Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Music - A Feminist non-issue?

On Saturday, I sat down and tried to write a post about popular christmas music from a feminist perspective.

I failed.

You would think it would be easy. Almost anything can be related to a feminist perspective - after all, feminism is basically a way of life! Surely these songs would contain gender stereotypes, exploitation of women and children within the 'traditional' family, an obsession with now-you-owe-me-for-the-rest-of-the-year gift giving, endless heteronormativity, etc. Failing that, there's always rampant consumerism - that's all the holidays are about anyway, right?

I couldn't find any of these things - certainly not enough to write about. It wasn't for lack of trying. I read all of the lyrics for all of the popular songs (there really aren't that many). I listened more christmas music than I've ever listened to in my life. (Okay, some idiot was blasting it out of their dorm window...) I even found a few random essays on pop music and christmas. Still nothing. I was mostly left with a feeling a vagueness. The songs are vaguely happy. They are vaguely about 'goodwill to all men.' Vaguely heteronormative. Vaguely patriarchal. Nothing strong enough to write about.

Part of the problem is, most christmas songs aren't about real people! Snow, candy canes, lights, presents, Santa Claus - those are the staples of holiday music, not relationships and people.

Songs which are about people, ('I'll Be Home For Christmas', '(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays'), never mention gender; notably, they have all been covered by a fairly equal number of male and female artists. The 'Little Drummer Boy' could become the 'Little Drummer Girl' with the change of one word in the title. Even songs that are mildly sexual ('Baby, It's Cold Outside' comes to mind) are only made gendered by some minor references to typical male-female conversation patterns (and I'm pretty sure I've heard the voices reversed in that song, too.)

Excluding commercial jingles, there aren't many songs about consumerism, either. There's 'My Favorite Things' which is mostly about 'things' of the raindrop variety, and other intangibles. I'm also pretty sure that wanting a hippopotamus isn't too harmful, either. Everything is just so fuzzy and fluffy!

Perhaps that's the point. The whole idea of a christmas song is to forget all of your problems, ignore the real world, and pretend that everything is happy and fun. But, if you are happy about something, and you go around telling everybody what exactly you're happy about, it's likely that someone else won't be happy about that thing. You can't please everybody, but christmas songs try so hard to please everybody that they end up saying nothing at all.

Take 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'. "From now on/ our troubles will be out of sight", it says. Notice that the only reason given, is that 1: it's christmas, and 2: lots of family members will be there. I'm not at all sure what the 'shining star' on the 'highest bough' business is about. Finally, notice that the song is 'Have your self...' not 'Have ourselvles...' The singer is apparently not having a Merry Little Christmas. Perhaps she (for some reason, the singer is always female in my mind) knows that the person she is singing to can't handle reality, can't know true happiness for lack knowledge about the world.

Most people hide from reality most of the time. They live in their little localized fantasy, not caring beyond their immediate experience. That's why so many people support senseless wars and discrimination against anybody but themselves. That's why so few people do much of anything beyond what makes them happy. And christmas, despite its supposed message of 'goodwill to all ', only reinforces this feeling. It's christmas - we're supposed to be happy, even if we don't know why, even if there is no reason to.

Am I just a humorless, angry feminist? Probably... but I'm certainly not opposed to being happy! What I am opposed to, is mindless happiness for no reason. And yet, that is just the feeling I get from all of these songs.

What do you think? Have I missed some feminist issue that christmas music raised? Has my personal dislike for these songs blinded me to their value?

Next week, religious christmas music.


Erin Hoagland said...

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is actually from a musical movie called "Meet Me in St. Louis" with Judy Garland and the song is song by Judy's character to her younger sister who is upset about the family's impending move to NY from St. Louis, the only home she's ever known. The move is intended to take place right after Christmas, 1903. Some of what you say about the singer is true, of course. She is singing to a child, who may be lacking the cognitive ability to understand happiness as you say. Judy's character is also facing separation from the man she loves who just proposed to her that night, so she is not having a particularly Merry Christmas herself. But the song is meant to comfort her youngest sibling on the eve of what is usually a happy holiday for their family but is now overshadowed by this move.

If you want to connect feminist issues to it, you actually can. The move from MO to NY has been decided on by one person, the Father, the Head of Household. He has decided upon it without consulting his wife, his children (he has both male and female children and lots of them), or his own father, who resides with his family. The move is supposed to further his career and that is that...until he is moved by his youngest's deep distress to change his mind. When he does change his mind, he presents it to his family as another edict, his decision and his alone. No consultation whatsoever.

Of course, this movie supposedly takes place in 1903-04, which explains a little about the family dynamics. And despite all of this, "Meet Me in St. Louis" is one of my favorite movies of all time.

At its heart, it is about family. And for all his blustering, it is quite clear that the Father has the least power in the household. Less even than the family's cook, who is not even related to him.

sally said...

I actually had the opposite thought when I was listening to my Christmas music playlist a few days ago. Of course, I can't remember now which songs specifically, but there were a couple of songs that had a few questionable lines throughout. Mostly making assumptions about gender roles, and I suppose it wasn't enough to base an entire Christmas music analysis post, but they were still there.

Now I'll have to listen to my playlist again tonight so I can give you more details.

Also, there have been a couple of posts on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" specifically that you should check out here and here.

Brianna J said...

>"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
>is actually from a musical movie called
>"Meet Me in St. Louis" with Judy Garland

Yes, I realize that that was the original context, but few of the performances I have seen or heard have been even mildly related to that version! It's probably because the Sinatra version was so popular - the original was mostly forgotten, and the song has evolved from his performance.

At least, that's my take on it. I feel like my interpretation still holds - just not for the original context.

Interesting analysis of the movie, by the way.

>Also, there have been a couple of posts
>on "Baby, It's Cold Outside"
>specifically that you should check out
>here and here.

Gah - I didn't realize that that song was so horrible! I have a couple of recordings of that song (by local groups) that I was listening to, so I didn't bother to look the lyrics up. The recordings I have are almost completely unoffensive - they changed them rather significantly! Sorry about that...

Anonymous said...