In 2017, America woke up to the systemic sexual predation that pervades every corner of society, but some of our Christmas carols are stuck in the past.
In particular, the drumbeat against Baby, It’s Cold Outside is getting too loud to ignore.
petition to end “baby it’s cold outside” because it is literally about date rape— kaylynn Ⓥ (@burntkiss) December 12, 2017
For so many people, the classic winter call-and-response song invokes shivers. (This Funny or Die skit perfectly illustrates the creepiness.)
In the tune, written in the 1940s by Guys and Dolls composer Frank Loesser, the woman sings that she has to leave her beau’s house, and he suggests otherwise. She spells out reasons to go and he asks otherwise — the weather is frightful, there are no cabs, they could share another drink or a smoke — but the man smoothly persuading her to stick around feels a little too close to coercion for comfort. He simply doesn’t take “no” for an answer, interrupting her, shooting down her attempts to leave and beefing up her half-baked ideas to stay. This is where the song really sounds off-key to our modern ears and our definition of consent, which has evolved from "no means no" to "yes means yes."
Even if the intentions aren't sinister, it’s simply exhausting to be a woman in that situation. In the original score, the male part is written as a “wolf” and the woman as a “mouse” — that speaks volumes about male predatory behavior. Many women know what it’s like to feel trapped by a man, whether emotionally or physically. In those situations, it doesn’t matter how it began or why she wants to leave, it only matters that she wants to go, now.
Advocating for sensitivity and empathy in how Baby It's Cold Outside sounds to so many women (and men) isn’t Scrooge-like — it’s completely the opposite. But while Baby, It’s Cold Outside is understandably falling off of Christmas playlists as America changes, there is another important feminist angle worth exploring.
That interpretation of the song, made popular in a Tumblr post in 2016, posits that the woman would like to stay but is held back by societal norms of the 1940s, in which an unmarried woman staying over at a man’s house would be scandalous. Her reasoning for leaving all relates to other people — what will the neighbors think, her mother will worry — and doesn’t show a personal hesitation from spending the wee hours with her love interest.
Karen Tongson, an English and gender studies associate professor at the University of Southern California, says the song has to be interpreted as a product of its time. It was this "kind of culture of repression that would forbid this kind of hanging out,” Tongson said. "The song itself is an effort to furnish female sexuality with a set of excuses as opposed to a coercive song.”
Tongson says there’s more nuance in Baby, It’s Cold Outside, as well.
“In the rapid-fire callout culture of our current moment people don’t take the time to reflect on the tone, and the tone becomes lost. There is a kind of coyness, a kind of female sexual energy, in that song that people just neglect,” she said.
To that point, there are some playful and subversive interpretations of the song, including a version by She & Him, in which the gender roles are reversed; a Glee performance between two men; and a rewritten pro-consent version by two Minnesota musicians. They all help bring a modern (and much less creepy) context to the nearly 80-year-old song.
But as a final word, in the viral Tumblr post, the author writes that Baby It’s Cold Outside is “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."
It’s time for our Christmas carols to match our evolving culture.
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