by Rachel Grate
It’s that time of the year again. The time of year when you can’t walk into a store, flip through radio stations, or generally leave your house without hearing Christmas music. While these songs can be comforting, they can also be downright creepy – and in ways more serious than Santa’s disturbing ability to “see you when you’re sleeping” (from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”).
The main issue with many Christmas songs is that many of the stereotypes they propagate are as outdated as “a one horse open sleigh” would look speeding down a highway. There’s a plethora of Christmas songs detailing children’s gift lists – lists entirely dependent on gender roles.
“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” reports that “Barney and Ben” want boots and “a pistol that shoots,” while “Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk is the hope of Janice and Jen.” This sort of gendered gifting implies that boys should be violent and adventurous, while girls should care for dolls – not surprising considering that the song was written in 1951.
Christmas songs, however, aren’t recognized as outdated like most popular songs are. “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” was written in the 1860s and remains popular, despite “Johnny” wanting skates while “Suzy” wants a “dolly.” Similarly, “Up on the Housetop” was written in 1864, and describes “Will” getting a “hammer and lots of tacks, also a ball and a whip that cracks” while “Nell” gets – you guessed it – a doll.
The gender roles these songs socialize kids into don’t disappear once the children grow up, either. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” written in 1952, is a lighthearted song that nonetheless reinforces heteronormative family ideals.
1953’s “Santa Baby” is a drastically different interpretation of the Santa Seduction story. This song relies on the gold digger trope, reinforcing a materialistic portrayal of women. Furthermore, the song includes an outdated polarity between good and bad, saying, “Think of all the fun I’ve missed/ Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed/ Next year I could be oh so good.” This sort of slut-shaming attitude – that kissing boys she wanted to would have been bad – was, again, expected for the time period it was written, but with all the remakes of the song, why hasn’t the line been changed?
One remake in particular stands out to me: Michael Buble’s version, in which he refers to “Santa buddy” and “Santa pally” rather than baby. The version is incredibly awkward, and changes the desired gifts to tickets to sports games and decorations bought at Mercedes, rather than Tiffany’s. Instead of a ring, “and I don’t mean on the phone,” Buble just wants “one little thing, cha-ching, No I don’t mean as a loan.” Nonetheless, Buble keeps the line about kissing, but he kisses “hotties” instead of “fellas.”
Instead of using the gender switch to reduce the gender roles in the song, Buble’s song highlights them with his discomfort wanting the ‘girly’ items in the original – even switching the “light blue” of the convertible to the more manly “steel blue.” While some argue that this song doesn’t rely on sexuality to get the gift’s, if that were the case Buble wouldn’t make these changes – Santa could be his “baby,” too.
On the top of both Feminist Frequency’s and Chloe Angyal’s lists of problematic Christmas songs is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” written in 1944. Angyal describes the song as “a relic of an era when it was accepted that any respectable woman would both refuse a man’s invitation to stay at his house drinking alte into the night, and that when she said ‘no,’ she actually meant ‘yes.’ Why the song is still a beloved classic … when our culture’s views on consent have changed considerably, is beyond me.”
The traditional cat-and-mouse dance portrayed in the song certainly tip-toes on the line of sexual intimidation, with the lady continually protesting “I really can’t stay” and “I’ve got to go away.” Some have even argued that the line “Say, what’s in this drink?” implies date rape.
On the other hand, it is true that societal pressures, rather than the woman’s own desires, seem to be her reasons for leaving. She mentions her mother, father, sister, brother, and even her maiden’s aunt as people who would question her – as well as the neighbors. Thus one could read the man as convincing her to do what she really wanted to all along, when she finally says, “Well, I really shouldn’t, alright.”
But that doesn’t excuse the man’s disregard for her refusal. Additionally, his argument centers around questions like “How can you do this to me?” and “Think of my life long sorrow,” rather than actually questioning the woman’s desires.
Some new songs are flawed as well, such as “All I Want For Christmas is You” which portrays a one-dimensional woman obsessed with love, rather than caring about other things like her career. AsFeminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian wrote, this is “not really a huge issue but the larger media pattern is definitely problematic.” Unfortunately, the larger media pattern is defined by 1950s standards for what family and gender means.
But for some reason, even though these old songs are remade year after year by new singers, the lyrics aren’t updated. These songs – like any Christmas traditions that reinforce outdated stereotypes – should be either shelved or rewritten to reflect modern sensibilities. (A Feminist Christmas Carol is one fun example of rewriting songs.)
It would be impossible to shun these songs, even if one wanted to. But keeping these messages in mind is important, especially when around children who may be absorbing these limiting messages without considering their historical context.
So just as one might have to explain that carriage rides aren’t necessarily as romantic as they sound when you’re traveling “home” for Christmas, don’t be afraid to mention that girls don’t need to ask for dolls for Christmas, or boys for tools. (Check back tomorrow for how Christmas advertising adds to these gendered expectations.) The red and green of the Christmas season shouldn’t transform into gendered pink and blue gender roles for the rest of the year.
Rachel is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her viaLinkedIn.