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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Baby It’s Cold Outside: Date-Rape or Female Empowerment?


This is my favorite version of a song that has come under a great deal of fire the past few years.

The latest holiday trend seems to be trying to convince the world that the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” shouldn’t be considered a holiday standard, but rather a song about date-rape. I’ve heard people say that some of the lyrics come off as “a little rapey.”

Cause that’s how you want to describe an act in which someone is forced to have sex against their will: “Rapey.”

Anyway, those who are trying so hard to vilify this song as a date-rape (or at least high pressured sex) song are missing another possibility of what's going on in the dynamic between the two voices within the song. From a different perspective the song is actually quite empowering for the woman.

First a little historical context is important; something many of its critics are ignoring. 

The song was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 specifically so that he and his wife could perform it at parties. Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for parties to feature songs and dances performed by guests of the hosts or the hosts themselves. Originally it was Frank singing it to his wife, Lynn Garland who, presumably, didn’t consider it date-rapey in any way and gleefully took part in it (though to be fair, she was performing it with her husband). The couple would often perform the call and response song as a last number when it was time to close down the party.

The song's history is easily obtainable through a simple Google search, and many of the detractors pride themselves on being "tech-savvy" so it's interesting that they never seemed to try to do a Google search to help put into historical context the song they're vilifying. But then that would mean they would have to be open to interpretation of the lyrics beyond their own. 

Back to that history: Five years later Loesser sold the song to MGM and it was used in the film “Neptune’s Daughter” where it was actually sung by four people in a scene. First it was sung by Ricardo Montalban to Esther Williams who, throughout the scene seems quite capable of taking care of herself. In fact while her response to his entreaties shows uncertainty, there are moments where she quite clearly telegraphs that the offer to stay is an attractive one for her.

Interestingly, the other half of the scene takes place in a different hotel room and involves Betty Garrett taking on the Montalban role even more aggressively as she sings the pursuer’s lyrics to Red Skelton, who seems even more uncertain than Williams that it’s a good idea to stay.


If this film (or for that matter the song) was celebrating a woman being pressured into sex it was going about it the wrong way.

The fact is that this is a light song about the dance of flirtation that couples engage in when debating how far they want to take their relationship. The couple could be a man and a woman, two men,



two women, heck you could probably adapt it for any number of situations. 



It’s about the people involved, not their gender. There is a difference between pursuit and predation and that’s important to remember.

But sticking with the theme of a romance between a guy and gal, does he want her to stay? Yes. Because that’s what guys wanted back then (and what most would want now).

Does she want to stay? Yes. Because women also weren’t immune to such desires, then or now.

She’s not screaming to leave. She’s debating whether or not to stay, agreeing to “well maybe just a half a drink more” or “maybe just a cigarette more”; looking for excuses to buy time so that she can mull the situation over. That’s not what someone does who doesn’t want to be there.

“Yes,” the date-rape conspiracy theorists reply, “but she asks, ‘Say, what’s in this drink?’ because obviously he slipped her some sort of date-rape drug in an effort to force her to stay.”

Or it could just be a woman asking after the recipe of the drink at a time when cocktails, even at home, were the fashion. Or it could be her questioning her own desire to stay by assuming or perhaps hoping that it’s the alcohol of the drink causing that desire.

Why the debate though? If she really wants to stay, why would she need to be talked into it?

Because she’s working with something that the guy doesn’t have to worry about: The expectations of society. It’s hard to imagine in 2018 but at the time, a guy going around “sowing his wild oats” gained him a hearty slap on the back and an “atta boy!” Boys will be boys after all.


The Village Bride by Jean-Baptiste Greuze
A woman, however, had to worry about being pure and chaste until the day her dad gave her away to her husband (that’s, by the way, what that oh-so-cherished tradition of the father walking the bride down the aisle actually means. He’s handing her off like chattel, swathed in white to assure her new owner that she isn’t tainted in anyway).

Consider the woman’s part of the song. Right off the bat, she’s not worried about the act, she’s worried about the consequences. “My mother will start to worry/father will be pacing the floor.” She feels a need to scurry and yet concedes to, “maybe just a half a drink more.” Still, the second stanza begins with her fear of what the neighbors might think which leads to her to feel that she “ought to say no, no no” but should they find out, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.”


Now this is where I find the song a bit sad. Here we have a consenting adult woman who has to be so worried about what the neighbors might think if she gets home late, and if they start assuming why, that she feels she has to insist that she tried not to allow to happen an act she wants to engage in. And it’s not only the neighbors who will belittle her. Her own family will have something to say.

In the next stanza she’s concerned that her “sister will be suspicious” and her “brother will be there at the door” (apparently as the other male of the house, he had the right to be waiting at the door and expecting an explanation).

I certainly can’t imagine being in my mind 20s and having a late date become a scandal. Neither of my siblings would care whether I came in late and in fact my older brother probably wouldn’t be at the door because he himself was off partying, taking my younger brother, several years his junior, with him and allowing him to drink to the point of puking. And this was allowed by my parents to continue. Boys will be boys, after all. Meanwhile, in my late teens, I'm given a resounding "no" when I ask to spend the night at my friend's sister's house. I can only imagine mom feared we’d have guys over and didn’t believe that pizza and videos were all we planned. But even in the late '70s, that double standard applied. And while it might apply today to some degree and depending on the area, I don’t think it’s anywhere near what it was decades ago.


