Problematic Holiday Music
There was a CNN article going around social media this week about a couple that re-imagined the lyrics to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” to emphasize consent. I shared it on my Facebook page, and you should listen to the cover. It’s not only cute and funny, but also makes a very important point–the original song is basically about a woman being pressured into sex, plied with alcohol and possibly date-raped (she asks what’s in her drink, and then starts to feel funny–like she’s under a spell). And, in case you missed it–she totally says no. Like, a lot. Emphatically. “The answer is no, sir.” Even without the alcohol, even if she eventually caves and gives in, there is nothing at all romantic about a man who won’t take no for an answer. Reluctant sex is rape.
I’ve seen people try to defend it using similar reasoning as to why rape fantasy “romance” was popular in the 80s–that women weren’t allowed to own their sexuality or feel pleasure unless someone took their consent away. And while that may be true of the time (and moreso in the 40s when this song was written), it doesn’t mean we need to celebrate that or perpetuate it now. When that happens today, it’s called date rape. It also happens all of the time in marriages, and women are taught to simply accept it as their “marital duty.” And it’s not OK.
EDIT–it looks like the couple took down the song from SoundCloud. It was there on the 6th, but it’s possible the article caused too much negative feedback or too much traffic for the website.
BUT, they did a live version and it is now on YouTube!
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is one of the worst offenders for problematic holiday music, but there are others that perpetuate negative stereotypes and cultural biases, too.
“Up on the Housetop,” “Jolly Old St Nicholas,” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” all include stereotypical toy choices for kids–always dolls for girls and either active (hopalong boots, hammer&tacks, ball, whirligig, skates) or violent toys (pistol, whip) for boys. “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” (contemporaneous with “Up On the Housetop” in the 1860s) at least mentions that Nellie would rather have a book than a doll. That may be because it’s based on a poem written by a woman, and the other two were written by men.
What we hand our children to play with is what they will learn to become. Any preschool teacher will tell you that kids learn through play. So if all we give our girls to play with are dolls, we are telling them the only role we want them to learn is mother/nurturer/caretaker. In contrast, we allow boys to have a wider range of options, from sports, to construction, to–yes–violence.
Of course not everyone sticks to these stark divides when giving gifts to their children, but go walk in any toy store or toy section and tell me what you find there. Even in Target, where they are doing excellent things to break down gender barriers on a store level, they can still only go as far as the product-makers will allow with their merchandise.
And let’s talk about another gift-related issue, with songs like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” The song doesn’t explicitly state that Santa won’t bring toys to bad kids, but it’s implied: “Be good, for goodness’ sake!” This dovetails with another popular phenomenon: the Elf on the Shelf. I want my kids to be good and responsible just like every other parent, but I don’t want them to get used to living in a police state with Big Brother spying on them. I prefer Santa as a benevolent being who bestows presents regardless of the actions of the child–who loves unconditionally, in other words. It’s one thing for bad behavior to be punished by me, the parent, and for good behavior to be rewarded. It’s another thing to withhold presents on a day where gift-giving is expected because of some perceived “badness.” And what about families that can’t afford to give their children gifts? Do those kids now think that they’ve been bad? It’s not a simple issue.
There are other songs that display problematic behavior or biases, but the last one I want to talk about is “Santa Baby.” Many people defend this song as comedy, or parody. It’s supposed to be funny that Santa is standing in for a sugar daddy to a wannabe trophy wife, because all women really want is what a man can buy her and a ring, right?
Even if you claim the song is satirical, it’s still punching down. It’s still perpetuating the negative stereotype that women can be bought, and if a man dangles expensive toys in front of a hot girl, she’ll go home with him. It equates female sexual desire with being paid, and turns us into whores.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that funny.
I don’t want to end on a negative note, though. There are lots of holiday/Christmas songs that I do like. And the three songs with the toys in them can still be enjoyed for their other merits, while acknowledging the problems. I’ll admit that I won’t listen to “Santa Baby” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” at all unless I can’t help it (ie., trapped in a store), but versions of the others are all in my curated Christmas playlist.
Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family, I tend to have a soft spot for religious songs that remind me of my childhood (“Mary Did You Know?” and “Breath of Heaven” are contemporary favorites, and hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “O Holy Night,” and “Silent Night”), but I also like secular carols (“Sleigh Ride” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”) and contemporary winter or holiday-themed songs (Sarah McLachlan’s “Wintersong,” Carly Simon’s “The Night Before Christmas,” and Joni Mitchell’s “River.”) So I’m definitely not someone who says “bah humbug” at this time of year. In fact, I go all-out and decorate my house for Christmas and Yule.
But it’s totally OK to love something and still be able to see the faults and problems within it. Criticism and critique help us find the flaws in our own thinking, too.
I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. It has a different meaning for me now, because I literally believe that god is in all of us. And that all paths, including Christianity, can be valid paths to discovering Truth. Most poignant are these lyrics, especially now:
“A voice of peace to the weary ones / Who struggle with the human soul. / All of us, travelers / Through a given time. / Who can know what tomorrow holds? / But over the horizon, surely you and I will find / Emmanuel, god with us.”
To me, god is love, and love is with us, even in the dark. And that love is for everyone, regardless of what they look like, what god they believe in, who they love, or what language they speak.