Marianne examines whether the holiday standard “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is actually a song about sexual coercion.
It’s that time of year. I don’t mean the time for twinkle lights or that damn Salvation Army bell ringer. I don’t mean the time for papercuts while wrapping gifts.
Ed and I had to drive to visit family on Thanksgiving, so the very first thing I did (because we were taking my car — though, to be honest I’d have done it in his car, too) was find the Christmas carol station. It’s not like I’ve got any particular religious investment in the holiday. But I love decorating and giving out gifts and watching movies I’ve seen 900 times before — including the “Nightmare Before Christmas,” which I actually start watching to gear up for Halloween. And I love holiday music.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written in 1944 (some sources list ’36 but it wasn’t actually sold until ’48 in any case) by Frank Loesser. It’s a duet, with a lovely little call and response between a woman who professes a desire to go home and her paramour who professes his desire for her to stay.
It’s also, to a lot of people, kind of a textbook model of coercion when it comes to sex: She really must go, she says repeatedly — but it’s cold outside, she ought to stay, he insists.
Persephone Magazine recently reran this piece defending the song from a feminist perspective.
The defense of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is grounded in historical context and the social signals of the day. This is a critique centered around a school of literary criticism called New Historicism. In New Historicism, the reader (by which I mean the person doing the critiquing) relates the text, whatever it is, to the systems of power and social configurations of the time in which the thing was produced.
I know this is high academic nerdery here, but I promise, I’ll lay off of it in a minute! It’s not all about formal terminology.
My point is that the defense of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is grounded in a particular way of approaching texts and looking at the world in which they were produced as a way of influencing and determining meaning.
I fall more into the New Criticism camp, wherein a text must stand on its own when you are reading it for meaning. More philosophically, I’m a Post-Structuralist with an abiding love for semiotics. The author is DEAD, baby.
Whether or not that is literally true.
What that means for me is that, while I can appreciate the way a text’s meaning is influenced by its historical context, what I really focus on (if we’re talking about social structures) is the way my understanding of a historical context is influenced by a text.
So, in the case of the Persephone Magazine piece, I know that “What’s in this drink?” was a common rhetorical question people asked to sort of blur their own responsibility for actions they wanted to take but that weren’t considered proper. But I also know that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was produced by a culture with a really specifically gendered power dynamic. The culture doesn’t excuse the line. The line reveals something about the culture.
But that line isn’t the only reason folks think “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the theme song of holiday rapists.
The original notations for the song, the score used in the 1949 film “Neptune’s Daughter,” don’t denote the vocals as being for male and female parts. The roles are labeled “mouse” and “wolf.” And, in the film, the song is performed twice — once with a male wolf (Ricardo Montalbon) and once with a female wolf (Betty Garrett) (played more for laughs with a sexually aggressive woman) (which is equally coercive in our current social context and equally not OK).
Labeling the parts as belonging to a wolf and a mouse establishes the song as being about a predator/prey relationship. I think it works in the movie because the song is not a stand alone text — it’s part of a larger narrative in which the mice are playing along, though everyone is still operating within their social power dynamic (or operating against it for the sake of humor).
But it’s not like we’re all watching “Neptune’s Daughter” every time December rolls around. The song is being played independently (and was written independently as well, to be sung at parties with Loesser’s then-wife).
And, if we look at the song independently, what we have is a wolf out-manuevering a mouse. The mouse might very well want to be captured — might be looking for an excuse to give in to what she wants as per the “feminist defense” of the song. But that still speaks to a culture where women are not provided the agency to make shame-free sexual decisions.
And if she DOESN’T want to stay, if her “the answer is no” is a genuine objection, at best we’re looking at a scene involving a lot of coercion.
Women have been having sex for a long time, of course. And there are plenty of coded ways for them to signal interest. But to the people who view this song as “rapey,” the give and take of exchanged lines is not about playful banter between willing parties. If no means no — and I think we’re all familiar with that concept — then by refusing to accept her no, the wolf in question is displaying a fundamental disrespect toward the mouse. Sure, maybe it’s a disrespect grounded in historical social rules. But it’s still disrespect.
This is, I think, illustrative of why “yes means yes” — the concept of enthusiastic consent — is actually just as important as no meaning no. There’s no confusion with an enthusiastic (rather than a grudging or coerced) yes. An enthusiastic yes means all parties are on board for the party in someone’s Christmas pants.
But in the absence of that, we’re left with two possible interpretations. Either “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a playful give and take between two people who both want to be there or it’s yet another illustration of a predator who wants what they want no matter what the prey says.
There are plenty of problematic things that I like — and recognizing that other people’s interpretations of things might also be valid is one of the first steps to liking problematic things without being a jerk about it. I like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” because Ed and I can sing it in the car together. We know that there’s consent plainly out there on the table between us. We know that it’s possible to enjoy that little bit of power struggle in a defined context.
But I also realize, when the text stands alone: Prey doesn’t get to say no.
Originally appeared at xoJane.com
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