Why is it so hard for Christmas films to pass the Bechdel test?

Everyone (at least secretly) loves Christmas films, but on closer inspection, it's the least woman-friendly genre there is. Caroline O’Donoghue investigates

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Christmas films are a funny one. I, for one, am a huge fan: I love that once a year, we put aside snobbery and how technically “good” a film is, in favour of how much joy it can deliver in 90 minutes. But for all the goodness and morality that Christmas films preach, there’s a disturbingly prominent amount of gaps in the genre. Or, to put it more bluntly: every friggin’ character is a white guy.

Home Alone: little white boy is left alone in his mini-mansion for three days. Elf: big white boy is fostered by large white man, travels to New York to find thin white man. Jingle All The Way: negligent white dad finds white male toy for white male son. I could go on for days, guys, days. But I’m not here to crap on your Christmas joy. These are still lovely films, and a lack of female characters doesn’t necessarily make something bad, just shortsighted. 

And to be honest, I find it fascinating how we got to this point in the first place. The first Christmas film, released in 1901, was (unsurprisingly) an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The Dickens classic now gets remade every time a British actor turns 50, and all other Christmas films have sort of followed the Christmas Carol formula. At the centre of the narrative, there is a man who has let money overrule the spirit of Christmas, and hence, the importance of community. Whether that’s George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life lamenting the Buildings and Loans, or Buddy the Elf’s father obsessed with business, there’s a weird preoccupation with white guy capitalism in the background of so many Christmas films. In Jingle All The Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s work takes him away from his family so much that his neighbour is threatening to steal his wife. STEAL HIS WIFE! Like we’re in bloody feudal times and you can just put a bag over someone’s head and claim they’re yours.

 Christmas films are made to do good business, to appease the American family, and to inspire TV channels to re-run them for years to come. And so, they’re painted with broad, vanilla, old-fashioned strokes

The weird paradox is that while so many Christmas films wind up ditching the establishment in their final scenes (George Bailey is “the richest guy in town!” with just his family) the films themselves are tethered to the ideas they reject. Christmas films are made to do good business, to appease the American family, and to inspire TV channels to re-run them for years to come. And so, they’re painted with broad, vanilla, old-fashioned strokes: they are about white people. They are about straight people. They are about well-meaning men and mischievous little boys. 

The women, meanwhile, are apron-wearing mothers, or twinkly-eyed love interests. The easiest way to expose this is the Bechdel Test. In case you’re hearing about this for the first time, the Bechdel test is a thought experiment you can apply to films to see whether or not they take their female characters as seriously as they do their male ones. Does the film have two named women? Do they feature in the same scene? Do they talk about something other than a man? If they fall down on any of these three, they have failed the Bechdel Test. 

Lots of good films fail the Bechdel Test, but Christmas films, as a category, fail spectacularly. Even the brilliant ones! Miss Piggy in a Muppet’s Christmas Carol talks to her daughters exclusively about when their father is coming home. The women in It’s A Wonderful Life speak exclusively to each other about George Bailey. Miracle on 34th Street, while it focuses on a mother-daughter relationship, talk only about Santa Claus. 

So, do any pass? Only a few, I’m afraid. When I set out to watch Christmas films that pass the Bechdel Test, I thought it would take a lot more dedication than it did. In fact, I was able to watch most of them in a few evenings. 

The Last Holiday

Let’s get one thing straight: The Last Holiday is no masterpiece. Its what I like to call an ‘Eat the Cucumber’ film. You know what I mean, right? A film that, for no real reason, features an extended makeover scene where a woman mischievously eats the cucumber slice that was resting on her eyelid? 

Having said that, I loved every single joyous moment of The Last Holiday. Queen Latifah plays Georgia, a New Orleans woman who has led a diligent, buttoned-down life. She’s a cook who photographs her own food, rather than eats it. She lives through her book of “possibilities”, where she moons over her dream man, her dream cookery school, and her dream life. When she is told she has three weeks to live, she immediately cashes in her life-savings to blow on a lavish trip to Europe, where her don’t-give-a-fuck attitude makes her the most popular person at her French ski resort.

Cheesy? Oh my, yes. But honestly, I’ve had to sit through so many wish-fulfillment movies where a man gets to do and say what he wants that it was properly energising to watch a woman eat lots of butter, tell people off and wear extravagant gowns. Also: Queen Latifah’s performance is a total delight throughout. 

Little Women 

A little bit of a cheat, this. Little Woman has a lot of Christmas scenes towards the beginning of the film, even if the thrust of the story isn’t really about Christmas. (Neither is The Last Holiday, technically, but there are a lot of Christmas trees around the place and the film ends on New Year’s Eve) But the Christmas scenes in Little Women are so fantastically, memorably Christmassy that I can’t help but include it. Also, let’s never forget this scene of Jo manically cry-singing her way through Deck the Halls.​

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Prancer was the biggest surprise on this list, honestly. I had never heard of it until I stumbled across it on Sky Movies, and it had me instantly. This 1989 indie family film stars (an INCREDIBLY sexy) Sam Elliot as the widower father of a bright, loud, awkward and lonely girl, Jessica. I fell in love with Jessica in a way you can rarely fall for a child actor, probably because she so perfectly encapsulates the childhood feeling of being both overactive and unnoticed by the adults around you. Jessica is followed home by an injured reindeer, who she immediately understands to be Santa’s Prancer, and nurses him back to health. 

This film is filled with great women, and passes the Bechdel Test so frequently and with such unthinking ease that I forgot the whole reason I was watching it in the first place. 

The Family Stone

The Family Stone is a hard one, because… because I know there are some big things wrong with it. The “ultra-liberal” family, spear-headed by Diane Keaton, are unbearably smug, proudly displaying their deaf gay son and his black partner (neither of whom have any real contribution to the story) as if they were trophies won at the Lefty County Fair. But there’s something charming and altogether-too-real about parts of The Family Stone, in that it deals exquisetly with the awkwardness of spending Christmas with a family that aren’t your own. 

When Harry Met Sally

Sure, it only passes on a technicality: there's one scene, I think, where Meg Ryan and Carrie Fisher discuss another woman as opposed to a man. And, strictly speaking, When Harry Met Sally is Christmas-ish, as opposed to a bonefied Christmas film. But c'mon: that New Years Eve declaration?

Unlike Love Actually, another festive women-talking-about-men-talking-about-women fest, When Harry Met Sally looks at human relationships in a way that is actually recognisably human, rather than pushing a bunch of Barbie and Ken dolls together and making them kiss. Plus, the writing. Oh, the writing. 


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