In ‘Christmas as Religion’, Christopher Deacy states that Christmas films act as a “barometer of how we might see and measure ourselves.” Central to such understanding is the private environment of the home, where ideas and perceptions are distilled and accentuated. Within all of these films, ‘the home’, or subsequent return to it, emerges as a central focus point, which is essential to the audience’s own relationship to the narrative, providing a lens for commentary on wider gendered structures and restrictive roles within the private space.
The domestic space of ‘home’ is an essential narrative and structural feature of popular Christmas films. Traditionally character and story are closely entwined in the domestic setting, which often undergoes transformation to signify changes taking place in the narrative arc, often linked to family and traditional gender values. There are numerous ways to study the domestic space and feminist scholars have long been interested in interrogating the domestic sphere and the gendered divisions of public and private space. In ‘The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture’, Pamela Robertson Wojick stated that the domestic space is a “key element for the negotiation of class, race, gender, family, work, community and sexuality.” In Christmas films in particular, the physical or metaphysical space of ‘the home’ is a useful device for examining key social concepts of gender, family and sexuality.
One of the first and clearest examples of the domestic being central to narrative structure is It’s A Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra. The film follows George Bailey (James Stewart) who is considering taking his own life as struggles to cope with pressures of providing for his family and his sense of obligation to his local community, while feeling trapped by small town American life. George longs to escape the confines of Bedford Falls, his dream is to “build things…design new buildings, plan modern cities”, implying that his role is that of a builder both physically as chief financier of the Bailey Park subdivision, but also in his role as father and breadwinner. It is the pressures George faces in fulfilling this masculine role both in the public and private spheres that ultimately leads to his feelings of doubt and unworthiness.
This spatial divide between public and private is further reflected by Capra’s positioning of female characters within the domestic sphere. In It’s A Wonderful Life the female characters of George’s wife Mary Hack and the promiscuous Violet Bick are the antithesis of one another. As George begins to feel increasingly trapped by domestic family life, he travels to the seedy hangouts of Bedford Falls and encounters Violet, who exudes independence and overt sexuality. Meanwhile, Mary is described by Mrs Bailey as a “nice girl” who will “help George find the answers.” In ‘Male Subjectivity at the Margins’ Kaja Silverman argues It’s A Wonderful Life reinstates male subjectivity through “resounding affirmation of faith in male subjectivity, the domestic family and small-town American life.” Mary’s character is built solely within the domestic sphere and is largely defined in the role of wife and caregiver and in the alternative world without George, she is nothing but a spinster. Even when she is successfully able to generate the financial support towards the end that ultimately saves Bailey Park, this is only due to her elevated position in the community as George’s wife. In contrast, Violet serves as the locus of anxiety over America’s changing social and sexual landscape outside of the private sphere. She is subject to gossip and rumour as a “Dime a Dance” girl, with her later arrest and need for George’s help proving clear warning against the increasing social decay of drinking and casual sex. This divide is emblematic of the large American cultural opposition between adventure and domesticity faced by the post-war American man, which ultimately led back to a ‘picket fence’ domestic dream centred around the home, nuclear family and traditional conervative morals and values. For George, both in a physical and metaphysical sense, the home is a site that encapsulates the representation of family through traditional gender roles, a microcosm mirroring societal manifestations of power, gender and class at the time.
In the original slasher Black Christmas directed by Bob Clark, the domestic is the setting of gendered horror as a group of sorority sisters receive threatening phone calls from a creepy stranger and are eventually stalked and murdered by the deranged ‘Billy’ during the Christmas period. Throughout the film the domestic space is used to highlight both changing cultural shifts and continued attempts to limit women’s sexual freedoms. The sorority sisters of Pi Kappa are examples of this cultural shift, as they possess greater autonomy following the legalisation of abortion and contraception. They are sexually active, partake in drinking and live together in a sorority house off-campus, signifying their desire to maintain their freedom and independence outside of the private sphere. However, the girls soon receive a disturbing phone call from a man, known as ‘Billy’, who threatens to brutally murder them all and the audience watches on in shock as the girl’s freedom is slowly taken away from them one by one.
