The Christmas Movie Gender Gap

I have a confession to make: I have never watched A Christmas Story. Here’s another one: I don’t plan to.

I know plenty of women who love the film, but for me it’s always come across clearly as a story about guys, for guys. Maybe it’s that ridiculous, tasteless “leg lamp” that we’re apparently meant to find funny. Or maybe it’s the absence of girls from any substantial roles. Or maybe it’s because it features only two women of significance: the downtrodden killjoy mother and the shrewish killjoy teacher, both obstacles to protagonist Ralphie getting his heart’s desire, a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.

But a few days ago I thought to myself, “Surely a holiday tradition so beloved can’t be that sexist, can it?” So I did some Googling, and I discovered the movie may be even worse than I’d imagined where its representation of female characters is concerned. It seems that hidden under the narrative of Ralphie’s quest for a BB gun Christmas present is another, darker story, of a woman so disregarded that she “hasn’t had a hot meal in fifteen years,” a woman who does her level best with the hand life has dealt her yet gets no respect whatsoever. That’s the story the movie doesn’t expect its viewers to notice, let alone think or care about.

Well, it’s just a movie, and no one is going to tie me to a chair and force me to watch it. No big deal, right? The trouble is that when I think over those modern (1980s and after) Christmas movies that have either become classics of stand poised to become so, I find that almost none of them focus on girls or women. The best-known holiday heroes, from Santa to Scrooge to Jack Skellington, are all male. Even the ones I love most — not only The Nightmare Before Christmas but also Trading Places, Arthur Christmas, and Klaus — center on male leads. (When Matt and I rewatched Arthur Christmas last year, I was shocked at the number of off-hand sexist remarks I’d apparently blocked from my memory; a dash of misogyny is hardly a welcome spice, particularly in a narrative where the offender is unlikely to learn any better.)

According to my Googling, the picture for female representation in quality Christmas movies isn’t completely bleak. Thrillist’s 50 Best Christmas Movies includes Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and Tangerine, featuring two trans women protagonists, both of which I still need to check out. Rotten Tomatoes’ list of 62 Best Christmas Movies of All Time tips its hat to both the 1994 and 2019 adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as well as other potential gems I haven’t seen yet, Happy Christmas and Anna and the Apocalypse, and the brand-new Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, which we recently watched and enjoyed. Yet even after looking over the list, I still can’t help feeling a bit disheartened.

First, there’s the issue of quantity. Of the fifty best Christmas movies mentioned by Thrillist, only six have female protagonists or co-protagonists, and of those, only three were made after 1980. Among Rotten Tomatoes’ sixty-two movies listed, only fourteen have girls or women as central characters. That leaves a substantial majority in which female characters serve as mothers, love interests, and/or Hero Support.

Second, most of the exceptions, the movies with female central characters, have romance as the main thrust of their plots. Apparently, in the movies, the only way a woman can truly get into the Christmas spirit is by finding love. In the “cheesy” holiday movies ground out by Hallmark and Lifetime’s assembly line, the woman usually surrenders to Christmas by abandoning her big city job (because evidently, cities don’t celebrate Christmas) and settling down to a quiet, small-town, domestic experience as Ralphie’s mom; 1940s classics like Remember the Night, Christmas in Connecticut, The Shop Around the Corner, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Miracle on 34th Street seem positively enlightened by comparison. (It helps that these films feature something rarely seen in the modern made-for-cable stuff: good writing and acting.) Yet even when they’re good, should romances be the only kind of female-led Christmas story we see? Carol and the new Happiest Season at least challenge heteronormity, but even so, it’s past time for the writers of holiday films to broaden their concepts of what female characters’ Christmas experiences might involve.

This narrow idea of What a Woman’s Christmas Is All About may be one cause, direct or unconscious, of my third point of dissatisfaction: a noticeable lack of young girls as protagonists of the best-loved and most highly acclaimed Christmas movies. 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street may stand the test of time — and despite only netting him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle is the real protagonist, with little Natalie Wood being off screen for most of the film’s second half — but among modern films there simply is no girl-centric equivalent, at least in terms of popularity, to A Christmas Story or Home Alone. Of those that do focus on girls, many just aren’t very good (e.g. Eloise at Christmastime, All I Want for Christmas, the ill-advised remakes of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and, despite the talent involved, Mrs. Santa Claus), and others, despite their quality, fail to catch on (e.g. 1991’s The Story Lady, which centers on three generations of female characters with nary a romance in sight). While it may be that if the female protagonist of a Christmas movie is too young to fall in love, audiences aren’t interested, but more likely the problem can be put down to the old, infuriating “conventional wisdom” that while stories about boys are for everyone, stories about girls will only appeal to girls. I do have some hope that Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, which features a very resourceful and likable young heroine, might make some lasting impact. Fingers crossed.

There’s not much we can do about the existing body of Christmas films. Nor do I mean to suggest we should throw out all the guy-focused holiday favorites: “it’s not for me” does not and will never translate into “it shouldn’t be for anyone.” I only mean to point out a gap that talented writers might fill in the years to come. We need worthier female-centered holiday stories, and we need people willing to write them.

Here is an offering of mine.