When our kids were little we really tried to be the kind of parents who only let them watch movies that were basically age appropriate. We logged into Common Sense to see what they recommended and (mostly) we followed their advice. There was the notable lapse in judgment when we showed our young girls the movie, Gremlins, and it was all totally fine right up to the scene when the mom is creeping quietly up the stairs with a butcher knife in her hands. Emma looked at us and said, “I don’t think this is a good movie for us” and Kate said, “Yeah, I’m scared.” Not one of our better moments. But in our defense, it’s really hard to find an 8os movie that is appropriate for “kids these days.” PG then is so not PG now.
But truly, we really didn’t think we could go wrong with the classic, holiday movie, A Christmas Story. It’s Ryan’s favorite Christmas movie of all time and he couldn’t wait to show our kids. Since one of my husband’s love languages is movie quotes, I knew he couldn’t wait to swap quotes with his girls. He was probably already imagining them in their snow pants and winter coats saying, “I can’t put my arms down!!” and they would laugh and laugh.
We all settled in for a movie night, way back when the girls loved to share a couch and the TV with us. Ryan had really set the movie-expectations-bar impossibly high by saying things like, “You’re going to love this movie!” and “This is my favorite Christmas movie of all time!” and “Just wait… it’s so funny!” The kind of things that would, today, make them roll their eyes but, back then, just made them giddy with excitement.
Sadly, that excitement didn’t last long for our youngest. As soon as Randy dove face-first into his mashed potatoes, Kate declared emphatically, “I do not like this movie!” She still doesn’t appreciate messiness and cannot stand to watch people eat unless they have the manners of The Queen of England, but she was particularly fastidious back then and there was very little she hated more than getting dirty (in fact, one of her resolutions for that year was “Don’t get dirty”). But like all ignorant parents with high hopes and no vision into the future, we plowed on, convincing her to stay with it, telling her just how good it gets.
Unfortunately, from then on it was a succession of scenes that made her either yell at the screen, yell at us, run upstairs, or watch from the stairs, peeking out from between her fingers.
There were all the scenes where the mangy bullies were plotting their attack in the vacant back alleys where Ralphie and Randy had to walk to and from school. And no matter how many times we told her not to worry and that it “turns out okay,” Kate would jump up from her seat and run upstairs until “it was over.” Eventually, of course, Ralphie loses it and ends up punching the complete crap out of The Bad Guy. We tried to defend the on-screen violence because, “Look, The Good Guy is winning!!” But she just looked back at us in disbelief and said, “But Ralphie is being mean!” She kept saying things like, “Why don’t they just walk a different way to school?” or “Why don’t they tell their parents?” We tried to explain that this was set in the 50s and that’s really not how it worked back then, but she was too traumatized and really didn’t want to hear us defend this type of behavior. Besides, I kept thinking, she’s not wrong.
There wasn’t much about the movie that Kate liked… in fact, I don’t think she enjoyed any of it. She was too young to appreciate the leg lamp, she bawled through the entire scene where Ralphie has to sit with the soap in his mouth, and she was completely undone by the bunny pajamas. Out of all the things that disturbed her about this movie, that was the one that took us by surprise the most.
The iconic moment when Ralphie opens up the gift from his aunt, pink, footie pajamas with bunny ears, and his parents make him put them on and come downstairs while they all laugh, is simply too much for her. She could not understand a world where a family would all point and laugh at one of its own. There was just no way that she could join in or appreciate it, even in a movie. Apparently, as parents, we had really been focusing way too hard on things like “empathy” and “other people’s feelings” and hadn’t spent nearly enough time on important areas like, “chill out, it’s just a movie.”
