Honestly, isn't "a little rapey" like "a little pregnant"?
First, it's not a "Christmas classic" because it's not a Christmas song, anymore than "Winter Wonderland" is a Christmas song. It's a song with a winter setting, and since winter doesn't technically start until 4 days before Xmas, we could sing it in January and February, when it's much colder outside and the weather better fits the lyrics.
But honestly, whatever happened to flirtation and coyness? The anachronism in this song isn't that it's "a little rapey," it's that the premise of the song is that the young woman has her reputation to think of. She'd rather stay the night (and clearly, she does), but she doesn't want the stain of being "loose" or even "a whore." I mean, if you're gonna complain about this song, that's the grounds for complaint: the assumption that the woman would bear any stigma for spending the night, while the man is just "sowing wild oats" because "boys will be boys," and any responsibility for sexual intercourse falls on the woman. Which is an attitude hasn't really changed that much in 70 years, has it?
But "a little rapey"? Please.
But when you listen closer, the song’s lyrics also seem, well ... a little rapey. The guy ignores his date’s protests and badgers her to stay, which feels a lot like sexual coercion. At one point the woman asks, “Say, what’s in this drink?” — which is pretty alarming to a modern audience that understands how roofies work. The original score even lists the man’s part as “Wolf” and the woman’s part as “Mouse,” making the predator/prey dynamic creepily explicit.
The song’s legions of defenders argue that those concerns are overblown. They note “What’s in this drink?” was a common joke in the 1930s and ’40s made by people who wanted to make an excuse for something that they knew very well they shouldn’t be doing. And in that more prudish time period, women were expected to turn down sex (at first, anyway) even if they wanted it.
I still remember the first time I heard that joke: in the '70's, in a Rolling Stone article about Rick Wakeman (I was young when I did it, don't hold it against me.) Wakeman made the remark to someone on the morning after: "I think someone put something in my drink." "What?," was the response of a rather concerned roadie. "Alcohol," Wakeman responded. Sure, in the post-roofie age, that can be an alarming statement; but in the context of the song, the woman is clearly making excuses for her decision to spend the night. Is it a "wolf" and "mouse" paradigm, predator/prey? Sadly, that's the way sexual relationships were portrayed in popular culture up until....well, the present moment, actually. That hasn't changed as much as it should.
Still, as the Vox article points out, I'm not exactly breaking new analytical ground here. I do have to say, though, the "rapey" reading the lyrics get a bit further on in Vox deny all possible agency to the woman. Is there a reason she doesn't get up and leave? Is the man so powerful, so demanding, so overwhelming in his suasion, that she cannot possibly say "No, thanks!", and walk out? I know it works that way in pop culture (the man grins wolfishly, the woman starts removing her dress, the camera fade to black), but I've never known it to work that way in real life, even among my bragging male friends in high school and college (who usually told the stories they thought they should tell, rather than the truth). And some of the argument in that article is even more problematic:
If you touch someone in a sexual way without her consent, you’ve committed sexual assault or rape. Those are serious crimes — but they’re still not taken as seriously as they should be. Sexual assault is common but underreported, and conviction rates are abysmally low.
How underreported depends in part on how you define the crime. Garrison Keillor was separated from MPR because of an allegation of touching a woman's back without her consent. Was that sexual assault, or rape? No, on either count. Sexual assault is not "touch[ing] someone in a sexual way," whatever "sexual way" means (like "rapey" and "sexy," the term means what the speaker wants it to mean, but that's a rather awkward method of communication). Sexual assault and rape are serious crimes; but let's treat them seriously, not as any physical contact between persons of the opposite sex (because men touching men or women touching women doesn't seem to be a major concern, for some reason). This is the problem with "a little rapey." We shouldn't reduce 'rape' to an uncomfortable social situation.
I sort of like this counterargument in defense of the song, which I found while browsing for that picture above:
An ex-English teacher posting on Tumblr (@bigbutterandeggman) argues that “yes, by applying today’s worldview to the song, it does sound like a rape anthem but the song makes sense in the context of a society in which women are expected to reject men’s advances whether they actually want to or not. The woman is perfectly sober and about to have awesome consensual sex and use the drink (offered to her in the song) as plausible deniability because she’s living in a society where women aren’t supposed to have sexual agency .. It’s not a song about rape, it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her doing so”.
Which isn't to say this argument can't go 'round and 'round. If you don't like the song, I have no argument with you. If it makes you uncomfortable, I'm sympathetic to what may be a traumatic experience in your past, or just how the lyrics read to you. As I say, my main complaint would be thinking this is a "Christmas song," but that happens because we start celebrating what we call Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, and we're fed to the gills with it by December 24th. Plenty of songs about winter ("Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," "Winter Wonderland") make no mention of Christmas, and could serve well in the bleak days of January and February, but good Puritans that we are, we stoically endure the real winter while Romantically (not romance, but Romanticism) engaging winter before it starts with music in December. And honestly, that's where Garrison Keillor's complaint begins to make sense. Well, that and I find the idea of "a little rapey" to be offensive.
I still like to reserve "real" Christmas music for the last few days of Advent, and the full 12 days of Christmas; but I'm weird like that.
(The columnist at the "Irish Times" specifically notes this song is not a "Christmas song," which makes me realize they do Xmas differently across the Pond.)