It is a question that has can be found circulating the internet, “Where can I find holiday movies with strong female characters?” With the increasing emphasis on accurate female representation in pop culture, this question is one that is bound to be asked with greater frequency as time goes on. Yet very few message boards contain genuinely helpful answers to this question, not least of all because it is hard to find holiday movies that do not contain women cast in traditional roles. In spite of its rarity, there are films that contain stories in which women are represented as more than just mother or housekeeper.
The Year Without A Santa Claus
Voiced by greats such as Shirley Booth and Mickey Rooney, this classic movie is a story of a husband and wife who must work together to solve a very serious problem. Santa (Rooney) has fallen ill and is put on bed rest by his doctor even though this will mean that he must miss Christmas. The doctor then adds insult to injury by informing Santa that no one really cares about him anyway.
Mrs. Claus (Booth) not only jumps to Santa’s defense, she begins scheming ways to prove that the doctor’s words are not true. Without missing a beat, Mrs. C, as she is often called, springs into action. There is no hesitation, rather she is portrayed as incredibly confident in her ability to resolve the dilemma that faces her and her husband.
Though Mrs. Claus is never given a first name, she is given the lead of the movie. The story is about Santa in theory, but she narrates and drives the story. She isn’t just serving her husband, she is supporting him by actively seeking to achieve goals outside of the home. Hardly any of the movie has her in traditional homemaker roles and when she is shown performing these duties, she is not particularly adept at them. She’s too distracted by taking over operations so that Santa can rest and finding a way for Santa to know that what they have both devoted their lives to is still a meaningful venture.
The great part of the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. C is that no one is portrayed as weaker or stronger than the other. They are on equal footing. Santa doubts and is ill, but is able to support his wife enough to help her on her adventure. Mrs. Claus is able to take care of the majority of the business but her enthusiasm often renders her a bit shortsighted.
Mrs. C makes mistakes from the very moment she begins formulating her plan but she adjusts and perseveres until her goals have been realized. She immediately decides she cannot be Santa himself, recognizing herself as an autonomous being with her own strengths. Then she accidentally sends two elves and a baby reindeer into danger. Rather than let it frustrate her, she collaborates with Santa to find and rescue the elves and reindeer. Santa takes the less time consuming job of finding the baby animal then goes home to rest while Mrs. C finds the elves and sets out to help them finish the mission she gave them on.
Throughout the entire movie, Mrs. C is the driving force of team efforts. She works with Santa and with the elves. She is the strength and the backbone of the operation. She stands up to both the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser. Despite the fact that the elves quake at the thought, she is perfectly comfortable with approaching Mother Nature and enlisting her in the team effort to make Christmas happen.
Mother Nature was also placed at the top of the hierarchy in the movie. She was the ultimate authority and the appeal to her secures the final word that cements the desired outcome in the movie. Snow is going to fall in the south, Santa will be granted a holiday so he can rest, and children will reach out to him to let him know how very valued he is. Once he has rested and feels better, his self-doubt is transformed into youth-like enthusiasm for the job he loves so much and Mrs. Claus was instrumental in assuring that all of these elements were able to fall into place.
Of course, the movie is not perfect. It ends with Santa being celebrated while Mrs. Claus is relegated to the role of faceless narrator. Her job complete, she fades into the background, graciously forgoing the credit she so justly deserves. The characters are predominantly male and little to no ethnicity is represented outside of the movie industry standard of Caucasian. However, the representation of a strong, self-possessed woman cannot be dismissed simply because there is room for improvement.
By having the lead, even if it is a co-lead, as a strong female, The Year Without a Santa Claus stands out amidst the multitude of holiday movies with mostly male casts that consign women to peripheral, flat characters.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
This is a story in which not only is the strong lead a female, she is a child. Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) is a young girl who is smart and capable. She is not afraid to think outside of the convention and she finds the holiday rituals of her community to be vapid and lacking in the real meaning of the holiday. She is not cowed by the attempts of those closest to her who try to convince her to mindlessly adhere to tradition. Instead, she is plagued by the need to find meaning in the holiday and spends the entire movie searching for it.
This nonconformist streak leads her on a journey to discover the Grinch (Jim Carrey), his backstory and the reasons behind his exile from the community. She displays a precocious approach to investigating in hopes of finding the answers she seeks, interviewing the townsfolk and those formerly close to the Grinch who have left him to his own devices all this time.
For most of the movie, she stands alone in her quest to find the meaning of Christmas. She makes the solitary journey to find the Grinch and invite him to the festivities. She is the only one who defends him, at certain points, even against himself. It is not until the entire city of Whoville, lead by the mayor, turn on her and attempt to marginalize her as the Grinch had been that her father steps in to support her. He doesn’t do this because of her innate need for a father figure’s protection, but instead because he has finally seen what she has seen all along: love and connection is what matters, not material possession.
Cindy Lou Who is not only independent, brave, adventurous, clever and kind, she is the moral compass of the entire town.
Part of her bravery comes from the fact that she doesn’t adhere to the preconceived expectation of fear surrounding the Grinch. Where most people in Whoville regarded his physical characteristics with knee-jerk apprehension and mockery, she is not swayed by surface appearance. Even the ways in which his mannerisms differ are more exciting, amusing and intriguing to her than frightening or fodder for ridicule. While there are other members of Whoville who share her ability to withhold judgement, she is the only one courageous enough to stand up to the bullying few and the crowds they can rally, namely the mayor.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Sally’s role in the movie is largely centered on love interest for Jack Skellington. However, she is not forced to be defined by this aspect of her role. She is shown to be cunning, intelligent and independent.
