I’m a lover of movies. And like most woke white women who are also lovers of movies, I can often be found pointing out all the unforgivable sexist / racist / classist / fat-shamey / tropes in everyone’s favorite old movies.
I’m eternally obsessing over what to do with a classic, well-loved movie that’s ALSO full of harmful stereotypes and fucked up messaging.
Do we cancel it? Pretend it never existed? Wave away the harmful messages by claiming “it was a different time?”
Read: The Rape Culture of The 1980s, Explained by Sixteen Candles by Constance Grady, which came out during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last year.
Maybe. But that approach has always seemed a bit dodgy to me. What a convenient way to squirm out of the responsibility we have to dismantle our privileges and examine the ways in which we’ve been complicit! Blaming the bad actors* just means we get to ignore the systems that created them.
(*I was gonna say no pun intended there, but you know what? I meant that shit.)
Also, our movies are a reflection of our culture. And our culture is deeply rooted in patriarchy, oppression, and white supremacy. So, as we collectively wake up to the staggering damage done by these systems, and strive to understand how we got here, and scramble to course correct the dystopian future we’re all barreling toward…
Every movie, no matter how well intended, is going to seem problematic to a degree.
And it’s not like we can cancel ALL the movies.
I realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas, watches Christmas movies, benefits from Christian privilege, etc. But since I was raised on a steady diet of It’s A Wonderful Life and Santa-is-really-real! movies, I find the Christmas movie phenomenon* to be an especially fascinating little corner of this conversation.
*There’s a separate discussion to be had here, about the recent explosion of cheesy Christmas movies, and what the reason is for that. I think it’s because certain white, Christian people are feeling threatened, and find comfort in a white, heteronormative, Christmas-y romance—especially when it involves a misguided young woman who works too much and/or values her career over boys and babies. 🙄🙄🙄
OR, Ms. cynical pants, maybe it’s just because people are feeling starved for depictions of human kindness, which is the overarching theme of pretty much every Christmas movie ever.
Except, that is, for Love Actually.
Read: I Rewatched Love Actually and Am Here to Ruin It for All of You, by the great Lindy West, originally published in 2013.
This piece is a jokey-yet-scathing takedown of the misogyny that underscores every storyline in Love Actually. But the really funny thing about it is that you won’t think it’s funny unless you’ve seen the movie enough times to know what she’s talking about.
And you don’t rewatch a movie multiple times, unless you like it.
See, it’s one thing to renounce a problematic movie you used to love (#sorrynotsorry, Long Duck Dong).
But when you cancel a beloved Christmas movie, you have to give up all the wistful nostalgia that goes with it—the twinkly lights, the snowy streets, the happy endings, the idea that maybe—maybe—magic still exists and people are really good inside, and life is worth living after all—poof!
You have to gather it all up like so much spent wrapping paper, and toss it in the bin next to all those racial stereotypes and mean-ass fat jokes.
And you know, that’s a real bummer.
And sometimes I think, can’t I just have this one thing?
And then I think, what a privilege it is to even ask that question.
But at the end of the day, it comes down to this—
You can renounce Love Actually as the misogynistic faff that it is, or you can continue to enjoy it every single year, despite its problems.
Or all of the above, or none of the above.None of those choices have any real impact on the people who are most affected by oppression and social injustice, or the fact that we’re all going to die in the climate wars before we have a chance to figure any of this out anyway.
I am so fun to watch movies with, you guys. ; )
Anyway. My decision—as a feminist, as a privileged person trying to understand and repurpose that privilege, as a movie lover, as an overthinky writer who’s like a dog with a bone right now—is to keep watching (and rewatching) the films that influenced me the most.
Dissect them. Pull them apart.
Tease out what I actually like and find meaning in, and why, and disentangle myself from the societal beliefs I don’t agree with, that were imposed on me without my knowledge or consent.
What I’m saying is, it’s okay to love Love Actually. And, it’s okay to hate it.
It’s okay if you find Hugh Grant’s Pointer Sisters routine utterly delightful, even if the whole reason for his little victory dance is that one of his female employees was sexually assaulted by President Billy Bob Thornton, and he “defended” her (???) by vaguely threatening Billy Bob at a press conference… before calling her fat and then firing her. Ouch.
