Christmas traditions are constantly evolving and, just as I am confounded by the appearance of ever-creepy The Elf On The Shelf that seems so dominant in my niece’s Christmas yet had no place in mine, I’m sure that, similarly, my parents are mystified by my generation’s penchant for ruining Christmas media for ourselves.
I’m joking. Kind of. But it truly seems that every year – sometime between my first, hastily written, donkey-sanctuary-sponsored Christmas card and my last stub of tooth-bitten holly-sprigged Sellotape – I will have read approximately 10,000 pieces about how all of my favourite Christmas movies and songs are bad for me. Baby It’s Cold Outside is a toxic ode to Rohypnol and rape culture – or, no, wait, it’s a misunderstood classic – hang on, wait again, it’s about subverting sexual norms in the 1940s. It’s A Wonderful Life is roundly chastised for its treatment of Donna Reed’s character, whose terrible George Bailey-free fate is that she winds up (shock, horror, gasps from George) single and working in a library. I can’t pretend that I don’t regularly take a whack at the problematic Christmas piñata myself – just last year, I wrote about how few Christmas films pass the Bechdel test.
And you know what? There’s value in this criticism. It’s good to question everything. It’s a healthy instinct to look at the media that culture calls “classic” and go, "Now wait just a second, buddy." Similarly, it’s interesting to consider, as Slate has, Love Actually’s position in the Christmas canon. After all, in the year of #MeToo, it’s hard to avoid just how rife with power imbalances the Richard Curtis favourite is. Colin Firth flirts steadily with his housekeeper; the prime minister ogles his tea lady while the US president corners her on the stairs; Alan Rickman can’t seem to go a day at work without being harassed by his weird office manager. Richard Curtis is a director who is, and always has been, obsessed with the modern British person’s affinity with formality and protocol, which is why so many of his films feature workplaces, weddings and funerals. He loves giving people Big Feelings at occasions where it’s not appropriate to have Big Feelings, and watching them struggle. Hence the power imbalances, the sexy subordinate women and the bumbling men who are nevertheless in control.
Colin Firth flirts steadily with his housekeeper; the prime minister ogles his tea lady while the US president corners her on the stairs; Alan Rickman can’t seem to go a day at work without being harassed by his weird office manager
Here’s the thing: I can know all this and still enjoy Love Actually. I know Love Actually is saccharine and problematic and dreadfully middle-class, and I still like it anyway. I like texting my sister about Aurelia’s stupid tattoo, even though I know the real problem is that a housekeeper is stripping, slowly, lovingly, to rescue a man’s shit novel. Similarly, I can sing “Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree, for me” while knowing that it furthers the stereotype that women are materialistic, as well as being a sexy advert for the fur trade to boot. I can give my niece pink Lego Friends for Christmas, even though I know about how Lego Friends are a sexist bastardisation of regular Lego. I can eat sausage stuffing that is lined with pancetta, despite knowing what it’s doing to my arteries. I can smoke a whole packet of fags on Christmas Day with my brother, leaning out of the back door, shoes off, coats on.
The reason I do these things is the exact same reason you do them: because it’s Christmas and I’m tired and I’m allowed to do things I enjoy without questioning them that much. My niece likes pink Lego better than she likes regular Lego and that’s fine. We watch A Christmas Prince on Netflix even though it’s furthering the stereotype that female journalists are unable to cover a story without falling in love with their male source. My brothers carry the crates of beer in from the car because they’re boys and they can carry heavier things than I can. Fine.
I used to think, when I was younger, that Christmas was about creating the perfect day: where everyone wore their best clothes, ate the best food, gave the best gifts and was the best they could be in the name of the baby Jesus. Maybe that’s why we’ve developed such a taste for criticising the films we watch at Christmas – if we can’t have “the best”, then we might as well complain and point out just why, exactly, these films and songs are damaging to us. But as I’ve got older and time off has become scarcer, I’ve realised that Christmas isn’t about ascending to a place of “best” – it’s about enjoying what you have, in the very moment that you have it. This Lego is sexist, but it will do. This film has weird ideas about women, but it’s fine. There will be plenty of battles to fight in the new year – new battles, hard ones. I’m saving my energy for them.