The Sexual Politics of Santa Claus

In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2017, there were two separate media rows on opposite sides of the world, both about the same subject: Santa Claus and his well-documented propensity for smacking naughty girls’ bottoms.

Various retailers in South Yorkshire, England, were selling this new entry in the ‘Christmas sweater’ stakes:

The image was adapted from this 2014 animated cartoon of Kim Kardashian, which you can read more about here.


But a possible lack of originality turned out to be the least of the sweater’s problems, after an outraged mother made a fuss, and several papers ran a piece headlined  ‘Is this Britain’s RUDEST Christmas jumper?‘ The article, which was probably not the finest example of local journalism known to humanity, attempted to describe the offending knitwear, playing up its (actually very mild) erotic content and trying hard to impute an element of sadism:

The knitted top shows a laughing Santa Claus bringing his hand down on the backside of a dark-haired woman sprawled across his knee. The woman, dressed in neon pink pants and a bra, appears to be yelping out in pain.

And then it was over to the complainant herself, who didn’t want her name published but did favor the reporter with a choice example of what might be called the preemptive disclaimer:

‘I’m no prude but is it really suitable that there’s Christmas jumpers showing Santa spanking a woman in this day and age?’

Well, Mrs Anonymous of Barnsley, you are a prude and we should call out the illiberal attitudes underlying your remarks. But first, let’s go to the Antipodes for our second case, which was on a somewhat larger scale.

The Australian lingerie chain Honey Birdette is often criticized for its raunchy imagery, and it drew particular ire for its Christmas 2016 campaign which featured Santa in bondage. To show exactly how unrepentant it was, the firm recruited Santa again the following year… only this time he was a ‘spanking Santa’.

Needless to say, this isn’t spanking in the strictest sense of the term, and indeed you might not immediately spot Santa’s open hand poised over the girl’s shapely rear. But there is a ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ smacked bottom in the associated promo video:

The campaign photograph went up on store fronts in malls across Australia. And a legion of angry moms went on the warpath. Let’s hear from a feminist activist and mother from Canberra:

‘This advertisement is just sick. It is degrading to women and girls and teaches men and boys that this kind of behaviour is acceptable. Santa is displaying predatory behaviour, he is engaging in sexual touching, he is spanking one of the women’s nearly bare bum and snapping her underwear. And the woman in the poster doesn’t exactly look too thrilled about what he is doing to her, so there is that element of harassment, force and power as well.’

There are two reasons why it’s difficult and dangerous for people who find especial enjoyment in spanking imagery to respond to this kind of attack. The first is that there is always the risk that we may be, or appear to be, merely defending our own pleasure. I have no patience with hypocrisy on any side of an argument, and I can only try to be as objective and honest as possible, and not pretend to be speaking for anyone else but myself.

And the second reason is that you’re sometimes not engaging with people who are altogether rational. Let’s hear from another Canberra mother who is also a freelance photographer specializing in shots of very young children. Her portfolio shows that she’s good at her job, and she would probably be embarrassed to find her name here, so I won’t give it. But she should be embarrassed – nay, ashamed – by the ‘reasoning’ she offered to the press:

‘It’s well known that exposing children to sexually explicit material is child abuse – it would be like child abuse if my kids walked past this image.’

I can’t claim any expertise in pediatrics, though I do believe that it’s unhealthy to keep children entirely insulated from the complexities and mysteries of the adult world. Mrs Anonymous Prude of Barnsley said: ‘If I had been with my children, I would have been left trying to explain what was going on because they are full of questions.’ Yes, Mrs Prude, and isn’t it your job as a parent to answer their questions and help them to understand the world they live in, even the silly things like Santa spanking? But to equate a slightly risque display in a public place with child abuse…?

