I’m about to get real lecturey about a movie I love. I think that “it doesn’t have to be that deep” fully applies to Home Alone and a lot of flicks like it. My emotional review of Home Alone is mostly a lot of charmed gushing about a smartly written screenplay, the Extremely Adorable Brothers Culkin, and loving the random monologues from John Candy as the polka guy.
It’s still one of my favorite Christmas movies, so I’ve really taken it for granted these last thirty-four years. It’s fun for me to take a look with fresher eyes from the perspective of the more jaded adult I’ve become. But while I write this stuff out, it doesn’t change the fact I’ve grown up with Home Alone, and it’s absolutely iconic in my heart.
Back when Sara was a sweet little two-year-old sprog with more interest in the taste of carpet fluff than story analysis, John Hughes and Chris Columbus gave us a Christmas classic in Home Alone. Young Kevin McCallister’s family takes a vacation, accidentally leaving him behind, which means he’s the only one available to defend the house against invasion when a pair of robbers attack.
Recently, The New York Times did an analysis of the McCallisters’ wealth. It’s a fun read which concludes, rather neutrally, that this family belongs to the 1%. There’s a lot of speculation about the jobs of the parents, and the novelization reportedly lists them as a fashion designer and Business Guy.
Because the original screenwriters didn’t intend to look at the McCallister parents in this way, any speculation about criminality as a source of their wealth is just a mischievous reinterpretation of the story. It’s trying to tap into the unreality of the scenario (robbers like The Sticky Bandits aren’t really a thing) to come up with a plausible excuse and acknowledging that a lotta people get rich through criminal means, whether it’s Business Guy-flavored or Sticky Bandit flavored. I support this reading.
That said, I don’t think it’s possible the McCallisters could ever be criminal; the movie is too much a fantasy from the perspective of affluent white America, which constantly thinks it’s playing cops and robbers.
Kevin’s preparation shows how he can outsmart any trouble, and we know that a certain type of guy loves the fantasy of power from prepping. Prepping has taken hold in more communities during 21st century turmoil, but in the 90s, it was really only *one* kind of guy. Though Kevin is a child, he’s written by adult men, and it’s significant that Kevin regards himself as the Man of the House. He’s in control and prepared for disaster. Like home invasion.
If you google statistics about home invasion, you’ll see some alarmingly-tinted information from home security companies and insurance companies. We turn to the Bureau of Justice, with all its own biases, which shared in 2010 that fully 65% of home invasions happens between people who know each other previously. The most vulnerable people are single moms, those living in smaller apartment units, and rentals, especially occupied by nonwhite people. Places are it’s often targeted because a prior relationship let the burglar know there are guns or drugs there. Affluent family homes are among the least vulnerable.
Burglary statistics paint a rather expected picture of the economic situation in America. Property crime springs from hardship, and it’s something the lower class is mostly dealing with. Regardless of profession, the McCallisters are certainly not one of the more vulnerable targets.
Yet there is a certain attraction to this fear of home invasions among the affluent. You see it pop up in movies a lot, like The Strangers (the classic example), Panic Room, Hush, The Purge…
Actually, let’s talk The Purge. For every guy who understands its intent as a grim satire about the reality we live in, like WH40k, you get a guy who enjoys the fantasy of permissible brutality, like WH40k. The Purge is an appealing aesthetic to people who may also enjoy the whole zombie shooter genre, where the visuals of mass harm against human people is divested of genuine impact. You could compare 80s action movies stripping away the consequences of violence (like John McClane getting to fight ~terrorists~ in Die Hard) to the permissible violence of The Purge.
This is an awfully intense direction to go with analysis of a kids’ Christmas movie, especially when the violence is intended to be cartoony and goofy. But the traps that Kevin places to protect himself from burglars, and the matter of asymmetric power, makes Kevin’s plight pretty similar to John McClane’s. Not to mention that Kevin commits some real brutality against these guys: in reality, the first fall or two would have probably killed them.
I’m not taking the side of The Sticky Bandits here, even playfully. Kevin’s adorable. Team Kevin. But The Sticky Bandits don’t really have any sort of real-life analog. There isn’t a disaffected bear and his post-twink death twink rolling around in a van casing your local 1% neighborhood, especially since everyone and their mother now has a Ring camera. We don’t have a sense that these Bandits have any motive beyond Money and Pride, which is simply not where “crime” comes from in reality.
