Someone recently asked me if I am a Christmas movie person, and my immediate response was yes because I love Christmas, and therefore must love Christmas movies. But then I confronted their manufactured sentiment, and recognized my premature response. The truth is, I don't like Christmas movies all that much. Sure there are my favorites like The Muppet Christmas Carol and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and you can bet that Pee Wee's Christmas Special slaps. But most outside of this short-list just don't do it for me.
Reflecting more, I find Elf deeply frustrating and yet wonderful at the same time. This is a film I saw in the theatre (at a friend’s birthday) and have watched annually since. I adored this movie and continued to love it well into college. Will Ferrell's energy is infectious. The film never looks down on his character or tries to make him learn the values of masculinity. Many of his best qualities are coded as feminine and he is a hero because of them, not despite them. Elf is about an uptight, emotionally closed off father who's arc includes singing Christmas Carols with his family, and it is wonderful. At the same time, the "Santa is actually real" narrative is my least favorite Christmas trope next to Christmas rom-coms (I hate it so much), and Elf plays on a lot of clichés that grow tiresome the more I watch.
I have always enjoyed engaging with stories on a deeper level, but the older I get, the more I have come to understand how Hollywood normalizes stereotypes through the stories they tell. The media we consume contains a multitude of meanings which we internalize without even realizing it (a sentiment I am still overcoming to this day). Hollywood stories can present themselves as harmless fun, while actually being complicit in reaffirming harmful ideas beneath the surface. Sometimes this means that a story is promoting the status quo which begs the audience not to think about it, and nowhere is this more apparent than with the character Charlotte Dennon.
First, who is Charlotte? Charlotte is a news anchor for a network called New York One. She appears during the climax of the film. Buddy, our protagonist, is wandering New York City, unsure of where he belongs after his father screamed at him to get out of his life. Meanwhile, Buddy's father, Walter, is ashamed of what he said and is looking for Buddy with his younger son, Michael. It is also Christmas Eve. Throughout the film, it has been established that Christmas Spirit (or belief in Santa) is lower than ever. Santa's sleigh uses a power source but it is mostly powered through this belief. Since Christmas Spirit is so low, Santa crashes the sleigh in Central Park where Buddy finds him. Look, I know how it sounds. I promise this is going somewhere meaningful.
Charlotte is the anchor on scene when Santa crashes. She is interviewing a little girl who says she saw Santa’s sleigh in the sky. As Charlotte responds to this claim, her segment is cut off and an elderly man in the newsroom says, "Sorry to interrupt your first big news story Charlotte" and proceeds to show Buddy walking through Central Park in his elf outfit. "I don't know if this is the hard hitting news you're used to covering in Buffalo, Charlotte, but here at New York One, news is top priority," the news anchor says.
When the camera returns to Charlotte, she is interviewing a younger man about what he saw in the sky. He responds to her questions by saying, "I think you're great Charlotte. Um, I saw something fall from the sky right in the middle of central park. You're a great news lady." Charlotte chuckles and asks, "Thank you. Could you tell me a bit more about what you saw fall from the sky?" The man proceeds to pay her more complements and says, "Yeah, yeah. Your eyes tell the story. That's what I love about you. You've got a great mouth," before continuing with his eyewitness account.
Meanwhile, Buddy has found Santa and is trying to help him get his sleigh flying again. Michael takes Santa's list and runs over to the crowd that has formed behind Charlotte. He gets on camera and reads off what people want for Christmas, directly from Santa's list, in hopes of increasing Christmas Spirit which allows Santa’s sleigh to fly again. Charlotte is clearly skeptical, so Michael reads off what she wants, "a Tiffany engagement ring" and for her boyfriend to "stop dragging his feet and commit already." At this, Charlotte is taken aback and the shot cuts to Santa and Buddy where Christmas Spirit begins to lift the sleigh off the ground. Back to Charlotte and Michael, she cuts the cameras and angrily asks Michael how he knew that before walking away.
