In the spirit of the festive season, today’s installment of Feminist Fridays discusses the seemingly never-ending controversy surrounding the classic Christmas carol “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Written by Frank Loesser in 1944 for the film Neptune’s Daughter, this song has been performed and recorded by countless artists in the following decades. However, in recent years this duet has been criticized for being a sexist song about rape. What is an avid listener of Christmas carols to do?
When I first heard the numerous arguments against this song, I was wholeheartedly in agreement. After all, how could I support a song about using alcohol in order to take advantage of women, which is a situation that happens all too often in actuality. In “A Line-by-Line Take Down of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’” published by the HuffPost last year, this song is put squarely into the context of our modern day society:
Which begs the question: if our rape problem is still so bad today, 70 years later, but we’re at least now aware of this problem, then why does this creepy song still get so much play? Most of its new versions have been recorded in the last decade, with three new versions released in the past year! Yes, it’s a catchy tune, with some linguistically clever back-and-forths that make for a fun (or at least, fun-to-record) duet — even we can’t help but sing along! But in the age of campus rape awareness (finally!) and Bill Cosby allegations, how can so many contemporary artists (and listeners) not be more conflicted about a song that basically sanctions date rape — roofies and all?
Yet as a student of English literature, part of me couldn’t help but notice that there are two conflicting cultural contexts at war here: that of today and that in which the song was originally written. While I don’t buy into the excuse of pardoning problematic things just because they’re so-called “products of their time,” it can be valuable to view text or art in light of when it was produced.
In an article by Persephone Magazine titled ‘Listening While Feminist: In Defense of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”’ the cultural context of the 1940s is brought into the debate by analyzing the role of alcohol in the song:
So let’s talk about that drink. I’ve discussed solely looking at the lyrics of the song and its internal universe so far, but I think that the line “Say, what’s in this drink” needs to be explained in a broader context to refute the idea that he spiked her drink. “Say, what’s in this drink” is a well-used phrase that was common in movies of the time period and isn’t really used in the same manner any longer. The phrase generally referred to someone saying or doing something they thought they wouldn’t in normal circumstances; it’s a nod to the idea that alcohol is “making” them do something unusual. But the joke is almost always that there is nothing in the drink. The drink is the excuse. The drink is the shield someone gets to hold up in front of them to protect from criticism. And it’s not just used in these sort of romantic situations. I’ve heard it in many investigation type scenes where the stoolpigeon character is giving up bits of information they’re supposed to be protecting, in screwball comedies where someone is making a fool of themselves, and, yes, in romantic movies where someone is experiencing feelings they are not supposed to have.
After reading articles such as this one, my fervent opposition to the song began to waver once again. Have we been taking this song out of context during this entire heated controversy? Then again, does context even matter at this point if the modern interpretation of the lyrics is so unpleasant?
So which side is the “right” one? Or can a single side even claim that bold title? This controversy is important because it brings up a question that plagues Christmas carol listeners and students of English literature alike: Is this a case of needing to recognize that something we enjoy is problematic, or have we misinterpreted the cultural context in which it was created in favor of emphasizing our own? Unfortunately, I don’t have a great answer.
What are your thoughts on this song? How do you deal with problematic art that you’re just not sure about? Let me know in the comments section below!