"A Christmas Story": Gender, History and Generally Overthinking It

A Dulled Cutting Edge
On Christmas Day, I proudly posted on FB how glad I was to have introduced my Italian mother-in-law to "A Christmas Story," which immediately elicited a surprising comment of profound sympathy on her behalf.

It was only then I realized that this movie, which had been pretty counter-cultural when it first came out and when I had first seen it on early cable tv nearly 30 years ago, was now totally mainstream and - as a result - boring to any twenty-first century edgy crowd. But consider the wonderfully florid and intellectualized prose of the narration, together with the occasionally absurdist and ever-so-slightly subversive take on the usual overly saccharine family tableaux... It most definitely presaged the humor of the Simpsons that debuted just 4 years later! It was rather cutting edge at the time and, yes, I was precisely in their target demographic!!)

Apparently my own little anti-"Christmas Story" troll however wasn't alone, since Mike Ryan of Moviefone also subsequently posted 10 Things That Confuse Me About 'A Christmas Story'.

Overthinking "A Christmas Story": What's Gender Got To Do with It?
In the spirit of another blog that I follow, Overthinking It, for some inexplicable reason I've decided to address at least briefly these concerns head-on, cuz I think there's a reasonable explanation for most of them (while I still have a couple of others that nevertheless continue to perplex me).
  1. The seventeen-year difference in Ralphie's parents' ages: Yeah, it's striking. But the way I figure it, the story is told from the point of view of an older Ralphie remembering how he used to view the world. And his dad is, of course, "the Old Man." So, I figure he just remembers his dad as always having been older (for more, see number 10 below...)
  2. Goggle-kid in the Santa scene: A quick look at the film's IMDb page shows that there had been Flash Gordon scenes cut out. Sure, the kid's creepy, but maybe he was there cuz his hero was Flash, just like Ralphie was there cuz his hero was Red Ryder.
  3. Flick: re goggles, see above. Flick recurs, I seem to recall, in the book of tales which was the basis for the movie, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash (written, not coincidently, by the film's narrator Jean Shepherd).
  4. A good movie? It's a fun and often clever movie, certainly... but, okay, it's by no means a masterpiece. 1980s nostalgia factor?? Most definitely!
  5. Glitter cowboy: That's easy... it's what a kid during the golden age of Hollywood would imagine his hero wearing. (I'd be really surprised if Roy Rogers had never been forced to wear a similar get-up for some publicity shot somewhere...)
  6. BB gun: Of course it's a bad idea for kids! Then again, our chemistry sets back in the day could legitimately blow stuff up... Not a terribly good idea either! :-)
  7. The Old Man's 'Blue Ball': See number 10 below for more regarding Ralphie's dad!
  8. Jean Shepherd's voice sounding different from Ralphie: Doesn't bother me too much... Jean Shepherd was the story's original author, while Peter Billlingsley is ideal in the role of Ralphie. If the vocal qualities of the two were even to match, that would have just been icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned.
  9. Fake teeth episode: Likely based on a vignette from Shepherd's stories... At the very least, communicates pretty quickly how patiently long-suffering Ralphie's teacher is, which comes into play again later.
  10. Ralphie's dad supposedly being a "prick": I'm honestly pleased to see that Mike Ryan has no point of reference for really understanding the character of the "Old Man," which has everything to do with the idealized gender role of mid-twentieth-century authoritarian father figures... My dad (supposedly Ralphie's generation) wasn't like that, but my granddad definitely was! They were supposed to be distant and intimidating (not to mention legendary in their ability to fix absolutely anything). The one emotion that society could easily accept from them, if they were to show any at all, was anger... Hence, most of their emotional range tended to be channelled into being nearly permanently irascible. Above all, the film's "Old Man," as he is always called, successfully models the "man's man" of the time by being this kind of father! Any inconsistencies with the character, like Mike Ryan noted in number 8 above, for example, arise from the fact that no matter how effectively he presents an idealized tough male attitude, he actually could possess a soft heart that he couldn't readily show... That's why he gets so enamored of his "major award" or else allows himself to be sweet and good-humored at least one day a year, on Christmas Day. (Of course, his indulgence of Ralphie's Christmas wish also allowed him to begin indoctrinating his own son with tough masculine values, so he could doubly allow himself to be accommodating on this day...) Ralphie fondly remembers these rare moments when his dad was not so, shall we say, "prickly."
Where's the History in "A Christmas Story"?
In the end, though, these are not the things that, as Mike Ryan put it, confuse me about "A Christmas Story." Instead, why is there no mention at all of the war? There's never a date beyond "the 1940s" given for the setting, but let's say even that it took place right in 1940 (since they show the "Wizard of Oz" characters bopping around). Wouldn't it make Ralphie's memories far more poignant if they were explicitly the last untroubled ones of his childhood before America entered World War II? (Not to mention the fact that Ralphie's big Christmas wish had been a gun! Surely, there'd have been some subsequent ambivalence about that!)

Realistically, however, I know that these stories had originally been set by Shepherd during the early 1930s, so it's natural that there'd be no reference in them to WWII. But at that time there would have been the Great Depression, which then makes a story about the all-importance of receiving stuff for Christmas a difficult one to accept without any explanation, even - I would argue - from an older child's perspective during that time.

But even these weighty issues of authentic historical context vex me less than "A Christmas Story"'s greatest puzzle of them all: what's with the mom's hair?! It's not 1930s... it's not 1940s... heck, it's not even 1960s!! Why, oh why does the verisimilitude decide to check out here??!!!

(Then again, maybe I'm just overthinking it... May your own holidays be uncomplicated!!)


1 comment:

planet-tom said...

Regarding the fake teeth bit (that is, that moviefone blog guy finds it improbable or expensive that the kids would all get these fake teeth to pull off the practical joke). That one I can probably answer: in the 1930s/1940s there was novelty candy that looked like fake teeth, and also like exaggerated female lips. So, probably the class all went to the candy store and got a bunch of those.
Here's one modern example of the same type of thing: