Christmas Panopticon

In the spirit of the holiday, I leave you with excerpts from the 1 December 2014 piece “Who’s the Boss? The Elf on the Shelf and the normalization of surveillance” by Laura Pinto and Selena Nemorin via the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:

[…] The Elf on the Shelf is a wildly popular, Christmas-themed book that comes with a doll to reinforce the story in home and school settings. … [T]his article … explore[s] theoretical and conceptual concerns about the popularity and widespread educational use of The Elf on the Shelf in light of the contemporary literature on play and panoptic surveillance. […]

What is troubling is 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. Further to this, The Elf on the Shelf website offers teacher resources, integrating into both home and school not only the brand but also tacit acceptance of being monitored and always being on one’s best behaviour–without question. […]

This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. … The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play. […]

In conclusion, get yourself a benevolent Mensch on a Bench instead!



You can read more about dolls, even “Canadian ‘Maplelea’ Girl Dolls: The Commodification of Difference,” in Doll Studies: The Many Meanings of Girls’ Toys and Play (Mediated Youth) (edited by Miriam Forman-Brunell and Jennifer Dawn Whitney) available in the new year.


Yeah, shameless book plug!

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3 Responses to Christmas Panopticon

  1. J. Hazlett says:

    “Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus.”

    I beg to differ. Santa Claus, himself, blurs the distinction between play time and real time. He invades our home at night, and further, it is a known fact that he is always watching us and knows whether we have been bad or good. We know he is real because this oddly jolly fellow is at the mall where we line up to talk to him.

    He has been behaving in this fashion for years, so does that make surveillance seem acceptable. I don’t know. Surveillance cameras has become increasingly common over the last 20 years – long before the advent of the Elf on the Shelf. If anything, it is the other way around, the prevalence of surveillance cameras, combined with the strong tradition of the all-knowing Santa, have made it seem perfectly normal to have an elf sitting around watching us all the time.

    Actually, the fact that children search out the elf’s new location each day, could be considered a gain for libertarians because it encourages children to think about locations of our society’s ever-present cameras.

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