The problem isn’t “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Holiday traditions age slowly — and poorly — and we find ourselves waking up to a whimsically wintry wonder world as we try to apply our new modern sensibilities to Christmas itself. The TV show Glee once famously bypassed all the tricky gender politics by simply having the song sung by two adorable men.
But here’s the bad news for feminists. For decades Christmas has been depicted as a male-centric holiday dominated by a man-giver and his man-elfs. (Even the reindeer all seem to be male.) And if you dig a little bit deeper, it just gets worse. In Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the classic Christmas special, Burl Ives even tells youngsters how Donner the reindeer’s wife — Mrs. Donner — was forbidden from helping find Rudolph because “this is man’s work.” (Leaving Mrs. Donner in tears…)
“Are women bad at looking for things?” asks the Women’s Media Center (a group co-founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan.) In a critique titled “Rudolph, the Sexist Reindeer,” they cite other complaints about the children’s special’s frequent bullying (and also it’s “sheer creepiness”), before noting that ultimately the special “is pretty clear that the boys join in the reindeer games while the girls stay off in the corner…swooning? Admiring?
“Life isn’t all that different for the female elves either.”
But now, the hopeful note. Throughout our history there’ve been inspiring attempts to fix the holiday’s one-sided gender balance. For example, back in 1953 Nat King Cole recorded a delightful tribute to the Christmas-y role played by Mrs. Santa Claus, who helps the couple eke out their North Pole subsistence by personally feeding hay to all of Santa’s flying reindeer. And apparently she’s also in charge of important Christmas-related responsibilities, including sleigh-packing, gift-wrapping, and a crucial advisory role for Santa’s whole toy-delivering operation.
Mrs. Santa Claus briefly turns up in the 1964 film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians — albeit for roughly 32 seconds. (The entire miserable film was once heckled by the robot hand puppets on Mystery Science Theatre 3000.)
But an important message was thus delivered to the next generation of film-makers. Yes, Virginia, there is a Mrs. Santa Claus. Back in 2013, Saturday Night Live delivered a brash skit in which Mrs. Santa Claus complains about the travails of a marriage where “your husband is unemployed for 364 days a year, and he’s a thousand years old,” calling Christmas Eve the day “when Santa finally gets his lazy ass out of the house.” And a later SNL skit even shows what happens when Mrs. Santa Claus gets sexually harassed by pervy elves.
Here’s my point. 2018 saw a growing push for more women in media and government, and a greater representation throughout society in general. So why isn’t there a movement to give a larger role to Mrs. Santa Claus? Why do we spend each Christmas focusing on an aging white guy who can see you when you’re sleeping?
Let me just put it this way. I know a lot of parents who’d feel much more comfortable if their children were sitting on Mrs. Santa Claus’s lap….
And to the end, one film was way ahead of its time.
In 1996, Broadway legend Jerry Herman was 65 years old. But 12 years after his hit La Cage Aux Folles, he took one more crack at skewering our society’s gender roles, writing the entire score for an original TV production titled Mrs. Santa Claus. Given a lavish Christmas production from Hallmark Home Entertainment, the film starred Angela Lansbury — the first person to sing “We Need a Little Christmas” (in Herman’s 1966 hit Broadway musical Mame.) Mrs. Santa Claus describes herself as “invincible,” singing that “the moment has come to beat my own drum because, I want the world to know there’s a Mrs. Santa Claus!”
It’s not to be confused with the 2018 horror film “Mrs. Claus”, in which she’s a serial killer rampaging through a snow-capped suburbs.
Instead, this film glows with a gentle holiday glow of feminine pride, as Lansbury croons that “I’m coming your way, keep an eye on my sleigh…” The critics called the film “endearing” and “sure to be an instant classic” — before it vanished into obscurity for the next 20 years. The DVD “has long been out of print,” warns Wikipedia — but the film has suddenly come back to life in the cloud, and Amazon Prime customers can now watch it free. (Or you can snag a used copy of the DVD for $4.13.)
So this Christmas all those male-centric grinches better watch out.
Because Mrs. Santa Claus is coming to town.