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December 22, 2000

Frosty the sexist snowman

Academic thumps well-fed white man

Charlie Gillis
National Post

Frosty the Snowman, though nurturing with children and susceptible to mild spells, reinforces gender stereotypes and male domination of life outside the home, a British academic says.

Tricia Cusack, an art historian with the University of Birmingham who studies popular imagery, says British and North American culture represent snowmen as larger, older male figures whose place is outside the home, often in public places such as parks and schoolyards.

As such, they are relics of life before the sexual revolution, Ms. Cusack argues, as they are cast in contrast to the image of females as mothers and domestic providers.

"The snowman is, of course, white and invariably male," Ms. Cusack told BBC Radio in a special program earlier this week.

"[His] ritual location in the semi-public space of garden or field imaginatively reinforces a spatial social system, marking women's proper sphere as the domestic-private and men's as the commercial-public.

"It presents an image, however jocular, of a masculine control of public space."

Ms. Cusack's assessment stems from a paper she wrote on snowmen two years ago in which she explored their historical and social meaning through the ages.

The piece, published in New Formations, a journal of popular culture, concluded that the typical snowman -- with his hat, scarf and jolly countenance -- is a festival figure representing carnal enjoyment.

"Like Father Christmas, he is round, fat and smiling, suggesting overindulgence," she says. "The classic carnival figure is a fat, lusty eater and drinker."

Those qualities also conjure notions of a well-fed, dominating, patriarchal male, she says.

The notion of snowmen as social icons first struck Ms. Cusack while she was shopping for Christmas cards, many of which bore images of the rotund, happy, distinctively male snowmen.

"I wanted to investigate why this figure was always depicted as male and what it was supposed to represent at Christmas time."

Not everyone agrees with her theories.

"She's reaching," says Terry Geib, spokeswoman for Calgary's parks and recreation department.

While kids in Calgary are welcome to build "snowwomen" if they wish, Ms. Geib has seen no evidence of prevailing stereotypes in the works children have left on the city's public land.

"A snowman is what it is in a child's mind," she says. "It might be a man, it might be a woman, it might be a dog. This is just adults imposing their ideas on something that the kids do, something that really belongs to them."

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