These are people who have no sense of proportion or of scale. This means they can’t tell the difference between porn and, on the other hand, mainstream material with an erotic dimension or impact. Broadening the point, it also means they can’t tell the difference between diverse kinds of behavior: what is criminal, what is sleazy, what is merely impolite and what is high-spirited and harmless. These qualitatively different things are conflated, largely on the basis of the offense they all give to the complainant.

So a lot of this is about projection, the psychological process whereby people treat their own subjective responses to the world as objective and inherent features of it. They don’t want to understand the world, in all its diversity, on its own terms; they want their own reaction to the world to be the defining factor in everybody’s conception of it. All of which may be summed up by saying that they are fundamentally and egregiously illiberal.

This is a complex issue with several layers to it. For people disposed to believe that all sexy imagery is ‘sexist’, the very existence of a lingerie chain in public shopping malls is provocative, but this wasn’t overtly a blanket campaign aiming to close Honey Birdette down. The specific target was the store’s Christmas advertising, centering on the question: who owns Santa Claus?

Santa is a children’s character, it is proposed, so Santa imagery should be G-rated. That’s not an entirely unreasonable argument, but you could equally well say that nowadays, like it or not, the figure of Santa is general cultural property, not exclusive to any one group, and it is undeniable that he is widely used in a variety of different contexts, some of them mildly sexual. It’s not as if Honey Birdette was doing anything with Santa that isn’t being done by others all over the world. Sometimes including…

And the focus of the maternal campaign wasn’t on all of Honey Birdette’s Santa pictures, but on one in particular, the bottom-smacking or so-called ‘spanking’ image. The various other sexy poses didn’t rate a specific mention: this one was the principal provocation. To a significant number of people in the modern world, unfortunately, spanking is toxic.

That’s partly because it is perceived as infantilizing the spanked woman, who is then taken as the representative of her entire gender, so that to demean or degrade one woman is to demean and degrade them all, fully half of our species. Partly, I expect, it also sparks latent fears of being spanked, which would explain why, for example, some unfortunate young women have reported feeling physical nausea when watching the spanking scene in Kiss Me Kate.

But when it occurs in narrative and the visual arts, spanking is a imaginative trope, not a recommendation for how you should treat the women you meet in your everyday life: pictures and stories don’t always ‘teach’ us how to behave. And in any event, what is represented in one piece of imagery, or one genre of imagery, doesn’t constitute an attempt to define the whole world. Looking at sexy images of women may well entail an element of objectification, but if it does, the objectification is local and particular, not general and universal – for if it were, it would place regular heterosexual men under a severe social disability when it comes to interacting with women.

Are we under such a disability? Is there really any evidence at all to suggest that exposure to spanking imagery in particular induces men to spank women?

Well, OK, maybe just a little…

The spanking Santa rows happened in the midst of a moral panic. It grew out of ongoing revelations about the predatory sexual behavior of a number of well-known media figures back in the 1970s, which started to come out in 2011; but the Harvey Weinstein case and the #MeToo movement that sprang up in late 2017 made it impossible to maintain the stance that this kind of thing belonged to the bad old days that we have outgrown ‘in this day and age’ (as Mrs Prude put it). The outcome was that some nasty cases were brought to light; but also that many much more minor forms of sexual behavior and misbehavior became demonized. Nobody decent would want anyone (of either gender) to be raped, or to be refused a job because they won’t grant sexual favors; but surely we also don’t want to build a society where people are afraid to flirt with one another because they fear that doing so might be perceived as sexual harassment?

Feminism has achieved a lot of things that are good for humanity. We now take it for granted that people should not be deemed to be inferior to others, paid less than others, treated less well than others, for no better reason than that they belong to a particular gender. Hurrah for that. But the particular shade of feminism that supposes tropes and imagery somehow define and delimit the real world, that encourages people to equate social and moral seriousness with negative-mindedness, fault-finding and umbrage-taking, that accords more importance to an unproven theory than it does to actual human happiness and well-being: never mind spanking, that illiberal brand of feminism really is toxic.

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