I already have a theory that Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually an allegory for cultural appropriation. But now I have an additional theory: it’s also about gender roles and the way people perform gender, specifically focusing on toxic masculinity and female agency.
In Halloween Town, there is a lot of value and emphasis placed on being scary. That is the lens through which the Halloween people see the world: scary is good, and scary people are powerful and desirable. However, while watching the show, it is very easy to replace the word “scary” in one’s mind with “manly.”
Just look at how the citizens of Halloween Town act around Jack Skellington in the opening scene. Jack is the Pumpkin King, their leader and the epitome of their values, well-established as the reason why Halloween is so scary and successful. And the crowd adores him. They fawn over him, lauding him with compliments (“You’re a witch’s fondest dream!”). They pursue him even as he tries to politely back away; one witch even grabs his leg and rubs herself against it.
Once Jack finally manages to escape the crowd, he spends an entire song expressing his exhaustion with the pressures of keeping up the role of Pumpkin King. He admits to being “the best” at what he does – being scary – but he longs for something different, a different way to express himself. “But who here would ever understand?” he laments. After all, if being scary is the best thing, why would anyone hate it?
Listening to Jack, I can’t help but think of men who are public figures, like actors and politicians, constantly under pressure to perform masculine traits such as strength, bossiness, and insensitivity, whether they actually want to or not, because "being a man" is supposedly the best thing to be. Like these men, Jack is not supposed to have a softer side.
But he clearly does – when Jack finds Christmastown, he absolutely loves it, though it is so different from all of the things he’s supposed to be like, and tries to bring it back to Halloweentown.
He also does not use his scariness to lord over his people like he might be expected to. Again and again, Jack uses praise and compliments to get what he wants rather than intimidation. For example, while convincing Sally to make his Santa outfit, instead of ordering her to do so, he tells her that she’s the only one “clever enough” to do it. Jack can use his scariness to get what he wants – as he does by pulling a scary face on Lock, Shock, and Barrel after the Easter Bunny mix-up – but he rarely uses that power, and doesn’t seem to like that he did it at all.
Now let’s talk about the character in the movie who is supposed to embody softness in this society: Sally the rag doll. She is immediately presented in the film as a foil to Jack. Jack is expected to be in public but secretly shies away from the expectations of the masses. Sally, on the other hand, is expected to stay at home, away from “so much excitement,” as her father-figure Dr. Finkelstein puts it. But she actively resists this role, repeatedly running away from home.
It’s even easier to draw parallels between the role Sally is expected to perform by the people around her and with real-life women. Finkelstein wants Sally to cook his meals, sit at home, and do whatever he says. “You’re mine, you know,” he tells her at one point, “I made you!”
Sally performs her expected role, to a point, but finds ways to resist it and express her own individuality throughout the film. She’ll make Finkelstein’s meals, yes, but if she wants to sneak out that night, she drugs the soup. And though Finkelstein seems to think that Sally needs him to keep her safe, at one point arguing that Sally will always come back so that he can repair her, Sally proves to be perfectly capable of taking care of her own body, taking herself apart and sewing her limbs back to her torso again and again. She’s also the only person in Halloween Town who stands up to Jack about his theft of Christmas; though she is as enamored by the “soft” holiday as he is, she quickly realizes that the way the Halloween citizens are twisting it will only lead to disaster, and tells Jack so. Everyone else just passively goes with the flow.
One other character ties into the gender role performance theme: the film’s villain, Oogie Boogie.
Remember how the citizens of Halloween Town see the world through a “scary is good and powerful people are scary” lens? They’ve naturally gone into the whole Christmas thing assuming that to be the case, and assumed that this “Sandy Claws” who rules Christmas town must be super scary to have that kind of power.
So when Oogie, who is purportedly “the meanest guy around,” gets Santa kidnapped to his lair, he immediately begins to pick Santa apart, mocking him for his nonthreatening appearance. Oogie gleefully wields the power and status he believes he has over Santa, keeping him tied up and helpless, throwing him around the room, and getting way too much in his personal space. He lords his power over other people in a way that Jack rarely if ever does.
And when Sally arrives to try to rescue Santa (making use of a performance of femininity to do so, dangling a disconnected leg in a sexy pose to distract Oogie – again, she’s a rag doll, her limbs are supposed to disconnect), Oogie does the same to her. He ties her up and mocks and belittles her for her softness and helplessness.
Oogie is an allegory for the man who puts other men and women down in order to gain “manly” status for himself. But like these men in real life, Oogie doesn’t really gain anything from this, as becomes clear when the film’s major example of masculinity – I mean, scariness – turns up.
It’s a tiny detail, but as soon as Jack appears in the scene, the first thing he does is casually spread himself out over a table and reach over to stroke Oogie’s face – a pair of behaviors that are uncomfortably similar to real-life sexual harassment behaviors, such as manspreading and unwelcome intimate touching. They certainly serve to emasculate Oogie, who immediately flinches away in fright and spends the rest of the scene running away, setting off traps behind him. He is ultimately helpless as Jack finally unravels him.
But while this film shows characters performing allegories of strictly-defined roles of masculinity and femininity, it by no means endorses those strict roles. Jack’s gentle side is ultimately rewarded. He, who only uses his scariness as a weapon when it’s very necessary, wins out over Oogie, who loves to lord it over people. And though Jack is scolded for ruining Christmas, Santa brings snow to Halloween Town in the end for him and everyone else to enjoy.
Also, the film puts Jack and Sally, the two characters who express the most resistance to their defined roles, together in the end, and outright tells us that they are “meant to be.” Jack sees Sally as someone clever and capable, like she wants to be seen. Sally understands Jack’s gentle side in a way no one else in Halloweentown really does. Rather than holding each other to societal standards, they enable each other in the best ways, and their embrace is the concluding image of the film.