Trigger warning: Please be aware Sexual Assault is referenced throughout.
Also on a lighter note: Christmas dreams may be shattered upon deconstruction of festive media.
Christmas, although easily the single best day of the year, is nothing more than a collection of sexist tropes that uses the umbrella of festive fun to allow traditional and somewhat sexist female stereotypes to be embraced, when in any other time of the year it would be shunned. I make this divisive statement, despite absolutely loving Christmas, and intend only to make visible the sometimes well concealed, but ever-present, glass ceiling that is stronger than ever during these winter months.
The idea to write this piece initially, and somewhat ironically, had nothing to do with the Christmas period. In Georgia Goncalves’ article ‘An Assault on Public Sexual Harassment’, she explores the self-perceived female vulnerability in the absence of effective societal safeguarding laws against sexual assault, by the government. She underlines the fact that one of the most popular responses when asked the question “what women would do with no men in the world”, was to go on a run at night. It was this exact same thought that gave me the idea to write this piece as I expressed frustration during a conversation about how the days turning pitch black at 4.30pm meant I was unable to run after work. This made it impossible for me to keep up my fitness in the absence of my beloved sports.
The statement about not feeling safe enough to run alone after dark was one that my brother simply wasn’t aware of. 43% of women experience harassment whilst running, and this number increases to 58% for women under 30. When just 4% of men have experienced the same, how could I explain to him that as a woman it’s an unwavering (but admittedly often broken) rule that you do not go on walks by yourself after dark, you do not walk home from a night out, and you certainly do not run alone down the deserted paths that make up much of my running route. But as a 6”3 white man, why would he ever have a reason to feel stalked and preyed upon whilst walking home at night?
Laura Kemp argues that women should not fear running alone after dark because men don’t have to justify their evening jog so why should she as a woman. Whilst this is an admirable mindset, it is also extremely dangerous because, ultimately, a woman deciding she should be allowed to run alone without getting assaulted, unfortunately, does not mean there has been the same shift in the societal mindset to match this. Kemp is right, women should be allowed to defiantly stand up and run at night, however in this current climate there is no evidence that harassers won’t continue to, quite literally, follow them in their footsteps - in fact 30% of women have said they have been followed by a harasser on foot, car or bike whilst on a run. Although it is infuriating to say, there is very little a woman can do herself to protect her safety when out after dark, especially whilst the cultural stigma that continues to affect the judgement of our legal system and governments remains.
For most police forces Winter brings continued crime, with burglaries and drink driving increasing prior to the imminent arrival of Christmas. It is no surprise that rape and sexual assault also remain a mainstay during these winter months. Short days and long nights mean many of our commutes to and from work, university or the shops are under the cover of darkness – a darkness that many women have been warned about. In fact, Avon and Somerset Police released a #JogOn Campaign in 2019, urging women to avoid running alone and instead encouraging group runs. One is entitled to feel that encouraging the victim to avoid running instead of educating, or even stopping, the predator is a major problematic stance, but unfortunately one that coveys the current attitudes towards sexual assault – that somehow the onus is always on the women rather than her attacker. It is also not particularly comforting to hear that the same police force advising women to run in groups for safety, then dismiss one of their own officers for exploiting vulnerable women for sex the following year. How can we expect to stop sexual assault figures rising when the people who are enforcing it, are actually contributing to the statistics?
Reasons why I myself refuse to run on my own after dark are as simple as the latest police recorded rape figures only decreasing by 7% from last year despite the UK being in lockdown for almost 10 months of 2020. Furthermore fewer than 1 in 70 rape cases resulted in a charge in 2019. You have better odds that Oasis will headline Glastonbury next year, Tereasa May will be in the next series of I’m a Celebrity, or that England will win both Euro 2021 and the World Cup in 2022, than getting the guilty person who sexually assaulted you put away. An unacceptable statistic given that we are in 2020, the supposed age of the modern women and weakening of the glass ceiling. How can we expect to be treated as equals in the boardrooms when women cannot even get strangers on the street to respect our rights as humans, to wear and do as we like, without having our bodies violated? It is following this that I am going to argue that the attitudes of Christmas only reinforce these gender stereotypes, and promote a dangerous culture endangering women.
The traditional female and male stereotypes are nothing but heightened during the festive period, (although it must be said that many the modern man and empowered woman are attempting to erode this long tradition). Women typically retreat into their domestic roles, and men stand firm as figureheads of the family, shadowing the iconic duo of Mr and Mrs Claus. It is, and this is a shameless stereotype in itself for which I can only apologise, still more common than not for the woman of the house to cook the main Christmas day meal, and for the man to only enter the kitchen when summoned for the carving of meat, although this is starting to change. A survey asking people which family member is responsible for sending out Christmas cards, buying the presents, shopping for the food, and cooking on Christmas, received an overwhelming majority of votes for the woman of the household. The picture here is clear, at Christmas if it’s a domestic task then it’s the job of a woman.
