I recently participated in a discussion in a Facebook Group about the message this song sends. Over the past few years, this Christmas classic has come under fire for portraying harrasment and coercion to get a girl to stay (presumably overnight) after she has very clearly stated, “NO!” People are saying it has a “rapey vibe” and is manipulative. Some radio stations are even removing it from their rotation, and people are calling for the song to be banned from playing in stores.
I am definitely an advocate for consent. And as a woman who has let herself be coerced into sex in the past, I am a firm believer that women should never do something they don’t want to do. No does, in fact, mean no. Except when it didn’t.
I think it’s important to understand the historical context and era of this particular song. It was penned in 1944 by Guys & Dolls writer, Frank Loesser. He and his wife, Lynn Garland, first sang this together as the closing act of a housewarming party for the Navarro Hotel in New York City. It was later featured in the 1949 romantic comedy, Neptune’s Daughter, starring Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams. The song won an Academy Award.
Watching the video, and listening to the lyrics, it’s clear (to me anyway) that she WANTS to stay but is reacting to societal pressures put on women in that era. In 1949, it was simply not okay for an unmarried woman to stay the night at a man’s house. Women were told to be “good girls” and keep their “virtue” intact. It was scandalous if a female embraced her sexuality and slept with whoever she wanted – whenever she wanted. The telling line in this song is, “I ought to say, no-no-no sir – at least I’m gonna say that I tried.” All of her rebuttals to his flirtatious lines were stating her concerns about what others would think – her parents and siblings, her aunt, the neighbors, and what the talk would be the next day. Her objections were never that she didn’t WANT to stay; they were all out of fear of what others would think of her. And THAT is what was (and still is in some instances) wrong with society.
The conversation shouldn’t be about how this a Date Rape Song (thanks, Urban Dictionary) and how it should be obliterated from playlists. Rather, the conversation should focus on how this song highlights the dualities that so many women have, and still do, struggle with. In fact, this song was seen as somewhat progressive and slightly scandalous in its day because it alluded to the woman actually WANTING TO STAY.
Although the women in the sixties and seventies lead a sexual revolution so society would get the message it’s normal for women to be sexual beings, I can tell you that as a teenager in the eighties, and being raised in the Christian church, the residual judgement from an earlier time still affected me and a lot of my friends. Even as a young woman in the nineties, I played this “wolf and mouse” game many times myself because I just wanted hot sex without being considered a slut. So I acted coy, I objected (with a sexy smile), I would kiss passionately and then pull away – because I didn’t want the guy to think I was a whore. In my mind, this behavior sent the message that I wasn’t “easy” but hinted to him that he could “talk me into it” because that would take the responsibility off of me from admitting that I really did want to sleep with him (making me a whore). Hard to follow, I know.
I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in this behavior. This was definitely a learned behavior. Mostly from movies I would guess. One of the biggest influences on me was the movie, Grease. It came out when I was 7 years old. I wasn’t allowed to see it then, but that never stopped my little friends and I from acting it out during recess. I was in middle school when my mom finally let me watch it on VHS. That movie shaped me. It never occurred to me the message it sent until one day, when I was 24, I had my 9-year old little sister watch it – excited to share my favorite movie with her. When she turned to me afterwards and asked why the good girl had to turn bad to get the guy to like her, I was so caught off guard at her very obvious conclusion, I didn’t know what to say.
The message that I, and so many other women, were raised with to “get the guy,” was that you had to somehow find just the right balance between being pure and sweet AND sexy; a lady out in the living room and a whore in the bedroom. If you were just pure and sweet, you weren’t allowed to just have sex with someone you may have just met or you were considered a whore. And if you just wanted to embrace your desire and have sex whenever you wanted, no man would want to marry you… because you were a whore. So, finding the balance was the tricky part. I think, on some levels, this expectation still exists. Women feel they need to be strong, independent, intelligent, sweet, AND sexy to get the guy (even if no one wants to really admit that).
I imagine this ingrained behavior in so many women has contributed to some confusion for men. However, I don’t see how that coy behavior can lead men to justifying forced sex. The woman singing this song is never saying no because she really means no. She isn’t trying to run away from a situation where she is being forcefully held or threatened. She is saying no because she is worried what others will think. She allows him to take off her coat and hat. She sits back down with him and smiles as she says, “well, maybe just a cigarette more,” giving in momentarily to her true desires. However, when she realizes that might make him think she’s “that kind of girl,” she asks, “Hey, what’s in this drink?” trying to deflect responsibility. Again, we need to understand the historical context. That was a common thing to say in that time when trying to blame the alcohol rather than admitting you were doing something you really wanted to do. This is a tactic that is still used to this day by both men and women who don’t want to take responsibility for poor choices made while intoxicated (obvioulsy not counting when somone’s drink has actually been drugged).
I think the #metoo movement is awesome. I love the awareness it is bringing to how women are treated in our everyday lives. I even wrote an earlier blog post about my experiences. I am so happy that my 16-year old daughter is being raised in a time where women are empowered to be who they want to be. I talk to my daughter regularly about sex. I don’t ever want her to feel that being a sexual being is a shameful thing. As she grows into a young woman, I want her to embrace her sexuality, and never be ashamed of who she is and what she likes. I want her to know it’s okay, when she’s ready, to have sex whenever she wants to. More importantly, I want her to understand that her “no” should most definitely mean NO, and the guy needs to respect that. I’m so happy she lives in a time when many young women can’t comprehend why a woman would feel the need to play this particular game. But assigning a false narrative to this song doesn’t accomplish anything.
I understand this song has been remade so many times just in the past few years, that many younger people don’t know the origin of the song so all they hear is the part where the woman sings, “the answer is no,” and yet, the man continues to coerce her. This is where we should, as a society, begin to teach discernment. To take a few lines out of context, in anything, is wrong. We need to be able to take in the message in its entirety before we decide its intent. When listening to this song, and watching the video, it’s very clear this is a playful exchange between a man and a woman who are mutually consenting to the situation. This is not a struggle for power and dominance. And when we muddle the message of the #metoo movement with something that doesn’t actually represent the discussion, it takes away some if it’s power.