Culture, Control, Colorization, and The Elf on the Shelf

The “Elf on the Shelf” tradition has become massive. I’m not sure when it started, but I have only known about it for a year.

If you are not familiar with it goes something like this: On December 1 Santa sends an Elf to each house. The Elf flies to and from the North Pole daily. The Elf might bring presents each day, too. The Elf’s duty is to land in a different place each day to observe whether or not the children are being good enough for Santa. The Elf cannot be touched by humans.

My personal thoughts were that it sounded like it could be fun but also a lot of work for the parent(s) and further commercializes the holiday season. Recently in one of my classes we were talking about contemporary culture and my students, to my surprise, almost uniformly suggested that the Elf on the Shelf tradition sounded very creepy.

This morning the Facebook page Addicting Info shared Professor Says That The Elf On A Shelf Is Preparing Your Child To Live In A Police State.” (Here’s another one about it. Here’s the professor’s full study.) This article makes many good, persuasive points and contextualizes the Elf and related cultural phoneme. A number of people agree with the premise of the article; however, many of the comments are degrading and overflowing with flat-out anti-intellectual. A few follow, directly as left by the commenter. 

  • That’s beyond idiotic. When children get older they realize that these are simply traditions, – i.e. adults making children’s lives more fun and magical. I love science and research but not when dumbasses come up with stupid sh*t like this.
  • Someone needs something far more productive to do with their time. It’s a toy.
  • I would love to know where This Professor got his education. Think he fell off of a truck sneaking across the border. How Dumb Can someone really be.
  • CAN’T KIDS BE KIDS ANYMORE? Stop analyzing everything…Personally, I think he is creepy, but if the kids like it , that is what counts..
  • WOW. This is just beyond stupid. Teaching kids to behave and follow the rules somehow equates to preparing them to live in a police state?!?!? It teaches them how to live in a civilized society. This is even more stupid and crazy than people who have a problem with Rudolph.
  • I think this whole story is BS .. I’m mean really!!! It’s just for fun and to make into something like this story is just to scare people!! How ridiculous! Maybe this professor has wayyyyyyy to much time on her hands .
  • Cant people just have fun anymore without being psycho-analyzed about it?

These comments make me very sad. For one thing, they are perfect examples of cyber bullying–especially the ones that included name-calling. Bullying, because of my critiques of culture and of the IWSCP, that I am all too familiar with. They are also an example of how thinking is not valued in our culture. Pointing out new and different thoughts is not valued either. From a cultural studies perspective, any sincere thought, perspective, or critique is important, relevant, and true, to at least a few. In the case of this article, many assume the professor and related article was written by a Man, when it was written by a Woman. People who left these hostile comments clearly do not understand or appreciate different points-of-view. Remember the cliché about the importance of entertaining a thought? Likewise, these people critique an article warning of censorship and police-state-activity, when they themselves are in effect speaking to censor and police the thoughts that they disagree with, they don’t understand, or rather, don’t want to hear.

A wonderful Christmas present to the world would be tolerance and celebrations of diverse, radical ideas. But this would require people to see and protest the status quo. Think how happy that would make bell hooks! 🙂  

My personal concern with the Elf of the Shelf is the ways in which they are (and aren’t) racialized/colorized. For a list of available products on Amazon, click here. Immediately, you’ll notice White Elf, after White Elf. After going through at least one full page of results, I came across this one described as “The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition with a girl Scout Elf with brown skin/brown eyes” with the option of buying it as a “Brown Eyed Elf” or “Brown Eyed Girl.”


In terms of the politics of skin color/colorization/racialization, the “brown skin/brown eyes” product does not reflect anywhere near the true diversity of skin that is colorized/racialized as Black. Naturally, they can’t represent all skin tones, but by doing a search for “black dolls” on Amazon, there are plenty of legitimate possibilities. As noted in various Doll Studies and other studies, Black children frequently feel ashamed of their skin color. Part of this is not seeing their skin represented in a positive way. 

Their is one additional Elf on the Shelf product that is important to critique. Check this out.


This strange product is not part of any regular Elf on the Shelf packages. The skin tone is really strange and unnatural in places. The exaggerated, unnatural eyes make it a caricature or something really close to one.

So, just as Santa is White, so are these Elves, for all practical purposes. There are no Hispanic, Japanese or Chinese, or Middle Eastern Elves either. There are also no gender-ambiguous or gender non-confirming ones. People don’t realize how important such representations and stories are, especially given that they are the only ones told.  

Why can’t we have a Christmas tradition that truly embraces diversity? 

Thanks for reading. 

Check out this posting from last Christmas: The Rhetoric of Two Christmas Songs – Hidden Power of Words Series, #3

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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7 replies

  1. Plus … the characterization of these elves is commercialized from the get-go. These seem to be modeled after 1960s television elves and nothing of the elf folk lore of Europe and other cultures. That’s not too surprising, since Santa has become normalized through television, Hollywood, and Macy’s, but it’s also another strength of Pinto and Nimorin’s study is that the commercialization of xmas [sic, and I’m staying with it] has part of neoliberalism’s enculturation into every component of our lives, including how we observe any celebration, holy or not.

    Your observations on the anti-intellectualism are spot on. They demonstrate to me that most folks never even bothered to read any paragraphs of the study and these commentors are headline readers only. This indicates the lack of literacy and critical thinking too prevalent in our reactionary world, especially within the larger scene of the Culture Wars. I’m hoping Kirk Cameron can save us all.

    Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t get me started on Kirk Cameron!

      I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a blog article that would address the “you’re-thinking-too-hard” comment that I get all the time.

      How’ve you been, btw, it’s been a while! 🙂


  2. I don’t think much of Elf on the Shelf, and the responses to the Addicted Info article are decidedly overwrought. But I also think authors Pinto and Nemorin, while suggesting a very interesting topic about socialization and social control, make a leap that’s not part of my experience as a grandfather (and somewhat of a cultural observer). My grandchildren have actually incorporated the Elf into their play (as has their mom, who placed Elf in the food processor one recent morning) rather than adjusting to a somewhat menacing tattle-tale creature beholden to Santa. He (and now a little She) have become like dolls, though untouchable of course, and I’ve seen nary a look of furtiveness at the Elf when one of the kids is behaving badly. After moving to their city four years ago, I joined the game by getting my own Elf–though, balking at the heavy price and all the paraphernalia, I opted for my own Winkie the Leprechaun, which was under ten bucks. Of course, this is totally anecdotal, but Pinto and Nemorin are winging it instead of looking seriously at testing out their theory. More sinister, to me, is the use of the Elf in schools–especially with its quasi-Christian-culture-Santa connection. No one ever suggested using Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer as a teaching tool–or so I believe–and that story actually serves a socially conscious end in teaching tolerance for those who are different. I’d like to see what the Elf lesson plans look like–but, hey, everyone gets watched in school!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember in elementary school I so much wanted my own elf. Everyone else around me had one. They seemed so cool, but nah it unfortunately it never happened. Never got one. I think in essence their purpose IS to make life more “magical and fun” for the kid, but when people disregard underlying messages associated with a specific traditional practice then they let their own positive experience push down anything that might cloud it.

    Liked by 1 person


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