Globe and Mail

What's male, white and politically incorrect?

The Globe and Mail
Friday, December 22, 2000

LONDON -- There's not much snow in England at Christmas but that hasn't stopped a British academic from discovering the true meaning behind that most familiar of winter symbols, the snowman. And needless to say, it's causing waves.

Tricia Cusack, an art historian at the University of Birmingham, has been studying the cultural meaning of snowmen for five years and has concluded that they are simply another symbol of male dominance in society.

Ms. Cusack's findings have attracted considerable interest, with interviews on BBC Radio and articles in the national press wryly burying the snowman as the latest victim of political correctness.

"The snowman is, of course, white, invariably male and generally adult," Ms. Cusack wrote in an article published in the left-wing journal New Formation, noting that its "bulbous body, phallic carrot-nose and blank, unindividualized eyes have obvious elements of the grotesque."

She calls snowmen "rotund relics of Bacchanalia."

It's no coincidence, she contends, that the snowman is generally male and is erected in front of the home, while the woman of the house is inside toiling -- cooking Christmas dinner, for instance.

"The snowman's masculinity and its ritual position in the semi-public space of the garden or field arguably help to substantiate an ideology upholding a gendered spatial-social system marking women's proper sphere as the domestic-private and men's as the commercial-public," she writes.

"The snowman colludes in a gendered division of social space and presents an image, however jocular, of masculine control of public space. . . . The snowman's location just within the private sphere emphasizes masculine stewardship."

In other words, those who thought a snowman is put in the front yard because that's where the snow is have got it wrong.

Warmer winters in Britain mean there aren't many occasions to roll snowballs into boulder-size symbols of Bacchanalia. So Ms. Cusack relied on Christmas cards and advertisements as her primary source of snowman research.

Though she sees snowmen as an anachronism, Ms. Cusack has not proposed that they be hauled into the sun. "I don't want to ban snowmen or anything." she said. "Let's just be a bit more imaginative -- why not have a snowwoman?"

She notes contemporary snowmen appear to have given up their traditional pipe, apparently reflecting a reduction in tobacco use.

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