For the 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social norms and political attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than a few holiday and Christmas favorites?
A Christmas Story
This 1983 classic tends to play every year on several cable channels, but I’ll admit I’d never before watched it all the way through. If I’m honest, I never had enough interest in watching it all the way through since the Santa scene made its way into my childhood nightmares at a very young age. But for the sake of this Christmas-themed series, I decided to give it a shot.
From a personal standpoint, the pacing is pretty slow, but I do appreciate the way the film uses nostalgia as a plot device. The slow pace and caricature versions of the characters surrounding Ralphie mimic the way we all view our childhoods through a tinted, narrow lens. The baby brother who seems to do nothing besides complain and hide. The father who flies into fits of rage at the drop of a hat. The bully in a racoon hat who uses laughter as a form of playground terrorism. All of these are snippets from adult narrator Ralphie’s childhood that seem oversimplified and exaggerated because they’re being viewed through this lens. We see these people as caricatures because little kid Ralphie understood them as such. Even as adults, there are many parts of our childhoods that we will always perceive through this kind of lens.
When critiquing films, I often begin by determining whether the narrative is exposing what is or exploring what could be. While the whimsical world of song and dance in White Christmas lay the groundwork for showing audience what could be, A Christmas Story tends toward exposing what is. Or, in this particular case, what was. At the beginning of the film, we are asked to look backward to the 1950s through the lens of nostalgia to watch a caricature snapshot of America’s “golden era.” What do we find? Misogyny, lessons on when to use violence, and warnings to children everywhere about the dangers of doing foolish stuff.
Let’s start with lessons for kids against taking imprudent risks. Early in the movie, on a triple-dog dare, a young boy foolishly puts his tongue on a frozen pole. Obviously, it sticks, and the entire class decides to hide this from the teacher. When she does discover the poor kid’s mistake, Ralphie remembers the police and firemen showing up to help the kid get loose. Explicit lesson: don’t stick your tongue to a frozen pole! Implied reality: risk-takers will be the very first, upon watching this movie, to go outside and try it. Risk-averse kids will avoid such an imprudent act, but might still get dared into doing it. Children will, in point of fact, be children. No matter how many times they see silly actions bring silly consequences. The boy wasn’t seriously injured, so there’s actually very little warning children not to try this at home.
The same can be said of the larger lesson about behaving foolishly: if you play with guns, you could shoot yourself. Ralphie hears this again and again each time he admits he really wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” And at the end of the movie (Spoiler Alert!!!) he nearly does exactly that! We’re led to believe that only his glasses save him from losing an eye. And yet, he hides his blunder with some story about a falling icicle, and he presumably continues to play with the gun for months or even years to come. In truth, both of these lessons are pretty explicit, which makes our brains almost immediately start to argue against them. That wouldn’t happen to me, we tell ourselves. The lessons also come with mild consequences, which invariably makes them small anecdotes that are more funny than they are a warning.
Next, we’ll talk about this ongoing theme in kids movies about using violence against bullies. In reality, bullies often become bullies because they face violence or other abuse at home. Sure, it may feel good for the bullied to beat up the bully, but it only feeds the cycle of violence. The kid who uses violence against his bully only learns that using force gives him a reprieve, and the cycle begins again. When Ralphie beats up his bully, his rage coming out through his fists and his curses, he learns two things: First, he learns that using violence can bring him power over the person he’s hitting and admiration from his peers. Second, when his mother glosses over the fight in telling her husband about it because she knows Ralphie is scared of his dad, Ralphie learns that there may not be any consequences to his violence. It’s a terrible message, and it’s one that I see in films even today.
But let’s come back to the part where Ralphie is scared of his dad. While many of us had some fear of our parents growing up, the fear portrayed by Ralphie and his little brother Randy is not a sign of a healthy father-son relationship. Not that it’s really surprising, given that the father is mostly shown raging about something or talking down to his wife. Randy hides in a kitchen cupboard because he’s terrified “Dad will kill Ralphie.” No child should have that level fear of their father. That being said, it’s important to note again that this whole movie is a memory. Chances are, Ralphie’s dad wasn’t quite so terrible. We never see him hit his children or his wife. Not even close. What we’re more likely witnessing is that irrational childhood fear of being disciplined by the head of the household.
That brings me to the implied and overt misogyny rampant in the film. Through a modern lens, we see a working-class, Midwestern family with a stay-at-home mom who never eats until everyone else has eaten and a father who talks about sports and fixes things. The obscenity of the leg lamp is less about putting a woman’s full, bare leg on display and more about machismo and the need of men to feel they have conquered. This man is clearly rather inept and incapable of conquering anything. His wife helps him win the leg lamp award, yet he still considers it his Major Achievement, putting it on display for the entire neighborhood to witness his masculine efforts.
It’s a ridiculous display of the mass misogyny normalized in American society. But, that’s kind of the point. As I said at the beginning f this post, these characters are really caricatures. The mother is doting and uses passive aggressive measures to get what she wants. The father is aggressive without reason and cocksure in his ineptitude. They are a ridiculous, stylized snapshot of the ridiculously idealized American life of the 1950s.
Other implied messages include: little brothers are annoying, gingers are scary, Santa is fake and a horrible person, aunts give really terrible presents, and parents do listen to what you want for Christmas! The film also suggests that life as an average, mediocre kid in an average, mediocre family can still be filled with joy and love.
In all, it’s not a bad film. I will probably never watch it all the way through again (personal preference). It certainly won’t win any diversity awards. There is always the trouble that this caricature snapshot of the very real problems of misogyny in America’s “golden era” will fall on deaf ears or, worse, be praised by those who long for a return to such a “moral” time – leg lamp and all. However, that is more a problem of people seeing into the film what they want to see rather than what is there. What is there is a simple story of a mediocre, Midwestern white boy remembering his childhood in the 1950s. And that’s it.