Anne T Donahue | Contributing Writer | Saturday, 20 December 2014

Here's Why Christmas Films Were So Much Better In The 90s

The Debrief: Q: Where are all the great female characters are in Christmas films? A: The nineties

We’re in a safe place so I think we can be honest about something pretty controversial: Christmas movies are bizarre. Families, couples, friends – all (re)united over a holiday that revolves (if you’re not religious) around a man in a red outfit who delivers presents via sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Neat.

Or, in the case of Love Actually, it revolves around truth-telling, love-declaring, nickname-giving, airport security-avoiding characters who use Christmas to justify their terrible behavior. '. . . Because it’s Christmas,' Andrew Lincoln’s sign to Keira Knightley reads in Love Actually. 'And at Christmas you tell the truth . . .'

Now, religious backstory aside, I think we can all agree the truth is absolutely not what Christmas is all about. In fact, since Christmas is the one time of year you can bank on coming face to face with every person you’ve ever met since infancy or pubescence, we can also all probably agree that Christmas is when you do not tell the truth. (Usually because it is not always 'so great!' to see them again, and you really should not 'do this again some time.') Christmas also isn’t about bold declarations of love to your best friend’s partner, but that’s a conversation for another day.

But Love Actually isn’t alone in its bizarre representation of the holiday or its fabricated sentiments. Aside from Elf, in which Zooey Deschanel’s Jovie saves Christmas by believing in Buddy the Elf (but not before she calls him out on being a total weirdo for the first half of the film), the 2000's have seen nothing but holiday movies that paint women as helpless, stupid, boring, or clichéd. 2004’s Christmas With the Kranks turned Jamie Lee Curtis (yes: as in the woman who once defeated Jason in Halloween) into a Mom™-with-a-capital-“M” caricature that was defined by her festive vests and honey hams. Surviving Christmas (2004) saw Christina Applegate as a manic pixie dream girl who’s won over by Ben Affleck’s lonely misunderstood millionaire character (who’s subsequently changed by the power of Christmas). Meanwhile, Four Christmases (2008) dissolves into a couple’s near-demise only exacerbated by a girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) telling her boyfriend (Vince Vaughan) that she wants to get married and have kids. The Holiday (2006) is about two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) whose lives are one hundred percent defined by men. And these are great actresses. 

Enter: the nineties.

Now obviously, despite pop culture’s (and my) obsession with its revival, the nineties weren’t perfect. But in terms of the holiday movie sector, the decade and its predecessor set the bar high. All I Want For Christmas (1991) may have focused on Ethan Embry’s attempt to reunite his parents, but the film’s true stars (and masterminds) were nine-year-old Thora Birch and her grandma, played by Lauren Bacall. Without their smarts or craftiness, Embry’s character would never have been able to execute or pull off his plan, and their mom would’ve been stuck with Kevin Nealon, whom Birch ends up locking in a freezer truck.

And while we can argue that Home Alone (1990) was Kevin McAllister a.k.a. Macaulay Culkin’s vehicle, Catherine O’Hara’s journey as his mom was just as important as his plot. O’Hara may have played a wife and mom, but her character follows the John Hughes formula of evolution: her fight to get home leads to her re-examining what she’s done, her trajectory as a parent, and her behaviors as a human being. Even Beverly D’Angelo in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) was given something to work with. Tasked with keeping peace in the family (and putting up with Chevy Chase’s outbursts and insistence over the perfect holiday), we actually get to see her frustrations as you would with a well-rounded, human person: first with her husband, then with her mother – as evidenced when she smokes from a pack of hidden cigarettes, while lecturing her daughter on making sacrifices.  

So what gives? Was it The Santa Clause (1994)? A movie that villainized a kid’s mother because she thought her son was the victim of Tim Allen’s Santa delusions? Jingle All the Way (1996), about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s obsession with acquiring a superhero toy for his wee boy? Die Hard (1988)? (No. Die Hard is sacred. And we all know this.)

Ultimately, I think our downfall began with tying romance and gender norms to Christmas. We don’t have to make the holidays the reason a couple stays together, or the reason some dude shows up on your porch with a bunch of poster boards declaring his love. (Honestly: how much time do you think those took to make?) Maybe, instead of nicknaming a woman 'Plumpy' and 'saving' her via Prime Minister Hugh Grant, we work on creating and championing female characters that resemble real, thinking, human adult women who don’t need a holiday to find a boyfriend. 

 Christmas is a holiday on which we pay homage to a guy who delivering presents by climbing down your chimney, so there’s room for creativity when it comes to holiday films. The Griswalds were eccentric. The McCallisters were dysfunctional. Buddy the Elf was a man who thought he was an elf. These are the movies we love, and we love them because they abided by almost no norms at all. Nobody even thought Home Alone would survive at the box office, let alone unleash a franchise. But movies about wives defined by their marriages, girlfriends by their boyfriends, and women by their men? We can do better than that. Don’t believe me? Well you’ll see: it’ll be a Christmas miracle. 

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Tags: Christmas