As is our annual Christmas tradition, my wife and I erected our Christmas tree a few days ago accompanied by whatever festive tunes Pandora saw fit to bestow upon us. One of those tunes struck me as strangely inappropriate the more I listened to it. You may know it, it goes something like this:
By “inappropriate,” I mean that the song seems to violate what is becoming a dominant aspect of contemporary sexual morality: consent. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is scored as a conversation between a man referred to as the “wolf” and a woman referred to as the “mouse.” The woman repeatedly expresses her desire to depart, while her male companion continues to insist that she stay. She describes her concerns about her reputation and how her delaying any longer will alarm her family. The man continues to offer her alcohol, warn her of the dangers of leaving in such weather, and make physical advances that seem contrary to her wishes. It almost seems threatening. While some debates continue as to what actually constitutes affirmative consent in a potentially sexual encounter, most people understand that no means no.
The creepy vibe led Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski to do a little bit of a rewrite to this Christmas classic so that it emphasizes consent and respect. Have a listen:
It doesn’t sit quite as well on the ears, but it certainly tries to steer away from some of the more troubling aspects of the original. However inappropriate the original may seem in our present culture, it had a different impact when it first appeared in 1944. The song was originally written by Frank Loesser to be sung as a duet with his wife.
The tension in the song comes from her own desire to stay and society’s expectations that she’ll go. We see this in the organization of the song — from stopping by for a visit, to deciding to push the line by staying longer, to wanting to spend the entire night, which is really pushing the bounds of acceptability. Her beau in his repeated refrain “Baby, it’s cold outside” is offering her the excuses she needs to stay without guilt. – Slay Belle at Persephonemagazine.com
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is set against a background of certain sexual norms from a certain time and place. It was not intended to be about consent. The woman’s primary concern is not necessarily that she does not want to stay over, but rather that she will face ridicule if she does. While he does not seem to think his reputation is in jeopardy, she certainly does. The song in its day actually seems to have had something of a message of liberation to it.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a good example of how things change from place to place and from time to time. Cultural norms and values are always in motion. We have to be slow to condemn people in other places and times, especially when we do not understand the values and assumptions that underlie their actions and art. At the same time, we must be honest about aspects of our own culture that are confusing and contrary to the values we want to see in our society. While “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” may have been scandalous when it was first performed in the forties, it is controversial for an entirely different reason today.