The Great Elf Divide: The Elf on the Shelf as a Feminist Issue


As a new mom, I find myself participating in conversations that, well, I never imagined I would participate in.  After a full day of saying “up and down,” “red and green,” “in and out” with my one year old daughter—while silently thinking that my Ph.D. in English is really coming in handy right about now—I don’t have much to give to the world in terms of thought.  I find myself trolling the Internet, or let’s be honest, the Wal-Mart of the Internet, Facebook, where I see more posts than I would like to see about the Elf on Shelf, a tradition that really I don’t think is a tradition but a brand that decided to sell itself as a tradition.  I think I am going to create a product that bestows the title of “tradition” on itself.  Just saying that usually traditions don’t have trademark symbols after them.  Buy my cookies—it’s a tradition!  If any one of you remembers having an elf as a child, I would like to know about it.

I should be up front with my feelings about this Elf (and some of these thoughts bleed into my beliefs about Santa as well.  That Ph.D. ain’t for nothing).  I think it is CREEPY (and I am not the only one).  I cannot help but feel that Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon has made its way into our homes in the form a mischievous elf that terrifies enough of my friends’ kids for me to know that we will not be participating.  I know this sounds Scroogy and harsh, but I will also put on record that I have no plans to ask my daughter to sit on the lap of a strange (and dare I say CREEPY) old man when 364 days out of the year I would have that same man arrested.  And as for the behavior argument, what happens when the Elf goes away?  That extrinsic reason for behaving leaves the house based on the story we tell and then does all hell break loose?  I don’t have a kid who has Christmas fever yet, and next year I might be eating these words, but at this point, my husband and I are saying no to the Elf on the Shelf and to a Santa who watches you.  We are opting out, and of all the decisions I have made in my semi- but seriously not really at all radical life, this one seems to hit a nerve more than I ever would have imagined.

I have been blessed with time around other adults, luckily, a few times this week, and during most conversations, the Elf has come up.  As a feminist, I find my attitudes about the Elf very similar to other issues that deal with women (let’s be honest, has anyone read a Facebook post or seen a picture or read an article dealing with the Elf that wasn’t written by or for a mother?).  I find I say the same thing about breastfeeding, working outside the home, television viewing, and many other issues women seem to talk a lot about:  do what you have to do.  That is what feminism is to me—that a woman can make her own decisions.  You have an Elf, great.  But it has come to the point where I am almost afraid to say that I will not have one.  And that is all that I want to say, “We aren’t going to do that tradition,” but then it becomes a big deal.  It was like when I said I didn’t want to have kids in my 20s and people acted like I had said I wanted to roast Bambi for dinner.

I have noticed a trend—not a definite one, but just an informal one—that I am now thinking of as the GREAT ELF DIVIDE that seems to have a lot to do with women who work outside the home and those who get no pay but should inside the home.  The general attitude of the former group is “You have got to be f’in kidding.  Who the hell has time for that?”  While I feel that way sometimes, I feel like that assumes that “stay at home moms” (we need a better term for that life) have nothing but free time, and as a woman who is lucky enough to have a foot in both worlds, I can say that I have time to maybe pee and make a sandwich on the days I am home with my daughter.  I think there is something more to do with the Elf shenanigans than time:  creativity.

Speaking only from my own experience, I don’t feel like I get to be all that creative on the days I am home with my daughter, at this point in her life at least.  I am committed to carving out personal writing time, but only because that is a creative outlet I needed before she was born.  I find most of my creative needs fulfilled at my teaching job.  In fact, I will admit I am often really bored when I am home with just the girl.  And that is ok, I get that is the job.  But I know that the next day I will go and have my creative side nurtured again when I go to my paying gig.

If I didn’t have that release, I might get on board with the Elf because it would be a space where I would be invited to be creative in an often otherwise not all that creative gig.  Think about it:  the Elf seems to be an acceptable opportunity for creativity.  It is deemed a good use of time because it in the service of the kids, while painting, writing, or sketching might be seen as idle.  Making a diorama using the Elf and then posting a picture for the world to see is starting to feel like art, and I get it.

So what I am saying is that while I don’t think the Elf is for us, I am starting to see why there are pictures of the Elf getting into all kinds of trouble at home.  It is like setting up a tableau every night, and I imagine that planning of the Elf mischief is much like I plan my lessons.  It gives us something to think about when ABC and 123 are making our brains hurt.  I am trying to look at the Elf differently, as an opportunity for creativity in a space where there may not be much more creativity in the day.  Still not doing it, but I can appreciate the pictures now. I wonder how Virginia Woolf would feel about the Elf?



  1. Haven’t finished the article, but we had an elf when I was growing up (1982-1992). Wasn’t branded or marketed at the time, and it didn’t have a name. It wasn’t panoptical behavioral blackmail. Just a cute little plastic elf that we were supposed to look for, and be excited about, and believe in, in that heartfelt childhood way. So I’m finding it odd that it’s suddenly a brand, and that it’s prompted this dust-up about authenticity. Anyway, back to your commentary.

  2. If you haven’t already seen it, please check out the blog “People I Want to Punch in the Throat” and her rant on the Elf. I think you’ll appreciate it.

  3. lotusgurl · · Reply

    I can’t decide how I feel about this. I think the elf itself is kind of cute, but the idea that he or she is WATCHING the children and then reporting back to Santa every night is rather creepy. This means that kids are on their best behavior because they think this otherworldly creature is inside their home, monitoring their behavior. I also find it great that the trademarked name of the product includes “a Christmas Tradition.” This is a new product! How oxymoronic can you get?! Please buy our new tradition!

    We had a really cute little elf growing up, but it didn’t have shifty eyes or the perve stare like this one. It didn’t serve the same purpose – it was just a decoration that I remember liking quite a bit. He was plump, older with facial hair, looked warm, welcoming, and paternal, and he held a bell.

    I’ve only heard minor details about the Elf of the Shelf, but I thought I’d weigh in.

  4. I felt much like you do about the elf 2 years ago. Now my daughter is four and a half and I have become the crazy elf lady. She loves it and wakes up every morning happy and excited to go find her. I do it because she loves it and it puts a smile on her face. I am not a stay at home (you are right , there should be a better term for that) I work as a hairstylist so by nature I am a creative person. But you are right….the elf is creepy, but eventually she grows on you.

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