For the past couple years, there's been a cultural discussion about how that old Christmas song "Baby It's Cold Outside" sounds a whole lot like a guy coercing some poor woman into sex, and possibly drugging her. This idea became semi-mainstream a couple years ago, I can't remember exactly when, though feminists have been cringing at the sound of it coming over the grocery store intercom for decades.
This year, we have a new trend. Suddenly, I'm seeing post after post about how in the context of the time it was written, it was actually totally fine!
Hi there! Former English nerd/teacher here. Also a big fan of jazz of the 30s and 40s.
So. Here’s the thing. Given a cursory glance and applying today’s worldview to the song, yes, you’re right, it absolutely *sounds* like a rape anthem.
BUT! Let’s look closer!
“Hey what’s in this drink” was a stock joke at the time, and the punchline was invariably that there’s actually pretty much nothing in the drink, not even a significant amount of alcohol.
See, this woman is staying late, unchaperoned, at a dude’s house. In the 1940’s, that’s the kind of thing Good Girls aren’t supposed to do — and she wants people to think she’s a good girl. The woman in the song says outright, multiple times, that what other people will think of her staying is what she’s really concerned about: “the neighbors might think,” “my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious,” “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow.” But she’s having a really good time, and she wants to stay, and so she is excusing her uncharacteristically bold behavior (either to the guy or to herself) by blaming it on the drink — unaware that the drink is actually really weak, maybe not even alcoholic at all. That’s the joke. That is the standard joke that’s going on when a woman in media from the early-to-mid 20th century says “hey, what’s in this drink?” It is not a joke about how she’s drunk and about to be raped. It’s a joke about how she’s perfectly sober and about to have awesome consensual sex and use the drink for plausible deniability because she’s living in a society where women aren’t supposed to have sexual agency.
The post goes on to say that in the 1940's, women weren't allowed to say yes to sex for pleasure and had to rely on excuses like "there was no safe way to get home" to stay at a man's house overnight and, I guess, "I was drugged and raped" to have sex when unmarried. It sounds like this was an open secret, and the song is about that ridiculous and, by today's standards, incredibly disturbing social norm.
Here's the thing. I'm sure this particular blogger is right. I'm sure they're speaking the truth. But I have a problem with how this information is being used. I'm seeing multiple Facebook friends declare this post to mean that they don't have to hate the song anymore, and they're so relieved, because they secretly love that song!
Clearly there's some kind of miscommunication here. Nobody ever had to hate the song. You don't have to automatically hate every bit of media that is problematic, no matter how bad it is. People like what they like. I still watch shows like How I Met Your Mother, which celebrates a serial date rapist. Sometimes I just need to sit down and watch some trash TV to turn my brain off. Sometimes the songs with the worst lyrics are really fucking catchy.
People freak out because they think that feminists are making them hate all the things they love, because they think that they'll be considered horrible people if they keep liking problematic media. There may be some individuals who will tear you down for admitting you like a song or a video game or whatever, but the general consensus is that there's wayyyyy too much shitty media out there for it to be possible to completely reject all of it and not want to kill yourself.
So go ahead and like "Baby It's Cold Outside." You never needed to not like it.
Here's the problem, though. This explanation of 1940's cultural norms comes in response to an image of a tweet saying that we don't need new recordings of the song. And that is definitely true. You know what else we don't need? To have that song played in public spaces. Whether the song is about raping a woman or about a culture in which rape culture was so intense that women had to pretend to be raped to have consensual sex, which, good lord, what the fuck, oh my god. Anyway, the point is that I consider that song to be rated R. 18+. Adult only. Not fit for the grocery store, malls, or in public squares where children are lining up to meet Santa. Okay?
Remember that intent isn’t magic. Even if the intent of the song wasn’t to support rape culture, think about the people today who hear this every year, including young kids. They don’t have the knowledge about 1940′s social norms to determine that she was in on an old-timey joke or whatever. They’re unlikely to even have the knowledge to recognize it a potential rape anthem. They’re going to hear it and subconsciously learn that pressuring women into sexual situations is okay, even cute.
So go ahead and love the song, listen to the song on your phone through your headphones and feel perfectly okay about it. But I don't want to see people using obscure knowledge about 1940's culture to defend assholes making money off of new versions of a song that sounds exactly like rape culture in 2017, and again, I do not want to hear this song in public.