Run time: 1h 37m
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: David Berenbaum
Starring: Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, Peter Dinklage
By Caz Armstrong
Let me make it clear up front that I really like “Elf” (2003) and no Christmas is complete without it. It’s consistently ranked among the top Christmas films of all time and is screened at cinemas every year.
With that in mind, I want to talk about the way the film treats women.
Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell) was raised at the North Pole with the other elves. Upon learning that he is actually a human, he embarks on an adventure to the mean streets of New York City to find his father Walter (James Caan) – his mother died when he was a baby and he apparently doesn’t care about that.
The human world is tough and Buddy struggles to win his father’s affections. When all looks lost the citizens of New York learn to spread the spirit of Christmas and get Santa’s sleigh flying again. Buddy’s new family embrace him and they live happily ever after.
There are three women in the film who have anything notable to do.
Emily the stepmother
Buddy’s stepmother Emily (Mary Steenburgen) is a voice of reason who counters the curmudgeonly workaholic Walter who has no time for this child-like annoyance. She is incredibly receptive to the idea of including Buddy in their family and wants to get to know him.
Apart from that Emily doesn’t have anything to do. We know that she does have a job but it’s not clear what that is and she doesn’t have any backstory or character development.
Charlotte the reporter
Journalist Charlotte Dennon (Claire Lautier) reports from Central Park where Santa’s sleigh has crash-landed. It’s her first live report and it gets cut off by the news anchor.
She also tries to interview a man who keeps interrupting himself to describe how beautiful she is and how much he loves her. The joke is that it’s a silly interview and on that level it does work. But it’s so cringe-inducing watching someone have their appearance examined while they’re just doing their job.
Jovie the love interest
The main woman in the film is Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). She is introduced with the bright flourish of a chime signalling Buddy’s instant attraction to her. But we quickly learn she’s tough and won’t put up with any rubbish from him.
She makes it very clear that she doesn’t want to talk to him, saying “please don’t talk to me” and “please go away” but he blocks her path and keeps trying to get her to sing.
Later she is singing in the shower and he comes into the locker room to sing with her. The song in question is “Baby it’s Cold Outside” – because it was not possible to find a more divisive and problematic song? Either way, she screams and throws him out.
The subsequent confrontation is so strange because she drops the subject so quickly. He asks why she was showering at work and the conversation takes a new direction. Her anger at such a serious invasion is immediately gone. She says her water has been turned off and that might have led to a back story if she’d have given a reason.
Their whole relationship takes on a different angle when you remember he’s essentially a child. He doesn’t know how doors work and is obsessed with smiling and gumdrops.
Other characters question his sanity as he’s clearly not functioning the same as everyone else. Yet he knows what kissing is and ends up marrying Jovie.
To emphasise how clueless Buddy is, his little brother has to tell him how to ask Jovie out. He says if the woman agrees to get some food with you it means they’re into you – “it’s a secret code girls have”.
Women are not the complicated mysteries men think they are. If someone agrees to go out with you it means they want to go out with you. If she tells you to leave her alone it means just that. It’s not a code for goodness sake.
Jovie doesn’t get any character development either, save for the fact that she fell for Buddy and got a bit more comfortable singing in front of other people.
So while Elf is one of my favourite Christmas films its treatment of women leaves something to be desired.
But it’s ok, you can still love it. Spread some Christmas cheer and even eat maple syrup on spaghetti if you want.