What To Do About That Rapey Song

This is a post about Christmas songs. And Shel Silverstein. And sex. And good wholesome naughtiness. All, I hope, without the side effect of sermonizing too much. Guess we’ll just have to see how this goes.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, who performed it with his wife at parties, according to Wikipedia. In 1949, it was featured in the movie Neptune’s Daughter starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton. You know this song, of course. It’s a duet, a clever weaving of two monologues: a woman who says she has to leave, and a man who is seducing her to stay.

Lately it’s gained a bit of notoriety. Not because it’s about sex, because that’s actually a recurring theme in winter songs. Let It Snow celebrates the fact that the weather outside is frightful, so good thing we’re inside and together and hey, how about it? Walking in a Winter Wonderland is a little tamer, but even then they’re looking forward to a little necking in front of the fire. Evidently the human response to cold weather is to have sex (which makes sense; at least it’s warm).

But Baby It’s Cold Outside, while pretty much the same theme as Let It Snow, is quite a bit edgier. It’s known as “the date-rape song” thanks to lines such as:

The neighbors might think (baby, it’s bad out there)
Say what’s in this drink? (no cabs to be had out there)

I simply must go (but baby, it’s cold outside)
The answer is no (but baby, it’s cold outside)

I’ve disliked the song for years for that exact reason. It makes me anxious, not cozy.

I’m not alone in this feeling. Seems like we could just let it die a quick death, but it’s hard to kill Christmas songs. Last Christmas by Wham!, anyone? Instead, several people are scrambling around doing damage control.

This article from the Washington Post is an example of one perspective. It maintains that at the time the song was written, it was all about women’s empowerment because a woman staying overnight with her lover could expect to come under fire from society. And that is a point. The woman in the song is obviously reluctant to leave, and keeps pointing out all the people who are going to be scandalized if she doesn’t go.

The problem with this patch-up is twofold:

  1. He never offers to protect her from any of the vicious fallout she’ll receive for staying the night with him.
  2. Lady, please. If you don’t want to go, grow a vagina (as the egalitarian saying goes) and say Yes. Stop saying No if you don’t mean it. That confuses good men. (Men unlike your lover who—if you ask me—will ditch you as soon as the family pressure comes bearing down for him to make you an honest woman.)

Others, finding that explanation insufficient, have decided that the song is a total loss as-is. They’ve rewritten it to illustrate proper sexual consent. One version features lyrics like this:

I really can’t stay (Baby I’m fine with that)
I’ve got to go away (Baby I’m cool with that)

My mother will start to worry (Call her so she knows you’re fine)

I ought to say no no no (You reserve the right to say no)

 

Okay, so I admire the effort… but it’s like drinking flat root beer. Instead of a predatory lover, now you’ve got somebody who:

  1. Doesn’t want her to stay at all but is too nice to say it outright
  2. Is missing all of her flirty hints by earnestly supporting her rights

Either way, the song gets increasingly awkward as it goes. At least in the original song, you’ve got some sizzle and fun.

That’s the problem with sanctifying things. They’re unobjectionable and a good example, but boring. Like characters in kids’ shows, who always make the right choices. Sometimes you’ve just got to be a little naughty for interest.

Shel Silverstein, for example, was a master at writing funny, somewhat macabre, poetry. Kids like them because, well, they’re so wrong.

For instance, Abigail who loved the beautiful pony, but her parents wouldn’t buy it for her. She said she’d die if they didn’t, and they said that nobody ever died from not getting a pony, but guess what? She did die. And her parents were very sorry. The author’s note at the end said, “Show this to your parents if they won’t buy you something you want.”

Or Clarence, who bought new parents. And if your parents nag you or get tired or yell at you, it’s because they’re wearing out and you need to buy new ones too.

Obviously these poems teach a terrible moral. But the kids know it’s wrong and enjoy it.

One reason why the original Baby It’s Cold Outside is (was?) fun is because of the tension of “I must go” and “I want to stay.” It’s naughty.

But that brings us back to why it’s a toxic song for our culture. Even today, sexual consent is widely misunderstood. Several times after Trump’s infamous description of sexual assault, I saw people (men and women both) defend it by saying that women bought Fifty Shades of Grey (the extremely horribly written trilogy about a dominant/submissive sexual relationship), so how can they complain about what Trump said? It’s like people don’t get the difference between consenting sex and sexual assault.

It’s not sex that’s the problem. It’s sex that’s forced on someone who doesn’t want it.

Baby It’s Cold Outside is about someone who wants capitulation, not consent. I don’t trust the man and his dismissive answers to her concerns, his smooth compliments, and his pleas for her not to disappoint him. I’m not convinced he’s going to let her leave if she insists.

Since this song is played over and over every single year to a society that can’t keep sex separated from sexual assault—well, I think it’s a problem. Explaining it away just justifies to all its listeners that its okay for a man to “wear a girl down” (another lyric in the song). Merely rewriting it to “clean it up” kills the thrill.

I see two options:

  1. Rewrite it creatively, so that there’s still tension but not that of a predatory male and a wavering female. Good luck with that.
  2. Just stop playing the dang song already.

And the second option is, really, the best option. Glad we had this discussion.

Now, since it’s cold outside, I think I’ll turn the lights down low and see if my man and I can warm things up. I’m pretty sure he’ll consent.

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