Is Baby It’s Cold Outside an ode to rape that deserves its sudden banishment from Canadian radio?
|National Post 04 Dec 2018 at 13:37|
In 2004, the National Post published a tongue-in-cheek article arguing that Baby It’s Cold Outside should be immediately banned from Canadian airwaves.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside has a lovely melody but it’s an ode to statutory rape,” read the December 20, 2004 story. “In sum, the man gets the girl drunk amid her protestations so he can take advantage of her.”
Fourteen years later our throwaway joke has become reality. On Tuesday, the country’s two largest radio operators, Bell Media and Rogers, announced they would be pulling the “controversial” song from their rotation.
So what to make of a 74-year-old duet suddenly considered politically incorrect despite remaining one of the world’s most popular Christmas songs? Below, some context as to whether it really has been a rape anthem this whole time.
To modern ears, the song indeed checks most of the boxes for sexual misconduct
The lyrics to Baby It’s Cold Outside have not aged well. It’s essentially a woman making excuses for why she needs to leave a man’s home while he repeatedly ignores them. The song even includes the cardinal sin of 21st century sexual consent: A woman explicitly saying “no” (“I ought to say no, no, no sir “) while the man ignores her (“Mind if move in closer?”). “That song has creeped me out for years. In my career, I’ve had a lot of experiences very much like what’s happening in the tune,” New York singer Patricia Fennell . It also doesn’t help that on the song’s original lyric sheets the male singing part was labeled “Wolf” with the woman playing the “Mouse.” There will be some defences of Baby It’s Cold Outside in the paragraphs below, but none will argue that this is in any way a proper way for men to conduct themselves in 2018.
Writer Frank Loesser wasn’t a sexual predator, and would be “mortified” at the implication
Gary Glitter’s Do You Wanna Touch Me has its own unseemly undertones, but was also written by a guy who keeps getting caught with hard drives filled with child pornography. The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar is about a slave trader raping African slaves, and has a bass line played by a guy who thought it was a good idea to have sex with 14-year-olds . Baby It’s Cold Outside, by contrast, was written by songwriter Frank Loesser as a fun duet to perform with his wife at parties. “It was never anything other than a sweet couple’s number for him and his spouse,” the couple’s son, John Loesser, told Vanity Fair, adding that his father would be mortified by its modern association with sexual assault. Speaking of Loesser songs that might sound off to a modern audience, here’s a line from another Loesser duet entitled Delicatessen of My Dreams: “Where salamis are endlessly long and lovely and the liverwurst is bursting at the seams.”
Defenders have noted that the woman never explicitly says that she doesn’t want to sleep over
The 1966 hit Lightnin’ Strikes features singer Lou Christie explaining to an unseen date that once sexual desire takes hold of him, he can’t be held responsible for his actions. The song even includes female background singers repeatedly and unsuccessfully commanding Christie to “stop.” Baby It’s Cold Outside gives a lot more agency to its female character. “If we look at the text of the song, the woman gives plenty of indication that she wants to stay the night,” wrote . “Her beau in his repeated refrain ‘Baby, it’s cold outside’ is offering her the excuses she needs to stay without guilt.” None of the woman’s lines indicate that she feels unsafe or is uninterested — they’re all concerned with societal expectations (even the “no” line expresses that she “ought” to say it). “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,” reads a widely circulated Tumblr post defending the song. And Baby It’s Cold Outside is still a relatively tame artifact of this particular troublesome aspect of 1940s sexual politics. In 1944, the world’s most popular movie was still Gone With the Wind, a movie that features a woman bubbling with sexual satisfaction after a night of violent marital rape .
For what it’s worth, lots of 1940s songs wouldn’t pass the 2018 smell test
Baby It’s Cold Outside existed in an ecosystem of other popular songs that sound just as cringeworthy to modern ears. Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief was a number one hit in 1945 and is packed with Indigenous stereotypes such as “Injun chief and his tommy-hawk.” Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette) was a number one hit in 1947, but hasn’t jibed well with a culture that confines smokers to public sidewalks. You Belong To Me stayed on charts throughout most of the 1950s, despite sounding like the manifesto of a possessive boyfriend. However, none of those were Christmas songs, so while they’ve been allowed to pile up in thrift stores and music archives, Baby It’s Cold Outside lives on as a seasonal standard. As of press time, there were three recordings of Baby It’s Cold Outside on the Billboard Holiday 100 chart.