In comparison, it is the man who takes on the arduous and labour-intensive task of sawing the base of the Christmas tree so that it will fit in the house. It is the man who also usually puts up the Christmas lights at the front of the property because no woman could ever manage the genius IQ required to use a ladder. Images of men using knives once used for hunting and tools that once built shelters, whilst the woman prepares the meal, would not be out of place in the middle ages but still sit comfortably in the 21st century at Christmas.
As for the more maternal role, how many of you helped your mother decorate the Christmas tree whilst your father looked on? How many of you have sat there as children opening presents that you know are as much as a surprise to you as they are your father - who has no idea what lies underneath the colourful wrapping, despite signing the card that says otherwise. Often even if the woman of the family miraculously manages to escape the domestic cooking role that is, quite frankly, forced in their direction, the shackles of motherhood are not so easily avoided, especially at Christmas.
The beloved table tradition of pulling Christmas Crackers is one that my male family members win every year, despite my attempts to cheat. Would it really shock you that a game built on the premise of brute strength was a male invention? I don’t think so. Obviously as someone who loves Christmas, part of the familiarity of these roles is what makes Christmas feel so warm and homely, but would the often invisible image of Mrs Claus be quite so comforting if she was carrying a briefcase as opposed to an apple pie? Instead it is the world-famous figure of the portly white man running the show, bestowing gifts to children that he did not wrap, managing a workshop full of elves who do all the labour, and delivering presents to households across the world in his reindeer pulled sled. A fat man taking credit for other people’s hard work is hardly a new concept but one that remains strong in this day and age.
In Mrs Claus’ absence, she is relegated to the role of wife, and depicted often only ever in the kitchen with an apron on. Should we then be surprised when a study in 2016 found that women are responsible for 17 Christmas related jobs, mostly domestic chores such as cooking, shopping, wrapping and house decorating, whilst men have almost half with nine? For women, Christmas ‘bring[s] on a whole new set of gendered expectations that make the season less about simply enjoying fun and family and more about enduring consumerism, chores and resentment so that everyone else can enjoy rockin’ around the Christmas tree.’ A wife banished to the kitchen at Christmas is, ultimately, nothing more than the reincarnation of Mrs Claus, especially when the husband is often entertaining family guests as the face of the family in true Santa style.
Even if the roles that men and women take on at Christmas are becoming more and more fluid with every year, the Christmas culture that surrounds us during the festive season is not. Many of my favourite Christmas songs actually promote misogynistic and sexist behaviour, so is it really any surprise that in a season that, both, encourages this behaviour, and outlines what habits we will take into the new year, that sexual assault persists?
One of the greatest all-time Christmas songs, Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’, is about wanting nothing for Christmas unless Santa can make all her wishes and desires come true by delivering her a man. If the sexist underlying statement here, saying the only way a woman can achieve her dreams is to be with a man, wasn’t bad enough then the inference that the only way for her to find a man is to rely on another man (Santa) bringing her one is far worse.
Or what about the famous song ‘Santa Baby’, where the implication is that the female singer will do absolutely anything to Santa as long as she gets a list of luxury items – the classic gold-digger representation, one that Kanye would have been proud of. How about the very catchy and extremely classy title of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, the infidelity-implied premise of that one needs no explanation.
Finally, the proclaimed date-rape song, Baby It’s Cold Outside, where a man manipulates a woman into staying at his house by plying her with alcohol and refusing to take no for an answer speaks for itself. These are only a handful of examples that make up a culture that positions women as a weaker sex through the objectified and sexualised idea that the only thing women want is a man to make their desires come true. By doing so, we convey the message that without a man women are weak and vulnerable, so why are we surprised when this message is adhered to as sexual assault and stalking continues to rise year after year.
Surely, through Christmas media, we are quite literally asking for it?
And of course, many of these songs are from an era where that was simply expected to be the role of the woman. Would I go as far as to say that there is a direct correlation between increased crime in the months after winter, with the playing of slightly ill-judged classical Christmas bangers? Absolutely not. Will I continue to belt out Mariah Carey in the shower, car and whilst Christmas shopping? Always. But could this Christmas culture influence the generations that are brought up on it. Of course.
Ultimately, it is our duty to make sure there are alternative empowering depictions of female characters portrayed in Christmas music and film, especially when it is so evidently lacking - even in modern media. Is it a coincidence then that during a season that consistently repeats the message that everyone, but particularly men, can take whatever they want, that overindulgence in alcohol, stealing from neighbours, and assaulting women are amongst the highest crimes during the month? Debatable.
It’s not just the radio that offers a media for this narrative, even our all-time favourite festive films show anti-feminist tendencies. This includes my absolute beloved Love Actually, which is littered with endless sexist tropes, all of which I intend to deconstruct and unveil.
My favourite storyline is that of the Prime Minister who falls in love with Natalie, his “tree-trunk” legged “tea lady”, only to move her on after walking in on the President trying to take advantage of her (before the highlight of the film: winning her back at the end). The culture of victim blaming has always been a strong one and it is no different here, whilst body shaming the female figure is also a firm favourite in the 21st century and has been depicted as much in this film. Whilst one could argue that the idea here is to promote body confidence by depicting the PM falling in love with a supposedly “larger” woman, it sits uncomfortably that both of these examples occur in our country’s ruling office – a place you would expect, and should demand, equality between men and women, especially from your own gender. Even worse is the fact that both body shaming and victim blaming are used as a source of humour within the film at the expense of the woman.