It’s okay if you’re willing to buy Martin Freeman as a porn body double (🤔), and/or find this whole meet-cute situation oddly charming, even though it is SUPER FREAKING WEIRD.
It’s okay if you can’t get enough of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas, even though that little girl reminds you of the smug mean girl who used to get all the lead roles in your school plays, even though she sang through her nose and bullied you for not inviting her to that party in the fifth grade.
It’s okay if you think Liam Neeson looks sexy as hell in those turtleneck sweaters, because, well, he does.
(And just for the record, it’s totally fine that you never knew that was really Claudia Schiffer until like, last year.)
I’m not going to flog myself for having enjoyed this movie in the past. Nor do I wish to yuck anybody’s yum. Especially at Christmas.
But goddamnit, I’m tired of watching Natalie apologize for getting assaulted.
I’m tired of the sexpot secretary whose only purpose in life is to seduce Alan Rickman (like, really? why?), and the implication that his infidelity is somehow all her fault, because she wears red lingerie and devil horns. (Also—devil horns?? Come on.)
I’m tired of “Shut up, Miss Dunkin’ Donut 2003.”
I’m tired of Laura Linney’s sad, one-dimensional office crush. Every time I watch this scene, I expect Paulo from LOST to be like, “NBD, Laura Linney! Everyone has shit going on. It’s a great thing you’re doing—I’ll just chill here until you get back.”
But he never does, and I’m tired of that, too.
So instead, here are some of the other problematic movies I’ll be watching this year…
It’s a Wonderful Life
No man is a failure who has friends, and I can’t even type that sentence without getting a lump in my throat. In fact, I am 100% incapable of watching the last 30 minutes of this movie without bawling my freaking eyes out. Honestly, I can’t even make it through this one-second GIF. Please send help.
Problematic moment: The only person of color in the movie is ‘I’ve been savin’ up for a DEE-vorce if ever I get a husband!’ Annie—a textbook Mammy stereotype.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
One of the great mysteries of my life is how and why this movie continues to get funnier the more you watch it. But it does, and I look forward to it every year.
Problematic moment: Man-child stereotype, sexy-shopgirl trope, and an electrocuted cat. 🙁
12 Dates of Christmas
Y’all. This movie? Is bad. It’s so bad. It’s basically Groundhog Day: Christmas Edition but with Amy Smart and a grownup Zack Morris—who, for what it’s worth, ALSO looks sexy as hell in a turtleneck sweater. 🤷🏻
But you know, it cheers me up every year, and I don’t understand why, and I don’t care. (And yes, I do watch it, every year, all by myself. It’s on Netflix. You’re welcome.)
Problematic moment: Heteronormative; implies that happiness can only come when you find a man, with a heaping side of white savior subplot (so, your standard Hallmark fare).
Quick, name a Christmas movie starring Mary Steenburgen! 😉
This 80s gem, which is kind of a mashup of It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol (but with a woman!) is a deep-cut Christmas movie that I absolutely adore, mostly because of how it looks and feels. (Real people, in a real town, in the real snow. Plus, Harry Dean Stanton in an awesome hat.)
It also has one of THE BEST Santa Clauses in Christmas movie history.
Problematic moment: Mary Steenburgen’s reluctance to invest the family’s life savings in her husband’s dream business is absolutely a responsible financial decision, but it’s depicted as unsupportive, and a failure of imagination. Reverse the roles, and she’d be seen as a bad mother for caring so much about her work instead of her kids. No wonder she’s so stressed out this Christmas!
Can we talk about this please?
What’s a problematic movie you used to love, but decided to cancel? What’s a problematic movie you used to love, and decided to keep anyway?
How do you make the distinction between what gets cancelled, and what gets to stay?
Also. What’s your favorite Christmas movie / movie quote / movie? (I love movies.)
Reply to this email and tell me all the things. I don’t have any elves, so I’ll be reading and replying to everything myself.
Stay warm, ya filthy animal.