Note: This piece originally appeared at Newsbusters in 2018.
Holiday entertainment fare for progressives is sadly lacking. The networks have been notoriously cautious about greenlighting The Twelve Genders of Christmas, while nobody will even fund Frosty and the Magic Morning After Pill.
So lefties need to make do critiquing existing shows. Huffington Post performed an excellent service the other day by documenting the tweets of liberals watching Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. Many of the tweets were funny. Some appeared earnest. Each illustrated the cultural gulf between the America of 1964 and today.
The list of issues addressed was not exhaustive (unless I missed someone pointing out Mrs. Claus thin-shaming her husband: “Eat, Papa, eat! Whoever heard of a skinny Santa?”) But the effort was a reminder that we live in the age of “woke-watching,” where TV shows like Friends from the 1990s are considered reactionary.
And why should we not apply the same scrutiny to claymation classics? If we’re honest, so many of the holiday specials that have traditionally aired in the runup to Christmas are rife with homophobia, racism, gender stereotypes, Christocentrism and bourgeois assumptions about class.
Consider 1965’s Merry Christmas Charlie Brown. Not one character acknowledges the constitutional problems with staging a Christmas play in a public school auditorium -- to say nothing of using it for Linus’s explicit Christian propaganda moment. (And don’t get me started on the fascistic undertones of Rudolf’s Shiny New Year!)
So let’s turn our attention to another holiday special, Rankin-Bass’s 1974 stop-motion The Year Without a Santa Claus. It would be nice to say that in the decade since Rudolf was released, children’s Christmas specials had evolved with the times. But TYWASC reflects none of the social progress of those tumultuous intervening years. It is a work of pure, misplaced nostalgia that ignores social, economic and racial power imbalances and does nothing to further the discussion of environmental issues.
First and foremost is TYWASC’s cavalier treatment of climate. Anthropomorphization can be a valuable teaching tool, and we applaud the depiction of Mother Nature as a strong, autonomous earth mother. But trivializing the battle for the climate as two selfish, bickering brothers hides the dire consequences of global warming. The implicit moral equivalence between warming (the Heat Miser) and a healthy, cooler climate (Snow Miser) is the height of irresponsibility. The mere suggestion that we can compromise with the greatest threat to everything in the history of everything is at base climate change-denial, and should be prosecutable. At the very least, we should consider whether this dangerous indifference to planetary cataclysm is appropriate viewing for children.
Then there is the show’s reinforcement of antiquated gender roles and attitudes. Santa doesn’t feel loved and he has a cold so he cancels Christmas. He goes back to bed, secure in the knowledge that the vast mechanisms of the holiday will remain suspended because he, the patriarch, is the key to their operation.
Here, the show misses an opportunity to introduce a Lysistrata-like stand on Mrs. Claus’s part. Her withholding of sexual favors, or just domestic services, until Santa returns to his duties would offer young viewers a welcome introduction to sexual politics as essentially a power struggle. Unfortunately, the movie ducks that conflict, opting instead for a trite adventure hinging on the mistreatment of animals.
In desperation, Mrs. Claus cooks up a plan to surreptitiously act in her husband’s place, complete with donning the red suit. But her demeaning turn in front of the mirror as she sings “I Could be Santa” tells us she never can be Santa in any meaningful way. She will always be a support for the patriarch. When she sings “I’ll only let them see me from the back” she’s volunteering to sublimate her sexuality to avoid undercutting the very power structure that oppresses her. Not a very empowering message to our daughters.
Finally, there is Southtown U.S.A., the idyllic burg where much of TYWASC’s action takes place. The town, we learn, is too far south to receive snow. Modern viewers will also note that it’s too far South to feature black citizens, at least in the neat, late-Victorian town center. Jim Crow still rules in Rankin-Bass’s perfect South, but it’s hidden away with the rural poverty we understand lives just outside Southtown’s city limits.
In one scene only is the bigotry and menace rampant in Southtown allowed to surface -- a scene that offers chilling parallels to our time. A policeman stops two of Santa’s helpers riding their reindeer on a city street. It’s a clear case of harassment; the pair’s only crime is driving while elf. His belligerence is cloaked in the authority of his badge and the incident -- like any encounter between the marginalized and the police -- is pregnant with the possibility of violence. The Southland cop issues them a ticket for “ridin’ a Vixon the wrong way on a one-way street, crossing the white (!) line and wearing funny suits on a Sunday.”
It speaks volumes that Rankin and Bass thought nothing of having a character -- a policeman, the voice of authority -- exhibit so much racism and homophobia in one scene (tell me “funny suits” isn’t a dog whistle to conservative Christians!)
Let the children’s holiday specials of yesterday stay in yesterday. We need forward-thinking, progressive fare that reflects the world we’re trying to leave our kids, specials like I Saw Daddy ****ing Santa Claus; Buster the Long-Eared Winter Solstice Donkey; or A Christmas Condom for Caroline.