The sleigh is soon ready to take flight but after some complications, it comes close to crashing. The crowd around Charlotte sings “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Walter finally joins in, and the Christmas Spirit meter rises to 100%. Santa’s sleigh takes flight. Charlotte stares in wordless disbelief as her co-anchor in the studio says, "Well, I guess we'll never know for sure what happened this Christmas Eve in Central Park."
Most of the audience is focused on the drama with Santa in these scenes, but out of focus, there is a lot going on in Charlotte’s subtext.
Elf is not very subtle when it comes to humor. It’s a kids movie: punchlines are built on loud gags. This isn't a bad thing, but sometimes it can be a lot. Stories need room to breath, and Elf too often suffocates its script in jokes, stopping the film from ever being truly great. In direct opposition to the rest of the text, Charlotte's character is permitted the most subtextual jokes of the whole movie.
Charlotte exists in a long line of movie anchor’s whose presence is used to drive the plot forward and do little else. We aren’t supposed to care about her or sympathize with her. What matters is Buddy helping Santa and Christmas Spirit. Elf could have easily played this scene straight and the plot would not change at all. Instead, the film plays with our expectations.
The jokes in Charlotte’s scenes are much more at home in Anchorman, where co-anchors regularly take humorous jabs at one another that results in comedy gold. When the cameras cut to Buddy in the park, Charlotte’s co-anchor says, “Sorry to interrupt your first big news story Charlotte.” The comment is a passive-aggressive low blow that comes out of nowhere, a dig at Charlotte’s position at the news station. Without being told anything about the news station’s politics, we know this dude looks down on Charlotte. The spontaneity alone gets me laughing every time I watch the scene. It happens so quickly that you may miss it. The co-anchor follows this with another dig, saying, “I don't know if this is the hard hitting news you're used to covering in Buffalo, Charlotte, but here at New York One, news is top priority.” His implication is obvious: New York One is for the best of the best, and Charlotte is not only unfamiliar (having come from a smaller station) but not up to task. After all, it is her first big news story.
Charlotte is then centered for the next weird joke when Michael reads off her wish from Santa’s list. It’s played much straighter though: the joke is that she wants her boyfriend to propose. Because, girls, right? Aren’t women always like that? It’s hard to tell if the film is being ironic or if it’s just a relic of its era, but this punchline sets us up the final beat of Charlotte’s appearance nicely.
When we last see her, she is staring in shock at Santa’s sleigh in the air. “Well, I guess we'll never know for sure what happened this Christmas Eve in Central Park,” her co-anchor says, another jab that doesn’t quite land.
But there’s another layer to this that’s been eating away at me and the reason you’re reading this article at all. See, I genuinely think these scenes with Charlotte are very funny. They are weird, buried treasures in a movie I’ve grown pretty tired of watching. But beneath the comedy of these scenes is a layer of good ol’ fashion unconscious sexism. Now, I know, I know. In Hollywood? Never. Anyway, let me explain.
Almost all of the jokes surrounding Charlotte are built on sexist stereotypes This isn’t inherently negative: including bad stuff doesn’t mean you are complicit - hell, you can’t write a text deconstructing sexism without putting sexism in the text.
Going back to her very first scene, Charlotte’s older male co-worker makes that jab about her inexperience in the most condescending way possible. He is remarking on her place on the totem pole. She is new to New York One and this is her first big news story. He is not stealing the spotlight from her but merely building on the story she is reporting on, yet he treats this as an opportunity to not only call her out (for silly reasons) but question her authority on the situation in the process. Perhaps this is what makes the scene feel so random and funny. Charlotte does not come across as incompetent or new to the job. For the small amount of time we see her on screen thus far, she seems more than capable of handling her job (also it’s on-premise news reporting, it isn’t rocket science). It makes the comment surprising.
