Nothing spreads the holiday spirit like eviscerating Christmas music and movies.
Everything pumpkin spice is (thankfully) on its way out in favor of peppermint. And despite some autumn decorations still being up, we’ll soon be overwhelmed by Christmas music and movies. While some of us will be busy arguing whether it’s “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings,” we’ll blissfully ignore the fact that some Christmas pop culture staples are pretty, well, offensive.
Here are six examples of popular Christmas music and films we know are problematic but will overlook because it’s the holidays, dammit:
1. A Christmas Story (1983)
This coming-of-age classic gets plenty of play during the holiday season. And though we can empathize with Ralphie’s infatuation with an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot range model air rifle (or a modern-day Nerf gun), it’s rarely brought up how the movie ends on a sour note.
The Parkers patronize a Chinese eatery after the dogs devour the Christmas turkey. Though we’re expected to take the colorful staff’s take on “Jingle Bells” as a moment of levity, we’re served a good ol’ helping of racism instead. Not only does the enthusiastic staff completely embody the Asian Speekee Engrish trope — belting out “boughs of horry” — but the manager (also an Asian man) exasperatingly corrects their English.
All in all, this is antiquated racism. Even for the ’80s.
2. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (1944)
Countless musicians have covered this tune, which is sorta confusing because the lyrics are, hear me out…kinda (read: blatantly) rapey. Which is something I don’t correlate with Christmas music.
The duet was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 to perform with his wife, Lynn, at parties. Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams as well as Betty Garrett and Red Skelton performed the song in the 1949 rom-com Neptune’s Daughter, and since then Louis Armstrong, Dolly Parton, Rod Stewart and Idina Menzel are just a handful of artists who took it on. Despite numerous renditions, it’s pretty hard to ignore that it’s about a girl (or dude) who just wants to go home — and a dude (or girl) who keeps low-key concern trolling the other to stay. Oh, yeah, and the kicker: Loesser named the male role “Wolf” and hers “Mouse.”
The guilt tripping and groveling are present from the first verse:
I really can’t stay / Baby, it’s cold outside
I’ve got to go away / Baby, it’s cold outside
This evening has been / Been hoping that you’d drop in
So very nice / I’ll hold your hands; they’re just like ice
The uncomfortable begging escalates to the point that the Wolf brings up pneumonia. Seriously. And if you’re not quite sold on the song’s creepy undertones, halfway through the song the Mouse flat out asks the Wolf what the hell he put in her drink. And, like every time she asks a rational, pertinent question, he responds with an irrelevant nonanswer and deflects like there’s no tomorrow:
The neighbors might think / Baby, it’s bad out there
Say, what’s in this drink? / No cabs to be had out there
I wish I knew how / Your eyes are like starlight now
To break this spell / I’ll take your hat; your hair looks swell
Not a predatory dynamic at all.
3. “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” (1881)
Photo by George Marks/Retrofile via Getty Images
Gendered toys are a thing. And if this piece of Christmas music acts as a testimonial, we’re forced to accept that Santa Claus is peddling a good helping of gender normativity while donned in a large red suit.
Don’t believe me? Here is the original poem penned by Emily Huntington Miller:
Johnny wants a pair of skates;
Susy wants a dolly
Nellie wants a storybook;
She thinks dolls are folly
First off, good on Nellie for staying woke and sticking it to the patriarchy. But the real issue pertains to Susy and Johnny. We see the boy/girl, active/passive paradigm in plenty of Christmas music. In short, girls are expected to embrace toys that are stationary or must be acted on while boys are doled out toys that are dynamic and spark their imagination. Though it’s depressing to think that gendered toys might’ve affected our development, we can live vicariously through Nellie.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Racism was pretty commonplace and blatant in the ’40s, so it should come as no shock that the fantasy Christmas flick mirrors it. Because let’s face it: fantasy films aim to suspend only so much disbelief.
George Bailey (played by James Stewart) planned to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. To convince him otherwise, a guardian angel steps in to show him how his small Bedford Falls neighborhood — and the people who live there — would fare without him. It’s a Wonderful Life offers a criticism of capitalism and consumerism, but the casting director apparently felt depicting Black people as — gasp — something other than servants was going too far. So for Black people, It’s a Mediocre Life!
But it doesn’t end there. The parallels between Bedford Falls and Pottersville are worth noting. Bedford Falls, though the bane of George’s existence, is a diverse town where Black people weren’t restricted to zip codes. But after George’s wish to never exist, Bedford Falls transforms to Pottersville, a swank and polished town that prioritizes order and appearances. But Pottersville apparently had no room for Black people; Anne, the Baileys’ maid and one of the only Black characters, is absent from the family’s life and essentially pushed out of Pottersville.
But fear not! There are minorities aplenty in Potter’s Field, the slums of Pottersville, where crime, disorder and vagrancy find refuge.
Was Director Frank Capra giving the message that Pottersville’s type of segregation is wrong? It’s very possible.
5. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The twisted ’90s classic is lauded for its unexpected yet nuanced take on cultural appropriation. But when putting Nightmare up to the Bechdel test, the Tim Burton production doesn’t quite make the grade.
In case you are unaware: The Bechdel test gauges whether a work includes two women who speak to one another at least once — about something other than a man or men. A low bar, I know, but it should come as no surprise how many movies don’t pass. So Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t alone.
Sally’s whole character is pretty typical. It would be disingenuous to not point out that she and the other female character (both voiced by Catherine O’Hara) are intelligent and the brains of their operations, so to speak. But aside from the lack of women characters in Nightmare, the relationship between Sally and Jack Skellington is pretty one-sided. Sally is extremely passive. She knows Jack’s quest to take on Christmas is a terrible idea, but she placates him. At one point, instead of being assertive about her feelings, she tampers with the town’s fountain so Jack can’t take off.
Girl, you can do so much better.
6. Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Completely ignoring the fact that Christmas movies have a penchant for unintentionally poking holes in capitalism, Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer had some subtle sexist moments that we probably blocked out during our childhoods.
Rudolph’s dad, Donner, is an anthropomorphic asshole. There’s no soft way to say it. After his son is born, the patriarch solely decides his son will wear a prosthetic nose instead of embracing his differences, and he’ll “like it.” Like I said, asshole.
But when a fed-up Rudolph and Hermey decide to run away, instead of working with his wife to find their son — nooo, Donner gotta use the opportunity to puff his chest out. And he hit the chauvinist jackpot in telling Mrs. Donner, “No, this is man’s work.” A premise that to this day confuses me because of that whole maternal-instinct thing and the fact that the ability to find someone isn’t a trait attributed to masculinity or femininity. But okay, Donner.
What Christmas songs and movies would you add to the list?