Really, “crime” comes from the places that police decide to police. As Slate noted, The McCallisters committed ample crimes without any risk of prosecution. The fantasy of their crimes is acceptable compared to the crimes committed by fantasy villains, who are simply caricatures of the lower class, and the lower class is much more acceptably labeled criminal.
(Let’s not discuss the incredibly shallow misunderstanding of poverty when they attempt to address it in Home Alone 2.)
Yes, Home Alone is a very particular kind of rich person fantasy, where you have an opportunity for justified violence without consequence, whether it is the severe brain damage either Bandit could have realistically suffered or the pursuit of the justice system.
The McCallisters are absolutely not criminals; this would not serve the fantasy.
But this movie may serve as a primer for a toxic fantasy that can grow out of control into something eldritch in certain populations, if you look at it sideways. It pumps its fist at a certain kind of paranoid power fantasy.
It’s interesting to note that John Hughes didn’t think of the McCallisters as really *rich,* even while writing a rich guy’s fantasy. The mansion setting was chosen by Chris Columbus because it created more space for the elaborate traps, and once you’ve put a family in a mansion, they’ve inherited a history of generational wealth that is preferentially given to white people as a caste in America. It’s simply how America works.
The set design of the mansion and composition of the family are meant to evoke Norman Rockwell, a painter born in 1894 who depicted an America which has changed notably since his peak. Rockwell is truly an embodiment of Americana for some. Nostalgia is often preyed upon in white nationalism and other extreme right-wing stances that benefit wealth inequality.
What I’m saying here is that someone who isn’t a rich white guy would simply have a different kind of fantasy than this one — it’s inseparable from his orientation in our world. Only a man of his perspective could imagine a neutral, nostalgic, pleasant American family that looked exactly like this, in this setting, with this pursuit of American fantasy-justice against a specter of criminality that shows cluelessness to the real structural inequity of the country which benefits him.
Chris Columbus and John Hughes aren’t the enemy; this isn’t a condemnation by any means. Hughes in particular comes from a working class background in an America where a one-income white family could live in suburbia (with all the associated real estate wealth). For his era and position, he came up as Just Some Guy.
His movies often did address class sensitively, and in favor of “the little guy.” Someone can be enfranchised and privileged and a beneficiary of a lot of dreadful things, but also a thoughtful and talented artist with good intentions who did his best with what he had. I think this is true of many great artists coming out of the higher caste in a caste system. We can only have our own perspective, and all of us are damaged and limited by hierarchy in different ways.
Still, we’ve had Home Alone for more than thirty years, and I think it’s interesting to come back to really see it. It’s easy to take an iconic classic for granted and label it a great without wondering who it’s great for.
The question I always ask about fantasy wish fulfillment movies is, “Who does the fantasy benefit?”
The fantasy of Home Alone is meant to be a small child getting one over on grownups, and it works so well on that level, it really can be that simple.
But the way that the child gets one over on grownups, the way the grownups are chosen and depicted, is specific to the perspective of wealthy whiteness–and a paranoid perspective.
I don’t feel prepared to evaluate the impact of this very narrow fantasy on culture. I’ll leave you, instead, with a story about a very young Sara who enjoyed this movie when she was younger than Kevin McCallister.
I remember lying on the floor of my family’s apartment with a piece of construction paper, trying to draw the layout of our home. The complex probably had fifty units across five buildings (or something like that). The carpet was twenty years old and smelled like it. We had always rented, and always would. When I drew the apartment, I blew up the scale really big and imagined each room thrice its size to make more room for traps.
There simply wasn’t much to trap: in about nine hundred square feet, the bedrooms were clustered around the end of a short hall, and the kitchen and living room bracketed the opposite end. But also, The Sticky Bandits would never want to attack us, my mom reassured me. We didn’t have anything worth stealing. That’s the kind of thing you should tell a child, not that she is statistically much more vulnerable than the kid in the movie.
I wanted to break Adult Guy feet on toys and bash their heads with bans of green beans and burn their hands with my doorknobs. Blissful, paranoid Christmas fantasy in the middle of a small town apartment complex. I still love watching it. Does that need to mean anything at all?
(image credit: Disney)