Christmas is the most awaited time of the year, a time that families come together to celebrate with songs, sugar cookies, Santa, and of course, good ol’ fashioned stereotypes.
‘Tis the Season for Sexism
Have you ever noticed what is happens across the world at this time of year? It’s subtle, but pervasive.
Parents everywhere take their children to malls and events where Mr. Claus will be there to meet them. Kids sit on his lap. They pose for photos. They are reminded that if they’re good, Mr. Claus will bestow them with gifts and deliver them via their chimney on Christmas Eve, so they may wake to them under the tree on Christmas morning.
In contrast, Mrs. Claus is presented as a devoted wife, the helper of Mr. Claus, and a baker of Christmas goodies. More often than not, she is depicted wearing a kitchen apron.
Implicit in this messaging is that Mr. Claus will meet with and receive gift requests from children, manage a workshop of elves, and drive a sleigh of reindeer to households worldwide to deliver gifts to children on Christmas Eve.
In other words, children are taught that Mr. Claus manages all of the business aspects of Christmas, from marketing, to manufacturing, fulfillment and transport.
Mrs. Claus, in contrast, is responsible for managing the household.
Sound fraught with gender stereotypes to you? It does to me too.
Deck the Halls with Gender Stereotyping?
Unsurprisingly, the reindeer that drive Santa’s sleigh and the elves that run his workshop are usually presented as male too. Notably, the story of Rudolph is told from the perspective of a young male reindeer.
Traditionally, Rudolph is short for the French name Rodolphe, or for the Italian, Portuguese and Spanish name, Rodolfo. While these are traditionally male names, it appears that Rudolph may have been a gender neutral name.
Two years ago, observant women pointed out that Santa’s reindeer are actually female. This is biologically and scientifically correct, because male reindeer lose their antlers by the end of the mating season in early December. In contrast, females reindeer keep their antlers throughout the winter.
Meaning, Santa’s sleigh is powered by bold, strong, underrated ladies!
Did you know that male reindeer lose their antlers in December? That means Santa’s sled is pulled by strong, independent and reliable female reindeer who’ve been unfairly passed off as male. #sexismiseverywhere #femalesarestrongashell
— Bindiya Schaefer (@BindiyaThomas) December 13, 2017
Then, there’s the other Christmas stories:
- The Grinch
- Frosty the Snowman
- A Charlie Brown Christmas
Anyone want to guess the genders of these Christmas characters?
Sexism at Christmas
In addition to all of the sexism associated with the story of Santa, then there’s church. Sigh.
Christmas is a time of year, long awaited and filled with joy and wonder and friends and family. When it is celebrated a church, at least within most Christian churches, God is traditionally referenced as male, despite being a spiritual being not defined by a physical body or constrained by human limitations.
Thankfully, as more and more women are rising to the pulpit and leadership at large, God is increasingly being referred to in gender neutral terms. This is easier now, because ‘they’ is officially a singular gender neutral pronoun, according to Merriam Webster. Other religious leaders are alternating their pronoun references, using both “he” and “she”, or embracing the pronoun “she” altogether.
I credit author, blogger and activist, Glennon Doyle, for being one of the people to bring this into the light and explaining its usage:
To folks who get upset when I call God She: Consider that the divine has been referred to as masculine for so long. I’m just doing my part to shrink the Divinity Gender Gap. I spoke to God about It and She approves so no worries.
— Glennon Doyle (@GlennonDoyle) April 29, 2019
Christmas is the Season of Sexism
Worse than having all of this sexism and stereotyping going unnoticed, it is repeated annually and it is taught to young children who are too young to question or critique.
Is it a coincidence that Mr. Claus is a wealthy, older, white man who operates a workshop run by a marginalized group of individuals (elves) and whose wife is his adoring helper?
Hmm, I’ll let you decide for yourself, but I don’t think so.
Is it a coincidence that Ms. Claus is relegated to the kitchen? Again, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Then there’s the clever gender labeling for toys, a phenomenon that was artificially constructed to sell double the products to parents, given the likelihood of multiple births.
Until the 1940s, toys were rarely marketed by gender. Around that time, manufacturers identified that families would “buy an entire new set of clothing, toys and other gadgets if the products were marketed differently for both genders.”
— Karen Cole (@karlou) November 22, 2014
Conveniently, children don’t have a developed prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for rational thought and analysis. Thus, they are more prone to processing information with their amygdala, which specializes in processing emotions (and certain emotional memories).
It is early exposure to messaging like this that gives boys and girls (and nonbinary kids) very confusing messaging about the roles they are allowed to grow into as adults.
More Than a Sprinkle of Holiday Racism
I also despise that Santa is always depicted with skin that is as white as snow.
Should it really take an app to find a Black Santa?
As featured by CBS news, “Citing studies that show that children with a positive attitude about their own racial identity do better in school and are less likely to engage in risky behavior, Jihan Woods launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her Black Santas locator app. After raising $5,000 in 30 days, the Dallas psychiatrist developed an app that lists Santas in 35 states and Washington, D.C., and is available in the App store and Google Play.”
In December of 2016, the largest mall in the United States, the Mall of America in my hometown of Minneapolis, announced it would be featuring its first Black Santa.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune received a deluge of racist comments, which then moved to social media when the comments section was turned off.
Thankfully, there were also some witty replies, such as this one from actor George Takei:
Watching people meltdown over a Black Santa in the Mall of America. “Santa is white!” Well, in our internment camp he was Asian. So there.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) December 3, 2016
While I wasn’t originally going to write this article, it is so pervasive that I couldn’t stop noticing it. When I’ve voiced to others, I was frequently “shhh’d” with phrases like, “Oh, it’s alright, it’s tradition!” or “Just let the kids enjoy it.”
While I hear these phrases, my gut tells me that tradition is not an excuse for celebrating one gender while suppressing another. The thing is, slavery was a tradition. Segregated schools were a tradition. Women not having a right to own land or to vote was once a tradition too.
Thus, the more I was quieted, the more I feel compelled to shine a light onto the stereotypes that seep into this time of year.
The thing is, young girls and gender nonconforming (GNC) kids need us grown-ups to speak up when we notice these things.
If we don’t, then they too will accept them as a normal and integrate them as reality.
We need to use our voices and we need to explain to the children around us that stories evolve. Traditions evolve. And yes, society itself evolves.
Enjoy Christmas Without Good Ol’ Fashioned Sexism
As the wise Glennon Doyle once said, “Oppression can silence. It can anger. But those are not the right way. There is a third way to create change. It is to create, to create a better invitation.”
Inspired by that thought, I’d encourage you to take action by doing one of the following:
- Please tell every little girl you know that Santa’s sleigh is operated by strong, confident, underrated ladies! Female reindeer and their big antlers are fierce.
- Share or discuss this. It’s ok if you don’t feel ready to share this article on social media, but please discuss this topic with a friend. Of course, if you do feel courageous, I’d encourage you to share it publicly.
- Comment below. Given the outrage some folks expressed over gender neutral bedding and toys being offered by Target, this article will undoubtedly create some controversy. If this piece resonates with you, could you balance it out with a positive note below?
Is it possible kids could sit on Mrs. Claus’ lap one day? I sure hope so.