by Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne, Australia
The typical Christmas word cloud is filled with holly jolly words like wishes and faith and festiveness. Bethlehem, yuletide and snowflakes are likely included; a word with no place there is sex.
Easter we could, perhaps, draw a bow long enough to recognise that with it being a season associated with rebirth and renewal, fertility might play a role. However, the birth that – in a roundabout way – led to the celebration of Christmas didn’t involve intercourse. Distinctly so. To stir sex into the season therefore, feels inappropriate. Christmas is about family and gift-giving and fat men clad in red; all the debauchery, seemingly, gets postponed to New Year.
At least in theory.
In writing my new book Analyzing Christmas in Film: Santa to the Supernatural I watched close to 1000 films depicting Christmas. I write “depicting Christmas” rather than “Christmas films” purely to circumvent debate about what constitutes a Christmas film. Whether Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner 1987) or Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988) are “Christmas films” might make for worthy debate over the turkey table, but I wasn’t particularly interested in addressing the question of genre. Instead, my focus was analysing the framing of the season. I examine the intersection between media representations and real life, and address the question: if film provides us with information about Christmas, what is revealed?
Unsurprisingly, sex isn’t a common theme. The vast majority of holiday depictions tend to be twee, made-for-TV Hallmark Channel films that annually fall off the conveyor belt, invariably involving single moms who’ve lost the spirit of Christmas but find it again in the form of a handsome man with a Jesus-like penchant for whittlin’.
With Christmas being so often thought of as a children’s holiday, and in our culture that regularly goes to great pains to separate anything sexual from childhood, it makes sense that we don’t tend to think about sex in the context of Christmas. The existence of mistletoe however – and the opportunity it provides for a little liberty-taking and licentiousness – conveys the hint that the picture might be a little more complicated.
Outside of film, there’s a well-established link between Christmas popular culture and sex. From subtly flirty tunes – think Dean Martin’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (1951), Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” (1953), Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994) and Christina Aguilera’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” (2000) – to more overtly explicit songs like Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” (1968), AC/DC’s “Mistress for Christmas” (1990) and The Dan Band’s “Rock You Hard This Christmas” (1993), the idea of there being something sexual about the season is alluded to. On screen, while rare, similar themes are detected.
In A Very Murray Christmas (Netflix 2015), Miley Cyrus – dressed in a skimpy Santa’s helper outfit – joins Bill Murray and George Clooney for a performance of “Let It Snow” – and alludes to the most obvious way sex and the season are fused: aesthetically. In the “All About the ‘I’m Sorry’” episode of Sex and the City (HBO 1998-2004), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) comments about Halloween costumes: “The only two choices for women: witch and sexy kitten.” Even more so than Halloween costumes, Christmas outfits are similarly limiting for women. While the Santa Claus costume is the obvious Christmas dress-up choice for men, there is no natural choice for women so instead they frequently don red, fur-trimmed miniskirts, playsuits and heels. In one of the most famous scenes from Mean Girls (Mark Waters 2004), Cady (Lindsay Lohan), Regina (Rachel McAdams), Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried) wear such outfits in their “Jingle Bell Rock” dance routine. Similar dance routines play out in Holiday High School Reunion (Marita Grabiak 2012), Deck the Halls (John Whitesell 2006) and Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (Debbie Isitt 2012). In films like Christmas Comes to Willow Creek (Richard Lang 1987), A Very Cool Christmas (Sam Irvin 2004), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black 2005), and Bikini Bloodbath Christmas (Jonathan Gorman and Thomas Edward Seymour 2009) women work in the service industry and wear similar sexy “Christmas-themed” attire. Whereas men’s outfits are versions of Santa Claus’s red uniform, female versions don’t link to a specific character, and instead focus simply on bringing something titillating to the holiday.
Sex is also incorporated into Christmas narratives through word play. In We’re No Angels (Michael Curtiz 1955), Jules (Peter Ustinov) tells the story of how he came to be sent to prison: “I came home unexpectedly one Christmas and found my wife giving a friend of mine a present.” In Christmas with the Coopers (Jessie Nelson 2015), Sam (John Goodman) seems under the impression that the lyrics of “Silent Night” include “brown young virgin.” In the action film The World Is Not Enough (Michael Apted 1999), James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) addresses Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards): “I thought Christmas only came once a year.” In Nothing Like the Holidays (Alfredo de Villa 2008), Mauricio (John Leguizamo) makes a barb to Spencer (Cedric Young), who is dressed up as Santa: “Too bad Santa only comes once a year if you know what I mean.” These examples subtly stir in sex through innuendo and double entendre.
In A Very Murray Christmas, George Clooney’s performance of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” (1974) hints to the sexual appetites of Santa; Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff 2003) takes these ideas substantially further: Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a thief with a penchant for anal sex. The notion of jarring juxtapositions – of outlandish presentations contained within the portrayal of a wholesome season – is also useful in exploring how sex enters several Christmas stories: to unsettle audiences and to show wrong – or, at the very least untypical, if not even depressing – ways to celebrate. There’s a Christmas time lap dance in White Reindeer (Zach Clark 2013), and festively festooned strip clubs in The Ice Harvest (Harold Ramis 2005), Santa’s Slay (David Steiman 2005) and Powder Blue (Timothy Linh Bui 2009). Sex workers are similarly visited in Escort Girls (Donovan Winter 1974) and Tangerine (Sean Baker 2015). Such films are distinctly subversive in their presentation of the holiday and use sex to help convey this. Christmas-themed horror takes this idea further, whereby the presence of sex is often an instigator for dastardly deeds. In Christmas Evil (Lewis Jackson 1980), young Harry (Gus Salud) sees a sex act between Santa and his mother. This episode traumatises him to such an extent that adult Harry (Brandon Maggart) becomes a Santa suit-clad slasher. In Deadly Little Christmas (Novin Shakiba 2009), Mary (Felissa Rose) sees her husband – dressed as Santa – having sex with the family’s Scandinavian nanny. She slaughters them both. Such examples underscore the idea that fusing Christmas and sex comes at a cost: that it disrupts the natural order of the holiday.
Sex isn’t common in Christmas depictions, but if it’s there it’s likely to be at least a little consciously shocking, disruptive and more than likely a bit subversive.
Analyzing Christmas in Film: Santa to the Supernatural is published by Rowman & Littlefield and is out now.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She teaches in the areas of political science and gender studies and writes, comments and speaks on a wide variety of topics including gender, sexuality, public policy, social media, pop culture and technology. Lauren has authored nine books, as well as journal articles, book chapters and hundreds of opinion pieces. For more information: www.laurenrosewarne.com.