The Elf on the Shelf—creepy or not creepy? Kelly McQuain thinks not.
You’ve either seen it in your own home or watched it pop up as a social media meme: a little red-suited elf with Kewpie-doll eyes lurking above a child’s bed or keeping tabs from a perch on the fireplace mantle. You know the drill, even if you haven’t actually read the book: Every night Snowflake or Snickerdoodle (or whatever your child has decided to name her elf) flies back to the North Pole to give Santa the day’s lowdown on who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. The next morning, the elf is perched in a new spot that your child has to look for–it’s basically a mash-up of an Advent calendar countdown and a game of Hide ‘n Seek.
Dr. Laura Pinto, an assistant professor of digital technology in Ontario, definitely believes the Elf on the Shelf falls into the creepy category. Recently The Washington Post published an article where she stated the popular book and doll set indoctrinates children into living in a police state. Pinto and her colleague “argue that if a kid is okay with this bureaucratic elf spying on them in their home, it normalizes the idea of surveillance and in the future restrictions on our privacy might be more easily accepted.”
This is the basic thesis of the paper Dr. Pinto co-authored with Selena Nemorin, “Who’s the Boss? ‘The Elf on the Shelf’ and the Normalization of Surveillance” which appeared recently on the website of the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives.
If you don’t like the toy, you might be inclined to agree with her. But to me, it sounds like Pinto’s prone to making sweeping statements and is guilty of underestimating the intelligence of American kids. She’s also forgetting that Christmas has a longstanding tradition of creepiness. Take the carol made famous by Andy Williams: “There’ll be scary ghost stories / And tales of the glories / Of Christmases long, long ago”. That song alludes to old English traditions where a large portion of Christmastide’s fun centered around adults telling legends and tales fireside in the hopes of frightening the jingle bells out of their little ones.
The most famous story in this tradition is, of course, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. As you’ll recall, it depicts Ebeneezer Scrooge flying through time and space alongside ghosts to invisibly surveil friends and relatives–all in an effort to modify Scrooge’s bad behavior. Dickens’ ghost story was part of a cultural tradition that predated him, and it’s also why, as a writer on TheConversation.com recently pointed out, we saw Downtown Abbey characters playing with a Ouija Board in their Christmas special a few years ago. Magical happenings and strange means of communication abound at Christmastime in England.
In North America, we’ve largely neutered that tradition. We want things to be safe and nice and politically correct, especially for our children, even if that means ignoring contemporary social realities.
With the linguistic flair only a true academic can muster, Dr. Pinto goes on to state that the Elf on the Shelf is “a capillary form of power that normalizes the voluntary surrender of privacy, teaching young people to blindly accept panoptic surveillance and reify hegemonic power” (qtd. in The Washington Post).
What a mouthful. The only problem is, the idea of spying on children is as old as Santa himself. Arriving on these shores as the Dutch Sinterklaas, Santa has pretty much always had his naughty and nice list. Generations of children have grown up just fine accepting his spying as the cost of his perennial toy giving. And the last I heard, the North Pole’s jolly old elf wasn’t checking to see if children were giving up state secrets, he was just looking into whether junior had been pulling the heads off his sister’s Barbies. In addition, many children might find it a comfort to know Santa’s actual means of spying involves magical plastic elf as opposed to vague, lyrical references to godlike omniscience: “He knows when you’ve been sleeping / He knows when you’re awake.” Or maybe Pinto believes we should ban that song, too?
Truth be told, I believe kids are in on the joke. Any parent who has woken up having forgotten to move Snickerdoodle the night before can attest to the complicity of their children in explaining away the mistake. Kids want to keep the game alive. They know on some level it’s their parents who are actually watching them, yet they nevertheless delight in the morality play of it all. By externalizing an imaginary critic who assesses their behavior, children are in fact developing a necessary faculty that helps them form judgements about the consequences of their actions. The Elf on the Shelf becomes a developmental tool for a child’s growing metacognition. Viewing it only as contributing “to the shaping of children as governable subjects”, as Pinto writes, does a disservice to children’s imaginations and their ability to become self-regulators.
Christmastime–and the winter solstice in general–is a time for evaluating the dark and light in ourselves, our naughtiness as well as our niceness. You don’t have to get hit in the head with the latest Monster High doll to know girls delight in creepiness as much as boys. And let’s not forget that in many parts of Europe, St. Nicholas is accompanied by the “bad cop” known as Krampus, a demonic character who beats bad children and carries them away. (He’s making a comeback in many American cities, such as Philadelphia, where I live, and where a family-friendly parade, or Krampuslauf, has become an annual tradition.) Krampus makes the Elf on the Shelf look like kids-stuff–which, of course, he is.
As for Pinto’s claim that a little plastic doll makes our children more accepting of life in a surveillance state, it’s both a faulty analogy and a slippery-slope argument. Here’s why:
First, if the Elf on the Shelf is a metaphor for state surveillance, that would mean Santa Claus embodies the role of the state. I don’t know about you, but lately I don’t think our government is living up to the fat man’s ideals of peace and giving. Pinto’s implied analogy fails.
Second, if the Elf on the Shelf is instead a surrogate for parental scrutiny–and, as I’ve said, the kids I’ve known seem to get that on an instinctual level–then Pinto’s argument also falls apart because parents have been keeping an eye on their kids since, well, forever. It’s what parents do.
Finally, Pinto’s claim that the Elf on the Shelf teaches “young people to blindly accept panoptic surveillance” goes too far. Whistleblowers, WikiLeaks writers and social media activists have shown us that surveillance is a two-way street and can, in fact, be used to keep power structures in check.
In sum, we shouldn’t coddle kids about the costs that come from living in the Information Age, nor should we shield them from it. The Elf on the Shelf is not about indoctrination and acceptance. Like all good childhood lessons, it’s about teaching children the way to navigate the iffy way the adult world works.
Adults also have a need to play out this dynamic–a point proven by the way the Elf on the Shelf has quickly morphed into a visual trope questioning all sorts of power structures. Just today on Facebook I saw a photo of a G.I. Joe figure water-boarding an elf beneath a kitchen sink faucet. What is that if not political commentary? I find it worthwhile that adults are questioning the status quo through their children’s toys–and I suspect their children will learn to emulate such recontextualization as a means of protest and empowerment.
Pinto is right that we live in a world of increasing surveillance that should be questioned. Parents can and should talk to their children about the government’s observation of their lives. But the real problem isn’t an Elf on the Shelf. It’s that a generation is growing up not knowing a world without selfies and cellphones, tweets and Twitter. We’re complicit. Kid or adult, we’re all being tracked, and the sooner we accept that fact we can learn to make it work in our favor–and perhaps even create responsible social change. In assessing blame, Pinto would do better to point her finger at the oligarchy created by capitalism run amok than at at a silly storybook and its elfin mascot.
The Elf on the Shelf doesn’t make children surrender their power to the state. At it’s worst, it flags for children a first understanding of what is ceded and gained in a complex, media-driven world. At it’s best, it helps children surrender bad behavior to their own growing understanding of a better, more moral self.
I think it’s great (and necessary) to teach children to question and fight “hegemonic power”. If you feel the same way, you might want to slap a mini-Guy Fawkes’ mask on Snickerdoodle’s face next time you attempt to capture the perfect Elf on the Shelf social media meme.
Photo: peapodquadmon / flickr