It’s that time of year again!
No, I’m not talking about replacing the audio of people dancing with Mariah Carey’s song All I want for Christmas is you (even though it is one of my favorite things), I’m talking about the annual debate that rages about the song Baby it’s cold outside.
The debate stems from the lyrics of the song, which sound as though a woman is trying to leave a man’s house, and the man is trying to convince her to stay.
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After a quick once-over of the lyrics, it does sound a bit creepy.
Ah, you’re very pushy you know?
I like to think of it as opportunistic
I simply must go (Baby it’s cold outside)
The answer is no (But baby it’s cold outside)
Which leads to people calling it a “rape anthem” and posting things like this on social media:
I don’t think any more people need to record Baby It’s Cold Outside. I think we’re good there.
— Andrew Rannells (@AndrewRannells) December 10, 2014
But I think I’ve come across a post that addresses the nuance of the song in an extremely eloquent manner.
Tumblr user teachingwithcoffee, who says he/she is an English teacher, posted this in response to the tweet above:
Hi there! Former English nerd/teacher here. Also a big fan of jazz of the 30s and 40s.
So. Here’s the thing. Given a cursory glance and applying today’s worldview to the song, yes, you’re right, it absolutely *sounds* like a rape anthem.
BUT! Let’s look closer!
“Hey what’s in this drink” was a stock joke at the time, and the punchline was invariably that there’s actually pretty much nothing in the drink, not even a significant amount of alcohol.
See, this woman is staying late, unchaperoned, at a dude’s house. In the 1940’s, that’s the kind of thing Good Girls aren’t supposed to do — and she wants people to think she’s a good girl. The woman in the song says outright, multiple times, that what other people will think of her staying is what she’s really concerned about: “the neighbors might think,” “my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious,” “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow.” But she’s having a really good time, and she wants to stay, and so she is excusing her uncharacteristically bold behavior (either to the guy or to herself) by blaming it on the drink — unaware that the drink is actually really weak, maybe not even alcoholic at all. That’s the joke. That is the standard joke that’s going on when a woman in media from the early-to-mid 20th century says “hey, what’s in this drink?” It is not a joke about how she’s drunk and about to be raped. It’s a joke about how she’s perfectly sober and about to have awesome consensual sex and use the drink for plausible deniability because she’s living in a society where women aren’t supposed to have sexual agency.
And remember the context – the 21st Amendment (which repealed prohibition of alcohol) passed in 1933, and Baby it’s cold outside was written about ten years later.
Basically, the song only 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, and therefore it’s normal and expected for a lady’s gentleman companion to pressure her despite her protests, because he knows she would have to say that whether or not she meant it, and if she really wants to stay she won’t be able to justify doing so unless he offers her an excuse other than “I’m staying because I want to.” (That’s the main theme of the man’s lines in the song, suggesting excuses she can use when people ask later why she spent the night at his house: it was so cold out, there were no cabs available, he simply insisted because he was concerned about my safety in such awful weather, it was perfectly innocent and definitely not about sex at all!) In this particular case, he’s pretty clearly right, because the woman has a voice, and she’s using it to give all the culturally-understood signals that she actually does want to stay but can’t say so. She states explicitly that she’s resisting because she’s supposed to, not because she wants to: “I ought to say no no no…” She states explicitly that she’s just putting up a token resistance so she’ll be able to claim later that she did what’s expected of a decent woman in this situation: “at least I’m gonna say that I tried.” And at the end of the song they’re singing together, in harmony, because they’re both on the same page and they have been all along.
So it’s not actually a song about rape – in fact it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her from doing so. But it’s also, at the same time, one of the best illustrations of rape culture that pop culture has ever produced. It’s a song about a society where women aren’t allowed to say yes…which happens to mean it’s also a society where women don’t have a clear and unambiguous way to say no.
The point is, we’d all do better to stop having knee-jerk reactions to things that we perceive as being offensive. Take into account the context of the situation and try not to assume the worst of people.
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