Even with a recent rape in the area, the local authorities don’t take this threat seriously and instead the girls are judged for the choices they make even within the privacy of their own home. Clare (Lynne Griffin), the killer’s first victim, is judged by her own father Mr. Harrison (James Edmond). When she doesn’t show up to meet him, he makes his way to the sorority house and inspects Clare’s room. He disapproves of the “environment” based on her posters – one of an old woman in a rocking chair standing up to flip off the camera, a free love poster with the naked bodies of a man and woman forming a peace sign and a picture of her boyfriend. “I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinking and picking up boys,” he says disdainfully after scrutinising Clare’s private space, the place where in theory she should be free to express herself. After this visit, Clare isolates herself in her room leading her to become the first victim in the house.
Duncan analyses that such attitudes “construct, control, discipline, confine, exclude, and suppress gender and sexual difference, preserving traditional patriarchal and heterosexist power structures”. Private places such as home are thus seen as other and lesser, separating women from the cultural, political sphere of patriarchy. Even the original final girl Jess (Olivia Hussey) is unlikely to survive the Christmas period, as she sleeps alone in the house as the real killer watches on. The final scene of Clare’s lifeless body in the attic window, exemplifies that women are not safe from danger even in their own homes at Christmas. Here roles dictated by patriarchal society are experiences of domestic space, which becomes part of the mechanism perpetuating hegemonic thought, even at the ‘most wonderful time of the year.’
A third more contemporary example of how the domestic space is intertwined with the Christmas narrative is The Holiday directed by Nancy Meyers. The film opens with Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), an editor for a newspaper in London, learning that the man she’s been in love with for three years is engaged to another woman. It then introduces Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz), a wealthy producer in L.A. who has just broken up with her cheating boyfriend. Iris and Amanda, both in need of a break, subsequently find each other via an online home exchange programme and decide to do a house swap for two weeks, thereby exchanging domestic spaces.
Both Amanda and Iris in their shared heartbreak are seeking a more inspirational private space, feeling that a different physical space will help them overcome their romantic break ups. Here the domestic space marks a ‘new beginning’ in the narrative, which is central to the film’s linear progression. At the beginning of the film Iris states that “journey’s end with the lovers meeting”, a clear reference to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This is a clear structural device designed to highlight that changes in domestic places are central to narrative romantic resolutions, especially for female protagonists.
David Walton and Juan Suarez argue in ‘Culture, Space, and Power: Blurred Lines’, that unrepressed expressions of desire and a more optimistic view of romance and intimacy is created in The Holiday through Amanda and Iris’ contrasting domestic spaces. Amanda’s high-intensity schedule in glamorous sunny LA is the antithesis of Iris’ quiet life in a quaint English cottage. Despite both homes being temporary, both spaces are essential to the magical romantic settings, which are closely associated with the Christmas genre. In this sense the description of Rose Hill cottage is explicit: “a fairytale English cottage set in tranquil gardens”, “an enchanting oasis of tranquillity” and “quiet English hamlet.” It is within this fairytale-esque setting that Amanda meets the almost mythically perfect Graham (Jude Law). Similar themes of magic and extraordinary possibility surround Iris in her new space. Her love interest Miles (Jack Black) informs her of the Christmas legend of Santa Ana’s wind, as when it blows “anything can happen.” By moving through these fantasy and temporary spaces, both women’s lives are transformed as they are able to achieve not romantic happiness but also their potential career wise and gain acceptance into new communities. Thus by exchanging homes both women find a new sense of independence outside of the pressures of their own domestic spaces.
Here the domestic space is used to successfully subvert traditional gender tropes of romantic comedies, where the female character is entirely defined based on her romantic worth and success. As Christina H in ‘Assumptions Hollywood Makes About Women’ outlines that “the domestic family conflict is a very real issue and a lot of romantic comedies try to address it by giving us a female character that’s so driven in her career that she doesn’t have time to find love, and the movie helps her discover what’s really important in life… finding a man.” However as Iris states the home exchange allows the women to take back control so to speak and be the “leading lady of their own life.”
It is clear that the domestic setting is intertwined with the Christmas genre. Concepts of home are able to captivate audiences because they contain enduring truths that continue to resonate with our own lives and offer a useful lens to consider gendered structures and stereotypes via attitudes to private spaces. Examining such concepts, in such high-stakes family scenarios such as Christmas offers an intimate insight into the very mechanisms that form the basis of society.
by Eleanor Brady
Eleanor (she/her) lives and works in London and enjoys writing and bingeing the period pieces section on Netflix in her spare time. Her favourite films include Vertigo, The Graduate, Pretty In Pink and Amelie.
Categories: Feminist Criticism
Interesting article! The domestic space immediately conveys so much implicit meaning.