"A Christmas Story" (Credit: MGM)
In America, the Christmas season is a time of rituals. Consumerism is worshiped. Family and friends gather to eat copious amounts of unhealthy food. Twice-a-year Christians (if you include Easter) dress up and attend church so that they can lord their supposed piety over other people during the upcoming year. There is football. And an estimated 40 million people will watch the annual 24-hour marathon of “A Christmas Story” that is shown on both TBS and TNT.
(In the interest of full disclosure: I will be switching back and forth between the “Kaiju Christmas” Godzilla marathon on the El Rey network and “A Christmas Story.”)
Film and TV are not perfect ciphers or mirrors for society. But they do reveal a great deal about ourselves and the broader community in which we live: what stories are told and which ones are not? Who gets to speak? Who is silenced? What groups are placed front and center in American — and global — popular culture? Which groups are marginalized or at the periphery? Whose experiences are erased? Likewise, whose experiences and perspectives are depicted as“normal” and “universal?” Perhaps most important, how do popular media (and pop culture more generally) help to inform how we think about our identities as human beings?
When cultural critics debate the merits of “representation,” these are the fundamental questions they focus on. But such conversations are ultimately about much more than the role of gender in the uneven, not very funny and unsatisfying “Ghostbusters” remake or how racial and ethnic diversity (and perhaps even sexual orientation) helps make the excellent new “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story“ a compelling depiction of George Lucas’ wondrous film universe. On a fundamental level, questions of representation are always debates about social and political power.
“A Christmas Story,” co-written and directed by Bob Clark of “Porky’s” fame, was released in 1983. It’s a dark comedy based on the semi-autobiographical short stories of Jean Shepherd, as originally collected in the book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” While the interior scenes were mostly filmed in Cleveland, “A Christmas Story” is set in the fictional community of Hohman, Indiana, circa 1939. (Shepherd was in fact raised in Hammond, Indiana, which only sounds fictional).
The plot is straightforward: A 9-year-old boy named Ralphie is obsessed with getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. He engages in a deliberate and elaborate campaign to convince his parents to buy him that prized Red Ryder BB gun. Along the way, Ralphie negotiates with Santa Claus and his teacher, fights off a horrible bully and partakes in episodes of fantasy, melodrama and adventure.
I was about 10 years old myself when I first watched “A Christmas Story.” I laughed a lot and found it a sophisticated antidote to Christmas classics like “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But as I grew older I realized that something was not quite right about the movie. I began to wonder — as I did while watching “Star Wars: A New Hope” when it was first released — where were the black and brown people? Where were the people who looked like me?
As bell hooks, James Snead, the late Stuart Hall and others have eloquently described, this is an uncomfortable but very common experience for people of color (as well as gays and lesbians and other marginalized groups). When you look at the screen and either a) do not see yourself represented or b) see yourself depicted as a stereotype and caricature (which is itself a type of erasure), this is a moment of awakening and loss of innocence.
Black people are present in “A Christmas Story.” There are several black children in Ralphie’s elementary school classroom and, like their white peers, they participate in pulling a prank on their teacher. There are also some black folks watching the Christmas parade. There is a black man in Black Bart’s gang, which attacks Ralphie’s home in a fantasy sequence and are beaten back by his deft use of that Red Ryder BB gun.