Every year around this time, we seem to find ourselves embroiled in some variation of the same debate: Is a particular song, film or TV special too problematic to remain part of the holiday canon?
When taken up in good faith, this can be a useful exercise. Indeed, it’s necessary, as these texts age, to periodically reexamine them in order to see if they are still compatible with contemporary culture. A close reading in a modern context may reveal something we had not previously noticed — something unpleasant, offensive or exclusionary. And as marginalized groups increasingly gain access to the cultural conversation, their voices should rightfully be heard.
For example, the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is one text that no longer holds up. Written by Frank Loesser in 1944, the song has long been derided for its lyrics, which describe a man aggressively wooing and possibly drugging a woman.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the song is exponentially worse. The lyrics, “Oh, baby, don’t hold out,” and “Say, what’s in this drink?” are no longer cute and coy; they’re just creepy and uncomfortably reminiscent of real-life sexual assault cases.
Efforts to remove the song from radio station playlists have been met with resistance by listeners who refuse to acknowledge its malevolent subtext. It’s an unfortunate response for a song that rightfully deserves to be deleted for good.
Here we see how, too often, the debate over problematic texts becomes politicized and devolves into a bitter back and forth between partisan camps that lose sight of the text altogether. That’s also what happened with the 1964 Rankin/Bass production of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which came under fire earlier this month for how it addresses bullying.
The controversy stems from a tongue-in-cheek Huffington Post article, which collected social media reactions that made the case for the story being “seriously problematic.” The article was amplified on Fox News by Tucker Carlson, who presented it without context, choosing to frame it as yet another liberal attack on a beloved holiday tradition. From there, the story made its way back to social media where the debate was no longer about the text itself, but rather another front in conservatives’ ongoing culture war.
While “Rudolph” teaches an imperfect lesson about bullying and tolerance — that people will only accept your difference if they find it useful — it’s not irredeemable. The core message of acceptance is still broad enough to resonate with younger viewers. Parents can also teach against the text by pointing out how adult characters like Rudolph’s father, Santa and others can be complicit in bullying.
It’s tempting to dismiss these critiques as liberal whining, but doing so silences legitimate concerns from groups who may not have had the chance to voice them previously. These texts were created a long time ago. To cling to them uncritically is selfish and myopic. Just because something is a cherished holiday tradition doesn’t mean that it isn’t without flaws. If we want to have a more inclusive and welcoming holiday canon, we must be willing to objectively assess and update the texts within it so everyone who wants to can share in the spirit of the season.