The stop-motion animation TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a weeknight airing on CBS. I showed the film to my two young daughters, hoping to enjoy an hour of peace and quiet to myself, but instead found myself consistently peppered with questions about why the reindeer were such petty bullies, why Frosty the Snowman (voiced by Burl Ives) busted out into a song about "Silver and Gold," and why after Rudolph ran away from home, his father forbid his mother to help in the search for her lost child because it was "man's work."
Times have changed, thankfully, but I could at least shrug off this truly unpleasant excuse for entertainment as my flawed but earnest attempt at maintaining some kind of holiday tradition. The thing has aired for 50 straight years, after all.
Apparently longevity is no longer required to earn the title of "Christmas tradition," as evidenced by the Elf on the Shelf. Though it's only been around since 2005, first as a book and then as a toy, the creepy side-eyed gnome has spied and informed on millions of kids to an unaccountable power broker at the North Pole. According to the product description:
The Elf on the Shelf®: A Christmas Tradition includes a special scout elf sent from the North Pole to help Santa Claus manage his naughty and nice lists. When a family adopts a scout elf and gives it a name, the scout elf receives its Christmas magic and can fly to the North Pole each night to tell Santa Claus about all of the day's adventures. Each morning, the scout elf returns to its family and perches in a different place to watch the fun. Children love to wake up and race around the house looking for their scout elf each morning.
None of this is too far removed from the Stasi-meets-stalker lyrics to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town":
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I'm telling you why
Dr. Laura Elizabeth Pinto, a digital technology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, thinks Elf on the Shelf poses a criticial ethical dilemma. In a paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Pinto wonders if the Elf is "preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance."
Sensing that she might come off as a humorless paranoid crank, Pinto clarified her position to the Washington Post:
"I don't think the elf is a conspiracy and I realize we're talking about a toy. It sounds humorous, but we 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." (Emphasis mine).
One could argue that the millions of adults walking around with NSA-trackable and criminal-hackable smartphones in their pockets are far more influential than a seasonal doll in setting the example to the next generation that surveillance is inevitable and Big Brother is not to be feared. Still, Pinto has a point when she writes:
What The Elf on the Shelf represents and normalizes: anecdotal evidence reveals that children perform an identity that is not only for caretakers, but for an external authority (The Elf on the Shelf), similar to the dynamic between citizen and authority in the context of the surveillance state.
Bonus explainer video below: