As we’re leading into Christmastime, I’ve been doing a lot of holiday celebrations with friends lately, including watching Christmas movies. The one that Rachael and I make a point of watching every year is The Muppet Christmas Carol, because it is, objectively, the best Christmas Carol. I explained this to one of my coworkers who had never seen Muppet Christmas Carol, and he was skeptical, so I loaned him the movie over our break. I expect him to sing its praises when we go back to work in early January. The reason I love Muppet Christmas Carol is that it’s a really funny movie (Muppet brand humor is the best humor) and it also tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge with a great deal of care and depth. When it’s all over and Scrooge is having Christmas dinner with all of London (long story), I’m rarely far from tears.
But this post isn’t about a good Christmas movie.
It’s about Jingle All the Way.
For anyone who may have missed this particular movie, it’s a holiday vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger from the mid-90s that revolves around the trials and travails of Howard Langston, a workaholic dad, as he tries to find the “it” toy of the year for his son, a Turbo Man action figure, on Christmas Eve.
Before I get into analysis of the film, I suppose I should probably give some background on how I ended up watching this movie three times in the space of a week. The first time was over the weekend with Rachael; we were doing Christmas-y things and wanted to put on a festive movie, so we picked Jingle All the Way. A few days later, on the last day before my school closed for Winter Break, I was proposing movies that my class might like to watch to pass the time; they chose Jingle All the Way. The day after that, Rachael and I were visiting with some friends while they went about decorating their Christmas tree, and they decided to put on Jingle All the Way. It was during this third viewing that I started explaining to my friends everything I found wrong with the movie, and after someone quipped that I could write a paper, I decided that was what I was going to do. Kinda.
Anyway, I might be a little overloaded on Jingle All the Way.
So, this is a kids’ movie. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad, and goes to great lengths to depict the consumer stampede that is shopping for Christmas. What it does not do is show just how horrific that kind of mass consumerism can be (several set pieces within the narrative revolve around Howard fighting through crowds of shoppers and assaulting store employees in search of that coveted doll, completely oblivious to the very real injuries that happen every year during Christmas time). I don’t expect the violence to be realistic, since it’s a kids’ movie, but there’s something that just seems unsavory about watching and being expected to laugh at people getting trampled. Nonetheless, the absurdity of the shopping craze is overshadowed by something far worse about this movie.
Seriously, let’s examine for a minute our protagonist and his antagonist. Howard is a successful salesman who lives in a nice suburban neighborhood in a house that’s very spacious for his small family of three. He has no problem paying whatever price is asked for the various Turbo Man dolls that he comes so close to acquiring (anywhere from double the established retail price up to three hundred dollars). Contrast Sinbad’s character, Myron Larabee. Myron is a postal worker who’s just trying to get a Turbo Man for his son as well. He wears his uniform and drives his mail truck throughout the movie, suggesting that he’s doing his Christmas shopping during break time on his regular route (that’s probably over thinking the fact that there’s a character who’s a postal worker, and he’s wearing his uniform to make that apparent to the audience). Nonetheless, Myron can’t just take time off from his job to hunt down a Turbo Man like Howard can. As a postal worker, Myron probably doesn’t get paid the best salary (certainly nothing comparable to what an ace salesman like Howard makes), so he’s probably not able to throw money at the problem like Howard tries to do (hence why when Myron appears, it’s always in an attempt to get a Turbo Man at regular price or even for free; in the sequence where Howard goes to a black market Santa’s shop to buy a Turbo Man, Myron is nowhere to be found).
All of those details serve to show there’s a class difference between Howard and Myron (the fact that Myron’s black is probably incidental, since Sinbad was a major actor in kids’ movies when Jingle All the Way first came out). Nonetheless, at every turn we are expected to side with Howard over Myron. This boggles my mind, because we have in the set up that Howard’s in this mess because of his own neglect, while Myron, as far as we can tell, seems to be trying to fit this one errand in around his work schedule. Myron’s motivations are similar to Howard’s, though he has the added layer of feeling disappointed that his own father never delivered on Christmas promises when he was a kid. There’s a fantastic (read: horrendously tone deaf) scene where Howard and Myron are commiserating in a diner during a lull in the rush to try to find a Turbo Man. Myron explains his past, and it’s implied that he wound up where he is because of his father’s failure to show love through the accepted commercial avenues (buying him the stuff he wanted as a kid). We get a flash from Howard’s perspective as he imagines his own son dressed like Myron and drinking from a flask of whiskey, saying this is all thanks to Howard.
What the heck?
Let’s set aside the absurdity of suggesting that a kid’s future is determined by their parents’ ability to deliver the magical fetish of the year on Christmas morning, and just focus on the attitudes apparent in this scene. Myron is a working class guy. He’s not fabulously wealthy, but he has a steady paying job with good benefits (yay, government jobs!) and he apparently loves his family enough to go through the hell of last minute Christmas shopping. Howard completely freaks out over the possibility of his son Jamie ending up in the same situation, mostly because it’s a lower class life than what Howard has. And we are supposed to find this reasonable.
I totally understand the desire parents have for their children to have better lives than them, or at least lives of comparable quality. This fear that Jamie might end up in the working class represents a deep fear (which is not uncommon in America) that a lower socioeconomic status equates with a moral failure. Whether the failure is Howard’s or Jamie’s is irrelevant in this case, because that fear’s used to elicit a cheap laugh at the expense of Myron, the character who represents the lower class reality and who gets dumped on repeatedly throughout the film as someone less deserving of accomplishing the goal than Howard.
“But Jason,” you’re going to say, “This is all evidence of classism, not racism.” And you’d be right. But why is it that our working class guy was cast as a black man, and black people are completely absent from the scenes of suburbia? Jingle All the Way was made in the mid-90s, when conversations about these kinds of depictions weren’t as prevalent, but it still jars today to see a suburban landscape filled with just white faces (even if that does reflect a sad reality). Unfortunately, class and race are tightly bound together in America, and assumptions made about one type of demographic transfer easily to another type that has large overlap with the first.
All of this crap comes to a head with the film’s climax, where Myron, so desperate to get his hands on a Turbo Man doll, dresses up as the villain from the Turbo Man television show and tries to steal a doll from Jamie in the midst of a Christmas parade. It’s silly, and the whole sequence is kind of fun in a stupid way, but let’s consider that Myron has been driven to stealing from a child in order to get his hands on the coveted prize. It’s an extreme action, and it’s probably intended as criticism of the “it” toy phenomenon (like the entire movie), but we can’t overlook that Myron is doing this because he has no other options available to him. Howard ends up at the parade when he’s trying to reconcile with his family after failing to get the doll; he’s moved past the shallow motivation and just wants to be with his son and wife for Christmas (of course, as soon as he stumbles across an opportunity to get a really fancy Turbo Man doll and give it to Jamie, he reverts back to the stance he’s had through most of the film).
Essentially, Howard has a bit of dumb luck, and Myron tries to take advantage of it, because he hasn’t had the same epiphany that Howard did. Myron still needs the doll in order to fulfill his promise to his son, and after some antics, he finally gets it (endangering several lives in the process). Myron’s arrested, and the doll gets returned to Jamie, who decides in a fit of Christmas spirit that
he doesn’t need the doll as badly as Myron does he has the real Turbo Man at home (Howard ends up in a fully functional Turbo Man suit and saves the day), so who cares about a stupid doll? Myron’s eternally grateful for this show of generosity the caprice of children who get everything they want, and says this will make his son very happy.
Except that Myron’s going to jail, and won’t be home for Christmas.