Similarly, like Bridget Jones, we now move on from Hugh to that of Colin Firth’s character: a writer who realises he has fallen for Aurelia, his cleaner, whilst trying to get over the heartbreak of his girlfriend cheating on him. Note, another classic portrayal of a wicked Eve-like character (in the ex-girlfriend) who can’t resist the temptation of another man, in this case, his brother.
Another dubious male depiction is Mark, who verges on stalking his best friend’s wife by taking up-close videos of her on her wedding day. He then uses a mood board of naked, sexualised women to apologise, before his admittedly sweet and iconic scene with the boombox and hand-written cards. Almost salvation until you realise the storyline is quite literally a man stalking the woman he likes, before going around to her house uninvited and declaring his undying love for her. In real life, one feels this obsession wouldn’t have had quite such a rosy ending for the unfortunately, although aptly, named Juliet. Lucky for us, Mark shows considerable restraint compared to those sexual predators in real life, who often develop a similar obsession with a woman, but find it slightly harder to keep it in their pants.
Furthermore, would any modern romantic comedy be complete without a hint of infidelity, resulting in the downfall of a male protagonist and a moment of anagnorisis almost costing him the women he loves? To tick this box, we have Professor Snape playing a high-flying editor who attempts to have an affair with his secretary, whilst Emma Thompson’s character is barely seen on screen without her kids in tow, or Joni Mitchell. She personifies the domestic wife but almost breaks free of this casting through her awareness of her own children’s faults. Yet when the opportunity arises for her to stand strong and commit to being more than just a mother and wife, she forgives him and the narrative resumes, albeit achieving pathos.
And finally, the tragic character of Sarah who falls in love with Karl but has to sacrifice her relationship to care for her mentally ill yet abusive brother. Let’s not even mention the female portrayal in the storyline of the humorous character of Colin Frissell. The dumb and blonde female stereotype wheeled out for yet another shameless cameo, when quite frankly, like everyone’s favourite uncle, it should have been put to bed a long time ago.
Secretaries, cleaners, wives, mothers, and carers – these are all the roles of the major female characters in Love Actually. Even Lulu Popplewell, who played Daisy (otherwise known as Lobster #1 or Karen’s daughter) has described “all the women in it… [as] sort of passive objects”. In fact, the closest any of them come to having a high-powered job is actually Karen, the Prime Minister’s sister. Instead, women are relegated to second class jobs when compared to their male counterparts - the message here is clear, men and women are not equals because the women in this film, ultimately, serve the men either through their domestic capacity or through marriage.
But then, I suppose us women should really be grateful for having so many “leading” female characters in such a famous Christmas blockbuster. Other than The Holiday, I wonder how many other significant female characters in festive films you can list? The silence is as damning as the absence. Perhaps this is why Mrs Claus has become the archetypal female Christmas influence.
Time after time, role after role, women still occupy the domestic protagonist, even in our most cherished Christmas films and music traditions, if they even feature at all. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the same domestic orientated roles occupied by the female characters in Love Actually, are the same roles women embrace at Christmas. Equally as important, and somewhat complimentary to the sexist jobs these female characters have, are the subtle traces throughout the film alluding to female infidelity, sexualised female motives in order to get what they want, and the outdated gender tradition that all women want is a man – echoing that of the similarly distasteful Christmas music mentioned above.
By accepting this portrayal of women at Christmas, both in films, music and at home, we are setting the standard for the treatment of women for the remaining 364 days of the year. Not only that, but by labelling the 25th December the happiest day of the year, we are also inadvertently sending out the message that women are at their happiest when treated this way.
This implies that women are content to be confined to the domestic roles that Emmeline Pankhurst spent so long challenging, that women are happy to be treated as second class citizens, and objectified. Why is it that we spend every day outside of the festive period fighting against these female stereotypes, yet at Christmas so many of us accept our regression into a Mrs Claus role without so much as a fight? And is it really that outrageous to think the misogynistic and sexist undercurrents depicted in a significant amount of Christmas media could actually be linked to unwavering sexual assault figures - especially when many of us make resolutions regarding our behaviour for the following year during this time?
Regardless, nothing has been clearer: only once we look to erase the dated Christmas attitudes both confining women to the kitchen and implying that all a woman wants is a man to make her desires come true, will we then be able to finally change the dangerous culture embedded in our society and, ultimately, offer a safer environment for women with reduced sexual assault figures.
Until this happens, we should embrace Christmas as the wonderful familial celebration that it is, enjoy the accompanying Christmas music and films like we always have, and eat a delicious meal that may or may not have been prepared by the female members of our families. The key is to do it all with an awareness of these enforced female stereotypes so that we can keep all that we love about Christmas whilst making the necessary changes to make it even better.