Then there was the scene that would go down in infamy as the one that would forever ruin this movie for our youngest child. Collectively, this movie did a lot to change the way Kate saw the world in ways that we never saw coming, but this is the scene she would recall over and over and would create the kind of baffling, childhood fear that made it impossible to wander innocently into a Target DVD section during the holiday season for years to come. The kind of wild terror that multiplies in the imagination of a kid and forces all family members to refer to said film as The Movie That Shall Not Be Named. It’s the kind of cinematic scar that has led to family oaths made and covenants forged promising that we would never, ever watch this movie again, no matter what the circumstances are or who is or is not at home at the time. That scene of course, is the triple-dog-dare scene that involves a frozen flagpole and a tongue. I don’t think that any scene, real life or pretend, has scarred her more or shaken Kate to her core more than when Flick sticks his tongue to the flagpole.
It’s been a while since that fateful evening and a few things have actually changed. We don’t walk into stores during the holiday season with quite as much trepidation and dread, nor do we navigate holiday displays with the same ninja-like skill or live in fear that she will catch the tiniest glimpse of The DVD case or a leg lamp ornament, or (and Jesus, give us all strength, including the innocent patrons within earshot, because it’s going to be a loud, rough, and deeply uncomfortable experience for all of us) an image of Flick stuck to the flagpole. And she actually said the title of the movie this year. Out loud. And even though she said it in the context of, “I really hope they don’t show A Christmas Story in school today”, we all looked up in shock as if Harry Potter had just yelled Voldemort (sorry if you’re not Harry Potter nerds like us and this makes no sense to you, but just know that it was a really big deal).
But mostly it’s the same. We don’t talk about it much and when we do use quotes from the movie, they’re either under our breath or too obscure for her to know. We’ve gotten rid of our own leg lamp ornament and DVD in rash moments of solidarity and, let’s face it, fear… because very few things put more terror into a parent than a kid who won’t go to sleep. We skip watching it every year, even though she would never know because she’s not at home nearly as much as she used to be… but we feel this odd sense of loyalty to a ridiculous oath we made to our terrified and slightly pissed off little girl. Well, at least I do, I’m pretty sure that Ryan could be turned at any moment.
At this point, with the benefit of hindsight, I think that if we had waited several years it probably would have been a better outcome. But, outside of the fact that we had to get rid of the leg lamp ornament and gave the DVD to my brother, who we used as The Fixer, making him promise that it would never resurface again, I don’t wish it were different. Okay… I’ve probably forgotten how wildly uncomfortable those trips to Target and Bed Bath and Beyond could be, but there were some characteristics born in Kate that day that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
We knew that Kate was stubborn long before she watched this movie, but the sheer force of her will came into full bloom that day. When she said that she never wanted to see that movie again, well, she meant it— like for real and in every possible sense. When she says that she is going to do something, or not do something, she means it now just as fiercely as she meant it then. In the years that have followed this epic cinematic moment, I worry far less about peer pressure, admire her integrity, and am in awe of her ability to follow through on… well, anything.
The things that bother her about this movie are the same things that bother her in real life— seeing bullying or injustice in all of its forms is always too much for her. She usually says something when she’s it happening in real life and won’t watch movies, the news, or read books with too much of it— these scenes are far more horrifying for her than actual horror movies. (Go figure.) At some point, I’m convinced that what paralyzes her with fear now, will turn into a fire in her belly that she can’t put out without doing something about it.
It also seemed to have really fine-tune her negotiation skills. As she watched each scene, one more bothersome than the next, she made her case that there wasn’t much to love about this movie. And as she took down scene after scene, as much as I love this movie, I couldn’t help but think, she does kind of have a point. She’s been told almost once a year, by teacher after teacher, since she was in the first grade, that she should be a lawyer. Mostly because of her ability to justify an answer on a test and get her grade raised or argue that a particular question wasn’t worded correctly. We probably have this film to thank… or regret. It really just depends on who’s on the other end of the negotiating.
There are times that we miss watching The Movie That Must Not Be Named, but it feels like the catalyst for some of our daughter’s greatest qualities to emerge. And even if she doesn’t become a lawyer, those mad negotiating skills will definitely come in handy. Especially when she has her own child. Because, you know… karma.