Monday, December 12, 2011

"Baby It's Cold Outside:" When Old Stuff Doesn't Fit Our World Anymore

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

I'm not sure that many things about the Christmas season are more divisive than the music. It seems that people are either:

1) So in love with Christmas carols that they can't wait until they can add a "holiday" station to their Pandora OR

2) They cringe and roll their eyes when that first seligh bell sound appears in the music overhead at the department store in October and count down the days until it switches back to that other crappy music which is sociologically designed to make us browse slower.

I don't know if you could tell, but I tend to fall into category 2. However, no Christmas carol makes me more upset than Baby, It's Cold Outside. Just in case you are unfamiliar (lucky you!) this song is essentially about a chick saying she's got to leave and a dude trying to convince her to stay by saying, "baby, it's cold outside." (And to be fair, even through it's lumped in with Christmas carols, it's not inherently Christmasy, it's more a winter song.)

I'm sure that right off the bat, you can tell what gripe I have with this song. There's no way around it--it comes across as an anthem to date rape. I'm certainly not the first person to have this thought. In fact, in recent years it has become a bit of a standard Christmas time topic to explore in the feminist blogosphere.  As Chloe Angyal (in that last link) says,
By today’s standards, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a complete train wreck for many reasons. There’s the fact that the man—called “the Wolf” in the original libretto, as if he didn’t already sound predatory and coercive enough—ignores the woman’s explanations for why she needs to leave. There are the explanations themselves, which essentially amount to “my family, friends and neighbors will call me a slut if I stay.” And then, perhaps most problematic of all, there’s the Wolf’s attempt to guilt the woman (called “the Mouse” in the original libretto, as if to imply that she’s simply no match for the man) into staying.
Mouse/wolf? Yikes. Clearly, there is a problematic theme going on here. However, there has also been a feminist reaction which is attempting to defend the song, asking for it to be viewed in its own time and context. In fact, Jezebel is currently running a vote off for the "worst Christmas song ever" and while Baby It's Cold Outside is out of the running, it was quite controversial in the comments section. But every person complaining about the "rapey" nature, there was someone defending it on the grounds of it being a song about "seduction." Usually their defense was accompanied by a seemingly popular piece from Persephone, in which Slay Belle says,
Let’s look at the lines. As she’s talking about leaving, she never says she doesn’t want to stay. Her words are all based around other people’s expectations of her – her mother will worry, her father will be pacing the floor, the neighbors will talk, her sister will be suspicious of her excuses and her brother will be furious, and my favorite line that I think is incredibly revealing, “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious.” Vicious about what? Sex. Unmarried, non-good girl having, sex.

Later in the song, she asks him for a comb (to fix her hair) and mentions that there’s going to be talk tomorrow — this is a song about sex, wanting it, having it, maybe having a long night of it by the fire, but it’s not a song about rape. It’s a song about the desires even good girls have.

So what is he singing while she’s talking about what other people think of her? He’s providing her with a list of cover stories, essential, excuses she can use to explain why she hasn’t or won’t go home. It’s cold out, it’s snowing, the cabs aren’t running, the storm is becoming a blizzard, she might get hurt trying to get home.
I think what Slay Belle articulates is valid, to a point. When Frank Loesser wrote the song in 1936, this was a time when sexual behaviors in women were much more heavily shamed than now, so reluctance on the female's part is understandable. That said, I don't think there's any reason that we cannot acknowledge both the cultural context of the time the song was written and the problematic message it sends today's audiences.

Specifically, the biggest problem I have with the lyrics is:
The answer is no (her) - Ooh baby, it's cold outside (him)
Read that one more time. The answer is no. To me, that couldn't be more clear, and all bets are off from there on out. When someone, in plain English, says no, and then you try to "seduce" them, you're actually coercing them. To me, the song sends the message that no might mean yes, actually. It reinforces the misconception that women frequently (if not always) play games and want to be persuaded, when the truth is that real consent and real healthy sexual relationships come from open, honest communication.

Maybe it was a different time. Maybe the lyrics were meant to convey seduction or "desires even good girls have" but in a way, that's not really the point. We cannot simultaneously create a world where we strive for a "yes means yes" mentality and not deconstruct messages like this, no matter what time frame they're from. Our society frequently makes changes which force us to look at our past and say, "Hey, we might have done that back then, but now we know that's not OK." The examples are numerous and Baby It's Cold Outside is another one on the list.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree! Whenever I hear that song I'm always torn between feeling utterly creeped out and thinking that maybe because her excuses all have to do with what other people want and not what she wants that maybe she's saying she wants to stay...but then she says that line. "The answer is no." And that's that, for me. And that whole Wolf/Mouse thing just adds a whole new level of creepiness to it.

    I still love the Kurt and Blaine version though...sigh.

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