Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
I have a Christmas challenge for you. First, however, you have to be feeling the holiday spirit and letting Christmas memories wash over you. If you’re not feeling the holly jolly spirit yet, throw on some festive tunes, watch your favorite holiday movie, or whatever else you need to get into the proper frame of mind. Now I’d like you to sit back, relax, and think of five Christmas films that have a strong female presence (even better if you love them/watch them yearly). I’m talking about recognizable films where women either star, or have relatively equal screen-time and lines with their male co-stars. Ignore the films with great female characters in bit parts, and pick out the memorable classics that have women dominating or fully sharing the screen time.
Arguably, the best choice would be Miracle on 34th Street. The iconic 1947 film features Santa Claus, but the entire momentum of the film relies on Maureen O’Hara’s Doris Walker and Natalie Wood’s Susan Walker, both of whom immediately set an upside down gender dichotomy for the 1940s (let alone modern day). Doris is a career woman, divorced, and raising daughter Susan to be rational and not swept up in whimsical fairy tales and magical beings like Santa, while her potential love interest Fred (John Payne) is an idealistic attorney who may be successful, but also plays babysitter to Susan; mom is the realist workhorse opposed to Fred’s “idealistic binges[s]” and “lovely intangibles.” In something of a twist, the women have to find the dreamy magic the men already have, rather than the usual vice versa (though the below trailer presents another feel entirely).
But step beyond the black and white streets of Manhattan and what is there? Following a heterosexual framework, romantic stories fare best, one man and one woman coming together for some romance under the mistletoe. Traditionally, however, Christmas films set up the male protagonist and an array of female support that ranges from the barely-there to the almost-equal – women who always serve the male plotline: Cindy Lou Who in The Grinch, Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarice in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Mrs. Claus and Mother Nature in The Year Without Santa Claus, Mary Contrary and Bo Peep in Babes in Toyland, Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jovie in Elf, Sue in Bad Santa … the list goes on and on. They’re great characters, but they’re hardly on equal footing, let alone greater footing, with the male stars.
There’s a certain irony to the fact that a holiday that relies on gifting, baked goods, and families – the traditionally defined women’s domain that actresses never have to struggle to find – is almost universally presented from the male point of view, or with male heroes, or with enough male supporting stars (Babes) that the female contribution is small. Thanksgiving on the other hand, a holiday almost universally ignored in Hollywood, has a sea of recognizable, female-centric, or well-populated films like Home for the Holidays, Pieces of April, and The House of Yes. In fact, recognizability is a big part of the picture. John Huston’s The Dead would be a good example of a woman-led Christmas film, which has the director’s daughter Anjelica starring, or Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, but these are adult films that do not show up on holiday lists, not family-inclusive fare like Miracle and Wonderful Life. (And to be fair, none of the Thanksgiving films listed above are family films, but they are some of the more referenced and notable Turkey Day choices out there.)
What is, perhaps, even more interesting is that this is one area of cinematic feminism that seems to be universally ignored, or at least invisible to the world of Google. The best option gleaned from a search of “women in Christmas movies” brings up “9 Movie Women Who Saved Christmas” – a celebration of many female supporting players. Searching “feminism Christmas movies” (and similar derivations) brings up nothing relevant but a discussion of Christmas movies as a guilty pleasure. A thriving internet that’s quite rich with female-centric pieces is downright silent about the holiday movie.
Is it considered to consumerist to bother? Has no one noticed? Does no one really care? Sure, it’s not the most pressing issue out there. It’s nothing compared to the ridiculousness outlined in last week’s column. Nevertheless, it’s still a significant omission. Christmas films stretch beyond the realms of cinematic fandom and tastes. People who rarely see a movie all year will sit down with the family and watch their family classic of choice. Classic Christmas movies are as prevalent to the holiday as “Jingle Bells” and decorated pine trees.
Christmas is the time when adults and children alike eagerly throw in some Rudolph or Grinch and lather themselves in festive fairy tales. Because of this, it’s a wonderful chance to share dynamic and inspiring women and girls who will reach a broad audience – characters who can become essential heroines of the holiday, necessities of the holiday spirit like the retro classics that still grace our trees and decorations decades later. And by extension of their repetition, female icons for little girls to look up to.
I will always love the Christmas classics. No amount of imbalance changes the magic of what was created. Babes in Toyland will always be my favorite go-to, with Ed Wynn’s quirky Toymaker and the delightful Zorro team of Gene Sheldon and Henry Calvin as Roderigo and Gonzorgo. Likewise, Rudolph and his group of misfits are an integral part of my Christmas decorations.
Still, wouldn’t it be great to take a cue from the ‘40s and whip up some new, girl-friendly classics that can appeal to all and let growing minds see boys and girls in equal measure?