Imagine what it was like in the 1940s when a woman, no matter what her age or level of self-sufficiency, could see her reputation ruined simply because she came home past a certain hour even if she was guilty of nothing more than misreading the time. Even her maiden aunt, whose mind was “vicious”, would get in on the shaming (the word “maiden” I’m guessing, used because the aunt never did her womanly duty and married so she couldn’t possibly have anything better to do than to invent all sorts of sordid details about the time her niece came home late from a date).

So there is indeed a debate going on in this woman’s head but her concern seems to be more for what society will say about her than of what the man she’s attracted to will ask of her. With all this going through her mind she still considers staying by accepting, “maybe just a cigarette more,” even though in the next stanza she worries that, “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow/at least there’ll be plenty implied.”

Despite the possibilities for gossip, by the end of the song, while her decision may be a risky one, she finally agrees, “Okay fine, just another drink then.” We can draw our own conclusions upon what happened after that.

Rather than being a song about sexual predation, it’s a song about empowerment. By the end of the song, yes perhaps nagged a little by the man, but after great debate of her own, the woman decides she’s an adult and will not be ruled by societal expectations. She’s staying; what will be, will be.

That’s actually pretty progressive for the 1940s. It’s pretty progressive for the 1950s and '60s. And yet seven decades after the song was written, people want to go backwards and portray the woman in the song as some innocent lamb being led to sexual slaughter. That interpretation might say more about the interpreters, than the song.

Now as more and more radio stations decide not to play any version of this song (which is happening now unfortunately) more and more of those on the other side of the “PC” argument will opine that “social justice warriors are taking things too far!” “Oh no, I refuse to say Happy Holidays!” “They’re RUINING CHRISTMAS!!”

To a degree, they’re right (about taking things too far, not the "Happy Holidays" controversy). As I mentioned earlier, context is helpful when interpreting anything. Even if you want to make a case that this song is “date-rapey”, a case just as sound can be made that there’s more going on with the woman’s part than she’s being given credit for.


But let’s not forget something very important: Date-rape did and does occur. At one time the culture did encourage the sort of predation that the man in the song is being unfairly accused of. Again, men could sow their wild oats all they wanted, whether through seduction or force. The term “wolfish behavior” came from somewhere and that’s exactly the sort of behavior that was winked at back then. And a woman who actually didn’t ask for another drink, who did try to brave the storm to get away from unwanted advances, if she failed, might still find herself slandered by a society too quick to assume that the woman “led him on” or “didn’t fight hard enough.” That’s also a historical reality and an attitude that we are supposed to be evolving away from. 

It’s not a bad idea to examine the traditional. Sometimes when we don’t question, we run the risk of making sacred that which perhaps should be done away with. But when examining the traditional, I think an open mind is important and I don’t think that’s been the case with “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” I think those finding it guilty of glorifying sexual predation are way off the mark and because of this a fun little holiday standard might have less of a shot at withstanding the test of time. 

That would be a shame. Because than we wouldn't have fun duets like the one between Sigourney Weaver and Buster Poindexter. and believe me, if she didn't want to stay, Ripley wouldn't take shit from anyone. 



2 comments:

  1. Quite a tempest in a teapot. As you noted, there are serious issues that need to be addressed. Still, at worst, the spirit behind this song is “cheeky”. I’m concerned that the real deal will get lost in conflating too many little things into more than they are.

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  2. Thanks for commenting. True. There are a few things that concern me. The rush to judgement is one. Lately there's been a story about people being upset by themes in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The themes are there (Millennials think they're the first to spot them) but they're there for a purpose. They're there for the story arc of the characters. If that's forgotten because someone didn't really try to understand the show as a whole, then TV stations may never show it (the way some radio stations are banning this song). Will the world end if these two things are banned? No. But banning them won't encourage those who misconstrue the messages to really try to understand before they start assuming. In the case of Rudolph, for example, the message is actually a positive one. It's not celebrating bullies, for example. Quite the contrary. Both the bullied and the bullies change for the better in it. Character growth. I would hate the character growth and the message it contains to be missed because all the detractors focus on is the bullying part. What story, song, TV show, movie, painting, etc. would be next for the ban because people didn't the time to really understand them? Understanding context is an important skill and I worry that it's a dying skill which could have other consequences.

    And you make a good point about the real deal. Honestly, I found the idea that this song is a "date-rape" song sort of an insult to women who have actually been date-raped. People crying "racism" when none is going on are muddying the waters for those victims of actual racism. People insisting that criticism of a certain policy is Antisemitism are not only doing wrong against the person raising the issue, but also insulting the fact that there are those who have suffered true Antisemitism. As you say, if we don't appreciate that there is a difference, and if people instantly attack everything for something that they aren't, then the "real deal" and a true appreciation of the seriousness of the real deal will get lost. People will not be able to tell the difference and innocent people might get hurt.

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