Were you watching TV on Christmas Day? Then you probably saw Stick Man. Yes, Stick Man, that nice heartwarming TV film about the man made from a bit of branch who gets separated from his twiggy family. Or, as the BBC put it: “a happy-go-lucky father’s epic journey to make it home in time for Christmas”. Cute, right?
Wrong. For Stick Man, friends, is a portrait of a dystopian society in which conservative, heteronormative family values are upheld at all costs, and that sees personhood only fully granted to a self-absorbed patriarch: Stick Man himself.
Stick Man lives with “his Stick Lady love”, and their 2.4 children. (And I mean literally 2.4. As in, one child twig person is nearly half the size of the other two child twig people.) We meet them on Christmas morning, when Stick Man shows his children the right way to play with their toys (his way). Then, one spring day, Stick Man rises early “to go for a jog” (so we already know he’s a psychopath), where he gets abducted by a dog, made into a nest by a swan, and then lost downriver. The half-hour is then devoted to our hero’s nostos: like Odysseus, he is gripped by a longing to return home.
The concept of family in Stick Man is deeply regressive. Their house is referred to as their “Family Tree”: a sweet little pun because they live in a nice old oak, sure, but also a stark reminder that domesticity in Stick Man’s world is utterly genocentric, obsessed with lineage and good breeding. The tree is adorned with sketches of the perfect stick household: the image of the heteronormative nuclear family permeates the family’s subconscious so deeply that they repeatedly project it on to the very walls of their home. Here is a drawing that hangs above the family bed. (Yes, they all share one bed. Don’t even get me started on the symbolism there.)
Stick Man is obsessed by this postcard-perfect picture. Seemingly, every other family in Stick Man adheres to these domestic roles too. Take these guys: Swan Dad, Swan Mum (as they are named in the credits), and their little cygnets three.
Swan Mum stays in the nest with her eggs while Swan Dad explores the river. This dynamic mirrors the domestic microcosm of the Family Tree: while Stick Man is out jogging and handing leaves to snails, his “Stick Lady love” is putting berries on leaves for the children and looking wistfully out the window with a “Will my husband ever return?” expression. Seasons change, but like Odysseus’s Penelope, Stick Lady remains the same.
Meanwhile, Stick Man continues his epic journey of self-discovery: the only thing that obsesses him more than the Family Tree is his own identity. After each encounter with a playful child or cheerful animal, he asserts his understanding of himself against their definitions of him. “I’m not a flag,” “I’m not a sword for a knight,” he insists, before shouting, “I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man, that’s me!”
Our patriarch is constantly engaging with the performative act of self-definition, a luxury not extended to his twiggy relatives. We are only introduced to Stick Lady and her nameless spawn in relation to Stick Man: “Stick Man lives in the Family Tree / With his Stick Lady love and their stick children three.”
Like Tennyson’s Mariana, an abandoned woman condemned to isolation and despair, Stick Lady can only define herself in relation to her male lover, even in his absence. Just as Mariana is disturbed by a tree’s shadow, a phallic, translucent symbol of the man who has left her, so too Stick Lady spends her days haunted by echoes of Stick Man. (I mean, she literally lives inside a tree, and her husband kind of is a tree, and there’s a shadowy Christmas tree thrown in for good measure, too. The trees are all dicks, I’m telling you.)
The youthful twig people share in her nervous breakdown: one brainwashed Stick Child, now void of personhood and searching for meaning, mindlessly scribbles an image of the familial identity he once held so dear on the wall.
Their lives are only valid again after Santa shows up and carpools a displaced Stick Man back to the Oppressive Tree of Patriarchal Society. Upon finally returning to his long lost loves, Stick Man just says “I’m Stick Man” over and over again, without so much as a “Hello! How are you?”
“I’m Stick Man,” he repeats, with arms outstretched, welcoming his children back into his weird cult of Stick. His family instantly slot back into orbit around his enormous ego, and order is restored, and the Stick Family can find comfort in their familial roles once more. As long as Stick Man never leaves again.
(Well, it’s either that, or just a cute story about a twig person who loves his kids. That’s the joy of literature: you decide!)
Anyway, Merry Christmas: to you and your kin. Obviously.