Published on December 9th, 2018 | by Craig Silliphant0
A Reasonable Look at ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’
Rather than choosing a side and shouting our opinion into the abyss, we take a measured look at the controversial song, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’
For years now, people have been talking about the problematic nature of the Christmas song, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ It came to a head this week, in a year where #metoo and other similar movements have dominated headlines and water cooler conversations (or, you know, social media, the modern water cooler). Several huge radio broadcasters in Canada (Bell, Rogers, and CBC) pulled the song from rotation.
The reaction to removing the song has been as predictable as any reaction in our modern, polarizing times — everybody has an opinion about it. And nuance isn’t near as fun as howling that opinion, red-faced and hoarse, into the abyss. But if we’re being reasonable, the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between. So, let’s unwrap this Christmas conundrum that we’ve found under our collective tree. You’ll read some ideas you like, and some ideas you don’t — but stick around to the end and make your own decision. Such is the nature of reasonable conversation.
‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is about a man trying to convince a woman to stay over for a sexual encounter, rather than going out into the cold winter night. Some insist that it’s time to retire the song because its lyrics are offensively outdated; that it promotes rape culture. Others argue that it’s just a song — a song they love — and that this is another example of PC culture run amok.
It was written in 1944 by composer/screenwriter Frank Loesser, as a call and response duet that he and his wife could perform at parties. Though his wife was mad that he sold “their song” to MGM, it won an Oscar in the film Neptune’s Daughter, sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo ‘Khaaaan!’ Montalban. It has been covered many times since.
The song’s naysayers want to throw it out is because they see it as encouraging rape culture. The man is coercing the woman into a sexual encounter that she is protesting. There are a couple of pretty suspect lines in the song, most notably, “What’s in this drink?” We’ll explore that line in depth in a minute or two, but it’s fair to say that Bill Cosby imagery definitely pops into your head when you hear it. Lyrically, no matter where you stand on the argument, there’s absolutely no doubt that the man is trying to close the deal amid some protest from the woman. In fact, when Loesser wrote the song, he called the traditionally male part “the wolf,” and the female part, “the mouse.”
This is the part where some shout, “Oh, get a life! Damn PC police!”
I get that. Political correctness has cut a wide swath into our culture, especially in the last few years. ‘Politically correct’ is a dirty phrase in some circles, but is there really anything wrong with treating people with respect? If it’s messing up your life that you can’t say the N-word, you have bigger personal issues you might want to look at. That said, PC culture can be over the top, like when PETA tries to equate a phrase like “bringing home the bacon,” with saying the N-word. It’s not the same thing. I can tell, because we can say “bacon,” and we can’t say the other one. Political correctness can be important, but it can also cross the line into thought control.
PC culture has a leg to stand on in this song with the rape culture argument (we’re not debating the existence of rape culture here. If you don’t believe it exists, it’s time you read a book or two). The definition of rape culture is, “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.” The idea is that we normalize sketchy lyrics like this, even as a joke, or for nostalgia’s sake, which supports rape culture. None of this is to say that someone will hear this song and go commit sexual assault. But it does normalize the view that men should conquer woman by any means necessary. Dismissing that opinion with a “get a life” means you’re not paying attention to the culture you’re absorbing (do you know the full lyrics to the song? I didn’t until I looked it up to write this).
Now we move onto the arguments for keeping the song.
I don’t believe in censorship (not including hate speech, of course). The fact that we’re having this discussion means the song is open to multiple interpretations. As much as something can be distasteful, society is done if we start censoring art. Even if that art just serves to remind us how far we’ve come. That’s not to say we need this song to stick around — just that we need to be careful about decisions like this. I’m not accusing the media outlets of censorship here, by the way. They’re not obliterating the song, they’re just more comfortable taking it off the airwaves in today’s climate so they can err on the side of caution. I totally understand and support that. If you don’t, start your own radio station and play whatever you want. I’m more concerned about people that want to wipe out the past without a second thought.
The biggest argument for the song is that ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’ was not actually written to be about a woman who doesn’t want to have sex being coerced by a man who does. Maybe it could be more accurately described as a being about a woman who might want to have sex being convinced by a man.
Loesser penned the song during the opening salvo of the sexual revolution. World War II had turned the world upside down and a generation wanted to live life to the fullest, including the taboo of pre-marital sex. So, supporters say the man is offering her excuses to get around her guilt at societal expectations, around her reputation being ruined if she stays. He urges her to do what she wants to do, instead of what her family, her vicious maiden aunt, want her to do. The song was written as a playful exploration of this idea and some argue that it’s actually a feminist anthem. It’s not reflective of rape culture, but instead, it’s an anti-slut shaming song.
