Content Warning: Mentions sexual assault and rape
In the lead up to Christmas 2018, a radio station in Cleveland, Ohio banned ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ from its playlist. The decision to do so was prompted by listener complaints about the song’s promotion of rape culture.
Host of Star 102 station, Glenn Anderson, defended the action by stating that “the world we live in is extra sensitive now, and people get easily offended, but in a world where #MeToo has finally given women the voice they deserve, the song has no place.” The decision, however, was met with a cold online reception.
Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ was featured in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter starring Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams. The song follows Montalban’s character dissuading Esther William’s from leaving his house by claiming that “it’s cold outside”. The movie is a back-and-forth between both characters as they flirtatiously contemplate how and when to finish up their date.
Since its release, Loesser’s song has been covered by duos from Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton, Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews, to even Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell in the children’s Christmas film Elf.
The radio station stated that the song’s content is incongruous with the sentiments of the #MeToo era. But it is important to remember that the song was not written in the #MeToo era. Comedian Jen Kirkman highlighted this when she took to Twitter, stating, “I’m so tired of this. The song seems odd now not cuz it’s about coercing sex but about a woman who knows her reputation is ruined if she stays. ‘Say what’s in this drink’ is an old movie line from the 30s that means ‘I’m telling the truth.’ She wanted to get down and stay over.”
Those critical of Star 102’s decision argue that the song is not at all a “rape anthem”. For many, the song is about how good girls want sex but are under certain societal pressures to refrain from doing so. Upon close reading, the song is actually a pre-walk-of-shame anthem. There is a proto-feminist undertone to the lyrics. Indeed, Variety claimed that, “‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ was actually a witty, ahead-of-its-time avowal of women owning their own sexual agency.”
Furthermore, the woman’s insistence of “no, no, no”, which has been taken as the prime example of non-consensual sex, is actually preceded by the phrase “I ought to say no, no, no”. Here there is an imperative of not being seen to want sex, so much so that Williams’s character sings “at least I can say that I tried”. She will tell society that she was persuaded to stay and did not do so of her own accord, avoiding the more shocking decision to stay because of her own desire. She ‘ought’ not to give in because that is what society tells her to do.
This is the very theme of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. The taboo of female sexuality is at the forefront of the power dynamic inherent in the song. Concern about what “the neighbours might think” and how the “maiden Aunt’s mind is vicious” illustrate this.
Most media outlets in the 1940s portrayed sexually active women as slutty and immoral. Female social norms and the female protagonist’s own feelings seem incongruous with one another. The song is not about ignoring consent. Through body language, the movie clip reveals that both parties want to consent – however, the man will not be judged for having sex, while the woman will. For Williams’s character to stay and give in to her desires, which was largely considered taboo at the time, she and she alone will be condemned as ‘slutty’ or ‘easy’.
Out of context, these lyrics would seem lewd. But it seems somewhat redundant to apply the morals of a 21st Century movement to a song written over 70 years ago – context is key, as well as the intent behind the lyrics. Admittedly, continuing to air the song might spark further debates; for example, if children misinterpret the lyrics without additional context.
However, if people who do have access to this context choose not to consider the environment from which this type of media comes, this holds disturbing implications for the way we look at history. When we confront troubling and controversial aspects of our own history, we also have a duty of due diligence. Let’s educate and not suppress. Let’s give our vulnerable daughters, who may listen to this song and misinterpret meaning, the tools and context to understanding what it is really about.
Everything requires understanding. Erasing one potentially problematic issue that requires nuanced engagement can lead to a slippery slope – when will it end?
The world is not a simple place. Historical events are very rarely black and white. The grey areas of comprehension are there to challenge, question and confront us. Children need to learn by our own social, historical and personal mistakes.
Let us provide them with the means to do so and not erase everything we find uncomfortable now; to do so would be dishonest.
Image: Will Folsom via Flickr