Feminist Fridays: The “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Controversy

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!

Yours,

HOLLY

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11 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: The “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Controversy

  1. I actually heard this on the radio last week and for the first time realised how creepy it was. If you ignore the “what’s in this drink line” and look at the overall theme, it’s basically a man trying to convince a woman to stay over, presumably to have sex with him. Considering that this was written in an era when women had significantly less power, the whole thing just makes me feel sick. If you’re trying to convince someone to have sex with you – especially if you’re in a position of power – then that’s just all kinds of wrong. Horrid.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read the article you mention and found it convincing in a lot of ways. If you look at it as a woman reacting to societal pressures against sex (her family, the neighbors, etc.), rather than a man coercing a woman, it works much better. But, someone commenting on that article pointed out the line where he says “what’s the point in hurting my pride” which does feel coercive. I think most women have been in a situation where they stayed with someone because they were unwilling or afraid to hurt his feelings. I’m afraid I do find it creepy – and it’s interesting how much this gets played, you hear it everywhere! I love this version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amK4U4pCTB8

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ooh, this is a really interesting topic. Have you heard the feminist version of it? It’s really funny! Personally, I think it’s important to recognize that it reflects an attitude that is no longer accepted (or shouldn’t be, at least) in our society. Even if you disregard the “what’s in this drink?” part, it’s still a man pressuring and maybe even harassing a woman. If you’re playing it for your kids, for example, you can explain that to them. However, I don’t think that should stop us from enjoying a catchy song that we all can’t help but love.

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  4. I think that, on first listen, the verses do sound a little creepy. However, I think that the cultural context does need to be kept in mind. The “what’s in this drink?” line is the creepiest part to me, but I believe that, if the original cultural context is that it was a joke that both the man and the woman are in on, then the line should be interpreted in that way and that we should not impose contemporary interpretations onto it.

    I think that the rest of the song isn’t necessarily as problematic as people tend to interpret it. Though, on the surface, it appears to be a man “pressuring” a woman to stay, the song could be sung playfully. That is, the man is just giving the woman the excuse he and she both know that she is already looking for. The woman can’t say outright that she wants to stay because she is bound by social codes that say she can’t express bald interest. The man and the woman are both in on the joke that it’s probably not that “cold outside,” but they’re both wiling to go along with this little fiction (“Oh, I was going to come home sooner, Mother, but So-and-so was worried I’d be cold so I just stayed till the snow stopped falling. Isn’t that so considerate of him?”) so that they both get what they want.

    I see the song as the man and woman vs. social codes and not the man pressuring the woman. Though I think that the song could be interpreted differently by different singers, so it’s actually possible that the meaning of the song would change based on who is recording it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think it is sad that we need to take everything apart and read things into what is in front of us and turn it into something it was never meant to be. It was a song, a catchy tune about two people trying to decide where the evening would end. I appreciate the things said in the analysis but when did we start reading so much negativity into words so context is ignored and often destroyed. I’m not saying the analysis isn’t fascinating but what about context and what about some of the words in songs these days that think it acceptable to use the f word as an adjective? Maybe we should analyse that instead?

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