This leads us back to one of the worst lines, that conjures up America’s most loved Dad horrible scumbag Bill Cosby: “What’s in this drink.” Supporters point out that this line was never meant to imply that the wolf has drugged the mouse. It’s actually a line you’ll find in a lot of movies and pop culture from the era, said when a person is doing something they know they shouldn’t be doing (or, society says they shouldn’t do, in this case). They’re joking that they can hide behind liquor as an excuse, otherwise they’d never dream of doing so supposedly out of character. The irony being, that if they are doing it, it’s well within their character. I have to support this interpretation, partially because I know it’s the true etymology of the phrase, and also because I doubt Loesser wrote a playful song about drugging his wife that they sang together at parties.
Of course, if we can bring all these arguments back together, context is important. While the song may have been intended as a remedy to sexual repression and slut shaming, it obviously doesn’t play that way today. So, how crucial is context? Should we honour the original intentions of the song or the way it comes across in today’s world? I don’t have an answer to this, but I will ask you to think carefully before your opinion comes rolling out. Really, there’s no right or wrong — it’s entirely subjective, regardless of what your right-wing anti-PC uncle or your lefty feminist PC sister have to say on Facebook about the matter.
Consider this: if you say that it can only have the original intentions, go get a swastika tattooed on your forehead and see how that works out for you. The swastika was originally a religious icon that stood for divinity and spirituality. Now society accepts the swastika as a symbol of the Nazis, an emblem of the Aryan race that stands for racism and antisemitism. Context will make you a hit at parties with that tattoo.
But if you say that it can only have the intentions we ascribe to it today, you’re robbing yourself and others of the importance of history. If you take the N-word out of Huck Finn, you’re running the risk of future generations not knowing that this everyday use of the N-word ever happened. While that has always made the book controversial, we know that Twain was vehemently anti-racist, so we know that it’s there on purpose. It’s there in irony, to underline the cavalier use of the word in those times, to show us that using that word is wrong. If we forget history, we are doomed to repeat it. Should we forget that women were not allowed control of their own bodies (hell, isn’t that still an unsolved problem today?).
Is it time to decide that the song has run its course and it can’t evolve? I dunno. There many versions of it, some where people change the more questionable lyrics to update them for our time. There are versions where the sexual roles are switched, which puts a different spin on things (Lady Gaga vs Joseph Gordon Levitt as well as She and Him both did this). The TV show Glee staged it as a same sex couple. People have already been reconceptualizing the song for years, so while I’m not offering any sweeping solution, I’m just saying we should be careful about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In its purest form, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’ can be about being warmed by the fire with the one you love, on a hazy, winter night.
But that’s not a final defense of it either. Many of the pro-song people aren’t looking to change the song, they’re looking to keep it the way it is. And if they’re clinging to it because, “Fuck PC culture, man,” then they’re just being small. On the more innocent end of this, maybe they feel threatened by something they can’t even put their finger on, like nostalgia and the passing of time taking them further from their childhood and closer to death. On the more sinister end, maybe some of them are afraid of the change they see in their culture, in the colours of the new faces in their neighbourhoods. And that’s a pretty grinchy sentiment for Christmas, dudes.
Maybe you think I’m taking a stupid little Christmas song too seriously. I don’t. It’s part of the fabric of our culture, how we communicate with each other. In fact, maybe how we solve little questions like this, provide a marker for the state of our civilization. What will future generations think when they see how we discussed this — or just clung to our ideologies and didn’t discuss it at all?
The song? If it can evolve, it will. It will be reimagined and rediscovered and radio stations will be proud to play it. Or it won’t. If it can’t, it’ll be lost to the blizzard of time, and the lady in the song will truly venture out into the snowy night, regardless of her intentions then or now.
If you need me, I’ll be howling into the abyss.
Disclaimer: While I was writing this piece, I noted that someone on social media had remarked that no man should be commenting on this song or the controversy. There are many situations when, as a man, it’s more important for me to sit back and listen, rather than comment. But the point of this piece isn’t to even give my opinion, so much as it is to look at the controversy and how media and art works (or doesn’t). It is to facilitate a conversation where we look at all the pieces to make an informed decision. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t way off base, so I talked to a couple of very smart, feminist women to see what their opinion on me writing about this was. They told me to just make sure I wasn’t telling women how they feel about something, which I thought was great advice.
Disclaimer Two: I work in local radio and I occasionally do freelance work for CBC. However, I have no connection to any decisions of this nature.