This week, two tiny tempests have been created by two holiday carols, and both dustups teach the same lesson.
On Monday, news broke that a music teacher at a Michigan elementary school had stripped the word “gay” from “Deck the Halls.” Instead, she had her students sing “don we now our BRIGHT apparel.” (She apparently made this decision because students kept snickering at the word “gay.”)
By Tuesday,the word was back in, amid frustrations from parents about the “inappropriate” substitution and a reminder from the school’s principal that the school’s anti-discrimination policy includes LGBT protections.
Meanwhile, the blog of the excellent, feminist-leaning magazine Bitch revived the debate about whether “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is “rapey” in its depiction of a man and woman deciding if they’re going to stay in on a cold night and have sex. This debate is new to me, but apparently, it’s been going on for a while, and as writer Kelsey Wallace, points out, it largely centers on the moment when the (traditionally) female singer coos, “Say, what’s in this drink?” For some, this lyric implies that the woman has been drugged so that she can’t possibly leave the man’s house.
The lively discussion on Wallace’s post included a link to a 2010 blog post for Persephone Magazine that rebukes the “rapey” reading of that line. The author writes, “‘Say, whatâ€™s in this drink’ is a well-used phrase that was common in movies of the time period and isnâ€™t really used in the same manner any longer. The phrase generally referred to someone saying or doing something they thought they wouldnâ€™t in normal circumstances; itâ€™s a nod to the idea that alcohol is ‘making’ them do something unusual. But the joke is almost always that there is nothing in the drink. The drink is the excuse.”
And that’s where the two stories overlap. In both cases, a 2011 sensibility is being used to understand work from a different cultural era. Little kids are laughing at the implied homosexuality of “gay apparel,” and critics are saying there are roofies in the drink.
What’s more, people in both cases are suggesting that the best way to deal with these cultural disconnections is to eliminate the offending phrases. The teacher cut the word “gay” from “Deck the Halls”. Kelsey Wallace ends her post by saying shopping malls should stop playing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” altogether.
Granted, the teacher put the word back in the song and plenty of the blog’s commenters defended “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Given the context of both the phrases, I’d say that’s the right call. Rather than rewriting a standard carol, teachers can tell their students that “gay” means more than one thing. Rather than banning a chestnut, critics can dig deeply into the context of the line that bothers them. If they still object to the song, then so be it, but at least they can ground their opinion in a larger understanding of how the tune was intended. (This is essentially what Wallace does in the comments section beneath her post.)
But for me, this entire situation is a reminder that when you’re having a knee-jerk reaction to something that offends or frustrates you, looking for context is very hard. It’s much easier to just go ahead and follow your first instinct. It’s much easier to justify banning the thing that bothers you than to really explore it.
As someone with a left-leaning bias, I often see misogynist and/or racist and/or homophobic subtexts in things. I typically stand by of those readings, but as the 2011 Carol Wars demonstrate, it’s never bad to step back, take a breath, and investigate the things that irk or offend. There might be calmer, gentler, or more-informed perspectives just waiting to be discovered. Those perspectives don’t have to sabotage our critical responses to culture. They can simply make them more nuanced and satisfying.