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December 26, 2000

Frosty's patriarchal agenda, unmasked

Who knew the yuletide card industry was so keenly attuned to sexual politics?

Meghan Cox Gurdon
National Post

While out shopping for Christmas cards, Birmingham University art historian Tricia Cusack wondered why so many snowmen appear on festive cards these days. She embarked on a scholarly study and has revealed that snowmen are not the friendly mascots of winter you may have imagined them to be.

Snowmen, it turns out, are emblems of domination: "The snowman is, of course, white, and invariably male," she says, adding that snowmen "reinforce gender stereotypes." They accomplish this by being located outdoors, which, Dr. Cusack believes, "reinforces a spatial-social system marking women's sphere as the domestic-private and the men's as the commercial-public." Further, their increasing popularity on greeting cards augurs a return to a more patriarchal, conservative society.

Go figure! Who knew the yuletide card industry was so keenly attuned to sexual politics?

No doubt snowmen are proliferating. In these multicultural times, they are a neutral symbol of unspecified winter "holidays," and thus, you would think, useful illustrations for non-denominational cards. But representatives of patriarchy? Because they're generally male and built in people's frontyards? Sure, says Dr. Cusack, for a snowman "presents an image, however jocular, of a masculine control of public space."

Hmm. I seem to remember an awful lot of snowwomen in the schoolyard when I was young. Boys made them chiefly for the fun of moulding giant snow-breasts. Nor does a snowman make much of an authoritarian figure, what with his quickly-shriveled carrot nose and tendency to wilt under the slightest increase in temperature. Yet he's male, so I suppose that's meant to be domineering enough in itself.

Studies like Dr. Cusack's reveal both how relentless and how trivial the drive to expose sexual bias has become. Nothing is safe from feminist paranoia, not even the humble snowman. Sexist snowmen would be funnier if scholarship like this didn't have real-life reverberations. But radical feminist re-education has permeated schools to such a degree that the snowman is pretty much the only authoritarian white male left in textbook pages. Children's language is policed for sex-specificity: They must not say fireman (it's firefighter), actress (no, actor), or mailman (letter carrier, please).

Soon after our family moved to Canada, my daughter, who had just watched the film The Jungle Book, piped up conversationally at a small gathering. "Wasn't it a shame when Mowgli had to go back to the man village?"

"The people village," a male guest quickly corrected her. He was wrong and my daughter was right; the movie, like the original book by Rudyard Kipling, refers to the "man village," and it does so with the old-fashioned, but perfectly acceptable, usage of "man" (singular) to mean humans.

I wonder if that pedant thought he was fostering open-mindedness. From what I can see, the effect of banging on about the patriarchal nature of, say, snowmen, is that children come to think there is something wrong if every reference to men and boys is not matched by reference to women and girls. It's not only silly, but can be painful.

This fall, for example, a visiting six-year-old became visibly distressed at our house when I suggested we make cowboy cookies. Someone had given us a bell jar full of cookie mix, decorated with a Wild West red kerchief, and I thought the children would like baking them.

Our visitor scowled. "That's unfair," she said, "Why aren't they called cowgirl cookies?"

"Well, because they're not," I explained. "If they were called cowgirl cookies, that would be fine, but" -- I pointed to the label on the jar -- "it says right here that these are cowboy cookies."

She frowned quietly for a moment, troubled. Then she looked up.

"I think we should call them cowperson cookies."

That made my children laugh. " Cowperson, cowperson, cooooowwwwperson," chanted my four-year-old son.

I felt a real pang for that girl. Already, at age six, she has been conscripted into the army of feminist grumblers, and persuaded that the simplest language discriminates against girls. This burden will not make the world a nicer place for her. If she's unlucky enough to catch wind of Dr. Cusack's theory, she may come to see the making of a snowman as a sexist act. Yet if the boys make a snowwoman, with hooters? Why, that's sexual harassment.

Meghan Cox Gurdon is a writer based in Toronto.

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