In her next scene, Charlotte is interviewing a man about what he saw in the sky but all he wants to do is flirt with her. He sidesteps her questions to throw complements her way about her smile and her beautiful eyes. Charlotte remains composed, taking the compliments and trying to keep the conversation on track. The sexism in this scene is more obvious than the previous. While this is a "joke", it exemplifies behaviors that women deal with on an everyday basis. In both instances, Charlotte is not being taken seriously by her male counterparts, with one questioning her professional integrity and the other overstepping her authority to talk about what he wants instead of what she is asking him.
Before I continue, I should say that I don’t think Elf has suddenly decided to become some metacommentary on the sexism women experience in their jobs. I said the comedy was intentionally subtle, but I don’t think there was ever a deeper message intended beyond that. By necessity, creators insert their own biases and understandings of the world into their creations all the time. We use coding as shorthand in storytelling. When you see an old man in a forest wearing an old, pointed hat and long robes, you can assume he is a wizard, and there are certain connotations that come with the territory that need no explanation. So you may be wondering why it matters, especially since Charlotte is a throwaway character. Our understanding of gender norms is baked so deeply into us from a young age, that watching this scene may not even raise any red flags. I’ve never spoken to a single person about sexism as it relates to Charlotte Dennon from Elf nor have I seen discussions online (weird, right?).
Continuing, in her next scene Charlotte is interviewing a police officer about the situation and throwing in some Santa humor to try and lighten the mood, asking if he spotted reindeer or elves in the park. Shortly after this, Michael arrives to read Santa’s list. In an attempt to prove Santa’s existence to Charlotte, Michael reads what she wants for Christmas: “a Tiffany engagement ring and for her boyfriend to stop dragging his feet and commit already.” Once again, this pushes Charlotte into a corner of the female stereotype whose life revolves around her boyfriend and nothing else. It assumes that this is what women want, so naturally Charlotte would have it on her Christmas list. Also there’s something pernicious about leading with the ring: not only is it a girl thing to want love and commitment, but her primary concern is the shiny ring. Yikes.
Charlotte cuts the camera and is rightfully angry at Michael, demanding where he learned this information. Charlotte’s final appearance shows her staring in awe at Santa’s sleigh. Left in shock, her co-anchor takes over.
None of this has any remarkable impact on the film itself. Charlotte is a basic character to fill a basic role in this story. Since she plays a basic role, it makes sense that she may embody some gender stereotypes. It also makes sense that she exists to further other character’s stories outside of her own. Elf is uncritically portraying the sexism women experience in everyday life.
Charlotte is defined by her gender here, not her job. She isn’t portrayed as an over-the-top all American news anchor, or a pushy reporter. No, she’s a woman first, reporter second, at all times. Her wish list isn’t a promotion at work or a fancy car, it’s an engagement ring, because of course it is, because she is a woman, everything else second. And while choosing to center your gender in real life is totally fine, the absence of commentary or criticism of Charlotte’s portrayal normalizes thinking of women like this. Or, worse, normalizes it quietly, just beyond the camera’s lens, a little out of focus.
Charlotte comes across as a competent news anchor. She is professional and well spoken. She keeps her cool under pressure and deals with the creepy flirty guy without breaking stride. But despite this, her male colleague questions and undermines her. To make matters worse, her personal life is exposed on television with zero consent.
I don’t think Elf decided to render the sexism women experience in their day to day lives and at their jobs, but I find it very interesting that it exists in the first place. Although it’s a ‘joke’, this stuff matters. This a movie for kids, for the most part. These subtle context cues are what dial in our subconscious. Fiction is how we learn how to navigate ourselves and the world, and this early 2000’s ‘woman first’ mentality is subtle, pernicious. There’s nothing particularly funny about being bullied on live television by your senior news anchor because you’re the new girl. There’s nothing funny about being hit on non-consensually while trying to conduct a news interview. What’s meant as a throwaway gag can land a little closer to home when you peel back the layers.