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How to be Human: Lessons in Socialization from Elf

In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum uses the holiday film Elf to illustrate how people are socialized into their communities.

It is the holiday season and with that comes a selection of movies shown repeatedly from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day. One such film is Elf (2003), a story starring Will Ferrell about a human named Buddy raised by elves at the North Pole. After years of not fitting in among his elven brethren, it is revealed that Buddy is not only human, his father is alive and has landed on Santa Claus’s naughty list. Hijinks ensue as Buddy integrates himself into human society, attempts to get his father off of the naughty list, and spreads Christmas cheer.

Although holidays are an important aspect of the sociology of culture, what is most interesting to me about the movie Elf is how it explores resocialization. Resocialization is when a person learns new norms and values in response to new life circumstances. For example, when two people move in together, they undergo a sort of resocialization – learning to keep the toilet seat down, close cabinet doors, not drink directly out of the milk carton, etc. – that they might not have had to do when they lived alone or with their parents.

Socialization itself is a lifelong process and it is how people learn to become functioning members of a society through internalizing the values, beliefs, and norms of that society. As he was raised by elves, Buddy was socialized in elven culture. He believes the four major food groups are candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup. He recites the code of the elves that includes, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” Socialization, however, cannot explain all aspects of a person’s development and personality; biology plays a role as well. In Buddy’s case, he is much larger than the elves, he does not produce toys as quickly as the other elves, and he is labeled as “special” or different compared to everyone else at the North Pole. This combination of Buddy being human (nature) and his upbringing (nurture) makes Buddy who he is.

Buddy declares that he is going to find his biological father. Before he leaves, Santa tries to warn Buddy about some aspects of human life in New York City, such as that discarded gum on the street is not free candy, you cannot trust the claims of restaurants, and that “peep show” does not mean that you get to look at your presents before Christmas. This crash course in humanity does not prove adequate. We watch Buddy eat discarded gum off the street, congratulate a café on having the “world’s best cup of coffee,” press all of the buttons on the elevator because he is amazed that they look like Christmas lights, and get hit by a yellow taxi.

Watching Elf reveals many of the behaviors that we were socialized to do or not do so long ago that we take them for granted. Most of us know how to use an escalator, how smiling in certain situations is disconcerting, when to ask tons of questions, and that the radiator’s sounds are relatively harmless. Encountering these things for the first time like Buddy does subtly reminds us that there is nothing “natural” about such “human nature.” We had to learn what to do, from negotiating crossing the street to the proper dress for a man in his mid-thirties.

On the one hand, Buddy’s lack of human socialization leads him to engage in deviant behavior. Social norms, or rules for acceptable and unacceptable behavior, mean that it is inappropriate for Buddy to purchase lady’s lingerie for his father, even if he considers his father to be a “special someone.” On the other hand, the holiday season is meant to be a time of happiness, spending time with family, and magic and Buddy is initially the only character adhering to those norms. In essence, Buddy has to bring the other characters into compliance with Christmas spirit.

At the end of the film, Buddy is able to save Christmas, his father’s job, and his familial relationships. Buddy gains fame with his life story and is able to start a family with a woman who appreciates elf culture. The extent of Buddy’s resocialization is unclear, but we can be assured that as he continues to live among humans and raise his child he will adjust his norms and values accordingly as we all do.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Did the other characters in the film experience resocialization? How so?
  2. Read this story about international students at the University of Pennsylvania. How was their experience similar to or different from Buddy’s experience? Discuss a time in which your expectations of a new culture or place did not match reality.
  3. Would Buddy’s elf behaviors ever be more acceptable in human society? All of them or some of them? Consider things like age, race, class, sex, gender, and sexuality.
  4. Elf takes place in New York City. How might Buddy’s resocialization been different if it took place in another city or in a rural area?