Voiced by Catherine O’Hara, Sally’s introduction in the movie features her joyfully participating in the holiday festivities. It is quickly revealed that she has gone to great lengths to be able to do this when her father figure, Dr. Finkelstein, grabs her by the arm and attempts to drag her off while accusing her of poisoning him. This scene sets up several important elements of Sally’s personality that distinguish her from mere love interest in the story.
She is headstrong, willing to rip off her arm to avoid being taken where she does not want to be. When she hides herself away in the cemetery, she doesn’t waste her time cowering in fear. After eavesdropping on Jack as he details his identity crisis, she begins to gather plants before returning home on her own terms.
These early scenes establish a lot about Sally. She is strong, independent, emotionally aware and exhibits mastery with plants and potion making. She uses these skills to prevent herself from being imprisoned by Dr. Finkelstein, who views her as his possession. She was made to be his companion, his pet. Instead, she refuses to let him define her saying things like, “I’m restless; I can’t help it,” and “I don’t want to be patient.”
By utilizing her skills and escaping imprisonment, she demonstrates not only resourcefulness but self-sufficiency. She has stashes of things she will need to help her be free. She is adept at sneaking and enters high risk situations with a clear head and a clever approach.
Sally is a very enterprising character. Her goals are not dictated by external forces, rather, she drives her own path and formulates her own impressions of the situations around her. When her vision foretells doom and she is dismissed by Jack, she has enough faith in herself to know her warning should be heeded. Despite the fact that her clever ploy to ruin Jack’s takeoff with her fog juice is thwarted by Jack’s own clever capacity does not diminish the fact that she was sure enough in her perception to act on it.
The same extends to her attempts to rescue Santa, aka Sandy Claws. She is the only one in town with the presence of mind to actually pay attention to the broadcasts about Jack’s flight and she springs into action, immediately and alone, to help resolve the increasingly desperate situation. She approaches Oogie Boogie’s lair with incredible courage and the presence of mind to plan a distraction and escape route. It doesn’t go well, but her efforts buy Jack enough time to finish dealing with his identity crisis and come fix the mess he has made.
Though Sally is not the lead of this movie, it is very empowering to see a woman fight for what she believes in, work to develop her own set of skills and then use those skills to contribute to her society.
Miracle on 34th Street
This 1947 film is the oldest movie in the bunch and features not one, but two female lead characters. Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is not only a divorcee, she is the managing coordinator for the Macy’s Day Parade. It is a rare, and refreshing, early portrayal of a single woman who not only raises a child but has a career and is independent.
Walker is introduced into the movie early on, as she works to organize the chaos while the parade is getting ready to begin. Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) finds the parade’s hired Santa completely wasted and laying on the float, he asks an attendant near him who is “in charge” and is directed to Mrs. Walker. The film really goes out of its way to establish her as being at the top of the food chain in the operation of this parade. Not only that, but she is among the select few who speak with Mr. Macy in person and is the only woman in the room on these occasions. In the context of her job, her gender is largely ignored, aside from when she is respectfully addressed as Mrs. Walker.
That is not to say that her gender is completely ignored. For instance, when she speaks to her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), of role models, she speaks of Joan of Arc. However, her upper management position in a major department store is not deemed as remarkable in relation to her being a woman. Meeting and dating Fred Gailey (John Payne) does not interrupt her career or place any pressure on her to reconsider it.
In fact, Gailey’s role in her life is that of equality and companionship. He makes his reverence to her known immediately and incorporates himself willingly, eagerly, into helping to run the household. He takes care of Susan, he is found in the kitchen helping with dinner and he takes in Kris Kringle, partially out of kindness, partially to impress Doris with his willingness to help.
Susan is the second female of the lead characters and she is precocious, inquisitive and observant. Doris, who is pragmatic almost to a fault, has chosen not to allow her daughter to believe in Santa. Yet when Kringle shows up and evidence starts mounting in favor of Santa being real, Susan is confident enough to openly question the conventions around her. Rather than accept the knowledge others try to impart upon her, she seeks her own. Her investigations into Santa’s legitimacy lead her to directly challenge the adults in her life and she does so without pause or trepidation. She has the strength and courage to question her previously conceived notions, expand her world view and then assert that new view in spite of the fact that others around her are not likely to share it. Plus, she gets an entire house out of Santa Claus for Christmas.
It is a film that dismantles many gender roles and allows the characters to exist on equal footing without making any fuss about it. The love story and courtship are background noise to the rest of the plot and only really becomes a central focus at the end when they shoehorn in a traditional, old Hollywood crushing and uncomfortable kiss.
All four of the movies discussed here are popular, entertaining films but the fact that they include strong female characters in leading roles makes them stand out amongst the crowd. These women are given central roles in driving the plot, they are given depth of character, intelligence, courage and autonomy. They are given limitations and ways to cope with them. They represent a much more realistic portrayal of women as individuals and not as token characters in a story about men and they do all of this without denigrating their male counterparts. These movies are staples for anyone who is looking for holiday cheer that is friendly to the entire family.
By Vanessa Blanchard