, but he pauses, considering using the opportunity to see her undressed (jokingly, but that doesn’t matter).
The film also contains the sexist supposition that the worst thing that could happen to a woman is that she remain unmarried. When George sees what his hometown would have been like had he never been born, he is horrified to see that his wife is an unmarried librarian — horror of the same magnitude as realizing his brother died young, his old boss and mentor has gone to prison, his friend Violet became a prostitute, and the corrupt businessman took over the town. Of course, the horror has other causes, such as seeing Mary’s loneliness and unhappiness, having the woman he loves not recognize him, and knowing his children no longer exist. In the search for offense, however, such nuance cannot be engaged.
If classic musicals are more your style, “White Christmas” has a single song that undoes all the heart of its two-hour runtime. Within the story of two Army friends-turned-performers who work together to surprise their struggling general over Christmas is a song waxing nostalgic for minstrel shows, a wildly racist type of performance that often included blackface and offensive stereotypes. While the song itself is just an excuse to sing pun-filled lyrics and engage in vaudeville-type humor, it’s still a song pining for a racist type of show, even if the reference will fly over the heads of many modern viewers.
Do you enjoy the 24-hour marathons of “A Christmas Story”? The semi-autobiographical story about a young boy’s memories of Christmas in the 1930s, as he attempts to convince his parents to buy him a Red Ryder BB gun, is a lovely film about family and growing up. It also glorifies gun use through protagonist Ralphie’s various fantasies with the dangerous weapon.
Further, in a Chinese restaurant scene, strong, caricatured accents of the staff singing Christmas songs is the subject of a joke. The only thing done right in the abomination that was “A Christmas Story Live” was playing on the expectation for the same joke, only to subvert it with lovely renditions of classic carols, asking the Old Man, and by extension the audience, “What were you expecting?”
“Elf” is a hilarious film featuring one of Will Ferrell’s all-time best performances. He plays a human, raised in the North Pole by elves, who goes to New York to find his biological father and interacts with the human world for the first time. As he is unfamiliar with human customs, he gets into trouble due to naïveté. One such situation occurs when he walks in on his love interest in the shower because he allegedly doesn’t know she’s naked. To make matters worse, in the shower, she’s singing the aforementioned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” underscoring the discomfort of the scene in a post-Me-Too era.
In all seriousness, no film will be perfect, especially ones made decades ago. It is good to note where cultural values have progressed, without writing off excellent films with important messages just because small parts of them reflect outdated and offensive values. We should learn from past mistakes, not erase them. Each of these movies contains a timeless message about family, community, and love that we can all learn from all year, but especially around Christmas.
Paulina Enck is an intern at the Federalist and current student at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. Follow her on Twitter at @itspaulinaenck