Baby It’s Cold Outside? That old Christmas cheesy chestnut of a song. Or a rapey, sexual pressure-filled holiday staple whose lyrics need a good shake up? US writer Nancy McDermott from WTF gives us the cultural and political lowdown on the controversy over the festive favourite.
“Isn’t that a Christmas song?”
My friend and I were sitting in an Italian restaurant with her two teenaged kids. Her daughter wasn’t old enough to know that in some Italian restaurants, it is impossible to play Frank Sinatra too much. Even if the song is Baby It’s Cold Outside and even it happens to be September – she was probably wondering “Frank Sirachia’?”
And then her brother added, ”Yeah, and it’s kinda rape-y!”
I forgot about Old Blue Eyes and Italian restaurants and my growing concern about our collective failure to pass on the cultural legacy of the Brat pack. “Rape-y”?! Is that like “murder-y”? More to the point, how could any normal person, even a teen (maybe especially a teen) mistake the playful seduction in Baby It’s Cold Outside for rape?
The sad fact is, this teen is not alone. Before we come to the controversy that’s engulfed this crooner classic, let’s look at the song and what it really says about sexual relations.
First, let’s be clear. Most people know that there is a world of difference between a welcome seduction and humiliating sexual violation. And lest we forget, we’re not even talking about a real sex with this song. We are talking about a fantasy about seduction.
Not only is Baby It’s Cold Outside not about a man conniving to rape a woman, for the time it was written (1944) it’s portrayal of an unmarried woman contemplating spending the night with a man was so pro-woman it was positively subversive. The lyrics about a mother worrying and father pacing the floor can be read as the woman in the song worrying about what people will think of her. Or these lines could be as simple as reflecting her doubts about spending the night with Frank. But the stakes at this time could also be far higher. Women were not only infantilized but “a reputation” could, and often did, ruin lives. How liberating then to show an adult woman with the chutzpah not only to admit to her desires but to weigh up the costs of acting on them. It’s never entirely clear from the song whether she stays but just the possibility of her choosing was like a grenade launched at the restrictive social conventions of the time. How people felt about the song was a pretty good indicator of their confidence in women. Perhaps it still is.
It’s no secret that there are a number of people out there today who, like the family members in the song, continue to infantilize women. Many of these people call themselves feminists. And they hate, hate, hate Baby It’s Cold Outside, and actually anything that is playful or ironic.
On elite college campuses where they are most influential, these ‘feminists’ have successfully banned a number of songs, newspapers and performances because they deemed “rape-y”.
Most adults don’t think like this – the vast majority of adult women don’t share the belief that they are besieged by rape culture or terrible predatory men.
But this may be changing with the current discussion about consent.
Mandatory consent education that takes place in schools and on colleges as part of the It’s On Us campaign against sexual assault have not only implicitly revived the old-fashioned view of men as predators and women as prey for a new generation. By seeking to formalize consent they have unwittingly transformed sex into a minefield. How people feel about Baby It’s Cold Outside is, again a pretty good indicator.
It’s not just that people as young as 15 listen to the song and think “rape-y” (sadly from a quick a quick and dirty poll of teens and teachers I know, it’s not just my friend’s kids) It is what this says about an emerging attitude to sex itself. And this emerging attitude is blatantly apparent in the lyrical rejigging of Baby It’s Cold Outside.
The Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski consent-conscious remake of Baby It’s Cold Outside couldn’t be clearer.
Consider the lyrics, “I really can’t stay” /“Baby, I’m fine with that”/ “I’ve got to go away”/“Baby I’m cool with that” or “I wish I knew how to break the spell/ I don’t know what you’re talking about.”.
Sure, it’s a little tongue in cheek but the deeply sad thing is that it is not even a song about sex with conspicuous enthusiastic and on-going consent. This is a song about two people who seem to have no interest in sex what-so-ever. “We’re bound to talk tomorrow”/“Text me at your earliest convenience.” We can only imagine the tepid delights to follow: the vegan milkshakes! Binge watching Breaking Bad!
This is depressing on a number of levels, not least because it is such a clamping down on the imagination. It is reminiscent of those allegedly erotic stories published in outlets like Nerve, each with the obligatory breathless putting-on-the-condom sandwiched between periodic checked “is this okay? Is this okay?” Nothing says you can’t be trusted like a “dirty” story that reads like an instruction manual.
It denigrates the autonomy of our fantasies. Women’s fantasies, in particular, are often absolutely filthy, involve violence, rape, coercion and unbridled passion without consent or condoms or anything. They are like this because, maybe for the first time in history, we really are in control of our lives and control our fantasies with the same confidence.
But the saddest thing of all is that it may spell the end of seduction in reality. It’s unlikely that we will ever be entirely rational when it comes to sex and that’s no bad thing. There is such thing as chemistry, as falling in love with someone who so unsuitable that they turn out to be perfect or at least a whole lot of fun. In any case, it’s never just a one-way street. Sex and intimacy requires us to take a leap of faith and things don’t always work out. And what Baby It’s Cold Outside celebrates is that there’s joy in making the decision.