About this time every year, the same debate surfaces around “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.” While the lyrics do seem at best coercive and super creepy, they also reflect a period in history that sometimes made consent more socially dangerous than pretense. This song draws attention to an inherent power imbalance, but not in the way that many people think.
What should be upsetting about this song is that women weren’t socially powerful enough to establish their own rules. Instead of being able to say, “Sounds awesome, go make me a drink!” women had to dance.
This perpetuated the myth that “No” really means “Maybe.”
Let’s take it from the top. First, the two characters in the song are known as ‘wolf’ and ‘mouse’. That’s extremely demeaning to women; more importantly, it speaks volumes about how women were viewed during the 1940’s—when the song was originally written. That period also coincided with the end of World War II and the push for women to step back into their previous roles of wife, mother, and chaste maiden. A wave of young women had experienced life outside of these limited options. Society responded by reminding women of their ‘mouse’ status and how good mice—read: nice—girls behaved.
Consider this in a broader historical context. In 1944, women had had the right to vote for just 24 years, and only six years had passed since the Comstock Act—which decriminalized birth control—was repealed. Women had to express themselves within a very limited range of behaviors. Spending the night with a man had serious social implications…like those used in the song itself. What will the neighbors think—that was still a thing back then.
Looking at the lyrics through a lens of 1944 America, exchanges between wolf and mouse are even more nuanced. Social convention prevents her from doing exactly what she would like; whether that means legitimately wanting to leave (women can’t be rude, must defer to save his feelings), or wanting to stay (risk of family scorn or social position.)
Yes, it’s funny (and meaningful) to reinvent this song through a more contemporary perspective. But it’s important not to lose sight of what we can learn about how social context shapes our behavior. Mouse and wolf were navigating within the framework they were given. Generations later, we’re still dancing, just on a slightly wider stage of social expectations.
Consent and mutual respect of boundaries are not negotiable. Checking in with your partner for their continued and enthusiastic consent is essential. No always means no.
And now seven songs that are truly high on the creep-meter:
“Chevy Van” Man picks up a young woman in his van, has sex with her before dropping her off in a small town and driving away. Side note: she is left to make her way forward in this town barefoot.
“I’ve Never Been to Me” — A not-so-subtle slut-shaming tribute from one woman to a complete stranger holding a baby. Seriously, if this happens to you, call the police.
“Funky Cold Medina” — Guy feels strangely entitled to more sex than he is getting. Puts substance in drinks; wacky, homophobic / transphobic hijinks ensue.
“Don’t Stand So Close to Me” — A tragic story of an adult male teacher being seduced by a school girl. C’mon, you know how bad girls get, amirite? Again, ew.
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”; “What I Don’t Know”; “Papa Loved Mama” — Here we have a three-way tie. Each song has its own twist on the plot line. But essentially all three are cautionary tales about cheating women who should be (or were) killed by their partners. These aren’t even subtle about it.
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