The song was written just as sexual norms were changing
In 2014, the Washington Post’s Marya Hannun wrote that Baby It’s Cold Outside was once seen as an “ anthem for progressive women .” It was penned in the very earliest years of the sexual revolution, when the social upheaval of the Second World War had opened up an entire generation of young people to sexual experimentation. “After 15 years of Depression and war, there was … a desire on the part of Americans to live in the moment and enjoy life, and they were accordingly less likely to defer to traditional restraints on their behaviour,” University of Florida researcher Alan Petigny said in 2005 after publishing a study showing higher-than-expected rates of wartime premarital sex. Defenders of Baby It’s Cold Outside say that it is a cheeky ballad of a couple that wants to get cozy, but must work their way around those “traditional restraints.” “The lyrics make it obvious the couple is colluding to create a cover story,” in 2014. “His arguments and her protests are a ritual.” Rupp noted that the ambiguity of this era would end up having dire consequences for women and would ultimately usher in a much clearer picture of “no means no” sexual consent in the 1960s. “But that wasn’t true when the song was written in 1944,” she wrote.
The line “What’s in this drink?” may not be as damning as it sounds
This is easily the most uncomfortable line for anybody currently of dating age who happens to overhear the song on a mall loudspeaker. Comedian Bill Cosby is currently in jail for raping women he drugged with spiked alcoholic drinks. A 2016 study of U.S. university students found that as many as one in 13 reported having been drugged. Sung references to drink control just don’t have the same whimsy that they once did. It’s probably safe to assume that Loesser didn’t write a song in which he uses alcohol or illicit pharmaceuticals to drug his wife into unconsciousness in order to rape her. The counter theory is that the line is actually the woman attempting to excuse her own desire to spend the night in defiance of social conventions. Slay Belle wrote that some variant of the line “What’s in this drink?” was pretty common to movies of the era, and was primarily used by characters looking to excuse their own behaviour. “The drink is the shield someone gets to hold up in front of them to protect from criticism,” she wrote.
The song can be and has been tamed for modern audiences
In 2013, author Lizzy Acker praised Baby It’s Cold Outside as “ practically Shakespeare .” Whatever its original connotations, the song’s meaning changes dramatically depending on who is singing it and how. “It’s a two-person scene that can mean basically anything depending on the version,” she wrote. The music video for Michael Bublé and Idina Menzel’s version of the song softened its hard edges by casting children in the lead parts. The T.V. show Glee had the duet performed by a same sex couple. Several recordings have put women in the role of the “Wolf”(such as Lady Gaga, below). To traditionalists who would decry this as historical revisionism, just remember that some of our most beloved tunes have wildly distasteful origins that have been quietly set aside to reflect changing cultural mores. The jingle blaring from ice cream trucks every summer carries the unbelievably racist original title of “N—– Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!” Electronic children’s toys regularly feature Camptown Races, a song whose lyrics quickly reveal it as a minstrel hit sung in a exaggerated black dialect. Even the Maple Leaf Forever, a standard for Canadian marching bands, is usually played as an instrumental because its lyrics are a pretty explicit celebration of killing Americans and conquering the French.
The father of modern Islamic terrorism hated this song
In 1948, a young Egyptian student named Sayyid Qutb was at a church dance in Colorado in which the pastor slipped on the then-new hit record, Baby It’s Cold Outside. “The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips,” Qutb wrote later with disgust. The quotidian sight was one of many that fuelled Qutb’s belief that the West had fallen into sex-obsessed depravity and was beyond redemption. Later, as an author and organizer with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Qutb would become an influential advocate of jihad and Islamism, serving as one of the primary spiritual influences on Osama bin Laden. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that opposing Baby It’s Cold Outside puts one in league with Islamic terrorism, but then USA Today last year.
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