If you’ve been reading this blog and the work of CARP for awhile, you know that we have been pretty clear that only people have character to assassinate. (Whether collectives of people like corporations or nations have character is something we have, admittedly, not resolved to our satisfaction. Let’s put a pin in that one and come back to it another time.) So, you must know that by the title of this post, I surely do not mean exactly that the character of Christmas, an event/idea, is being assassinated. But, the extent to which Christmas becomes part of larger debates about character assassination and character emerged from my social media consumption this week, so I thought I’d reflect a bit upon it.
Sure, Christmas tropes abound when we assassinate the character of others. Calling someone a “Scrooge” or a “Grinch” has cultural and rhetorical power given the relationship between those figures and well-known holiday stories. Cultural symbols linked with Christmas have deep resonances in the United States and, as a result, can be the raw material for character attacks.
One of the other things the beginning of December also inaugurates is the yearly debate about whether the classic 1944 Christmas song “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” is a date rape anthem or a declaration of female sexual agency. If you don’t know the song, you can listen to it here. I won’t rehearse the intricacies of the debate beyond pointing out that the lyrics are pretty clear: a woman is denying a man’s pressure to spend the night at his place. She seems to be ultimately worn down when they sing the last chorus together. Adding a layer of contextual analysis makes the song more ambivalent. It was written in the 1940s when women were expected to turn down male advances even if they didn’t want to. By staying, our female singer might be exercising her ability to seek and enjoy flirtation and pleasure despite the strict social restrictions on female behavior. Vox published an excellent analysis of the lyrics and their context which can give you a sense of the debate. But given that we can’t read the mind of this fictional female singer, we likely will never have a satisfactory answer to whether the song is about rape or romance.
But what does this have to do with character assassination? It’s just a silly song, right? Well, let’s be clear. Culture matters. Messages we circulate about what is and isn’t okay in popular culture provide symbolic possibilities for action. The Vox essay explains this in detail, so skip to the bottom if you’d like to read more about how the song is entangled in current debates about what sexual assault means and what affirmative consent is. A remade version of the song, rewritten to promote consent culture, also does a good job of showing some of the problems with the original lyrics. (I’ve already written about the relationship between sexual assault and character assassination should you want to read more about that.)
“Baby, it’s Cold Outside” also indexes current concerns about “Politically Correct (PC) culture” from a Christmas perspective. It’s a common argument that goes something like this: today’s liberal young people are so sensitive about being offended that they have become language police with the goal of stopping everyone from laughing at innocent jokes. Only someone with no sense of humor would see this song as justifying date rape, some may say. Arguments about being overly-PC are often used to smear millennials and are a frequently-used tool in the toolbox of President Trump. Those who use the “overly-PC” charge to attack others may also be offended by a social shift to saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” (See the debate over Starbucks Christmas cups from a few years ago, too.) 42% of Americans believe that there is a “War on Christmas.” These folks responded affirmatively to a YouGov poll that stipulated “No other religion has their religious holidays attacked or persecuted to the same extent Christians do.” Banning “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” is just the latest front in the offensive waged by the PC police to make the US a secular, sanitized society, the argument says. While some radio stations have made moves to ban the song, right-wing Breitbart News called the bar “puritanical.”
Several of my friends on social media this week posted that anyone who is offended by “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” should “unfriend” them because clearly they’re just too sensitive.
I really can’t say whether I took them up on their invitation.