As the holiday season winds down and the remnants of celebrations litter the coffee tables and countertops, perhaps one more conversation about the controversial “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” can lead us into the rest of winter with some new perspective.
When the song was written by Frank Loesser in 1944, and, later, won the Oscar for best original song in the 1949 film, “Neptune’s Daughter,” listeners likely had quite a different take on the lyrics than they do today.
Some reference the song as one of sexual liberation for women in an era when staying overnight at a man’s house would have been frowned-upon and cause for gossip. To those listeners, it seems as the female vocals are simply of a woman wanting to stay over but worried about how she would be viewed for doing so. In fact, Loesser and his wife, Lynn Garland, were known to perform it together at parties. It’s certainly no surprise that Loesser would never have imagined the current debate around the lyrics.
And, while this historic knowledge of the song is important to note, it is insignificant in relation to how we feel when the lyrics hit our ears in the current world we live in. For some, myself included, the lyrics spark a feeling of uneasiness. It has been referenced as “the date rape Christmas song,” and a few radio stations even banned it from their soundwaves in 2018 in an effort to avoid offending listeners who might have a history of sexual assault or rape. The #MeToo movement has certainly brought attention to some uncomfortable topics and paved the way for some important discussions around what is and what is not acceptable in an era where rape culture has been far too prevalent.
If you reference the actual sheet music for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the male part is referred to as The Wolf, and the female part is The Mouse. So, no matter the dissection of the lyrics or understanding of the time period from which the song was given the fire of life, this predator vs. prey dynamic has always been there. She still says ‘no’ in countless ways as he pressures her each time to change her mind. Whether she’s playing around and trying to be hard-to-get and truly wants to stay, but is concerned what others might think, could be viewed as irrelevant. His approach is always to pressure her. He is seen as the wolf preying on a mouse. Even as a game, is this something we want the next generations to continue?
It is reasonable to say people in the 1940s era would likely never have considered the song to have questionable lyrics, or even use the term date rape because that term wasn’t used in print until less than 50 years ago. According to a letter response in The Independent on November 7, 1993, “the first record of date rape in the files of the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the American magazine Mademoiselle in November 1980: ‘He could be prosecuted if only the legal system would accept that ‘date rape’ is possible.’”
According to “The History of Campus Sexual Assault,” by Anya Kamenetz for NPR, “Mary Koss coined the term ‘date rape’ back in the 1980s.” Koss, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, has collected thousands of stories on campuses around the world. According to Kamenetz in her November 30, 2014 article, “part of the reason that few of her (Koss) respondents considered themselves sexual offenders, she said, is that they faced no negative consequences. No accusation. No shame. No punishment.”
Essentially, men didn’t believe what they were doing to women was wrong. And, women didn’t use the terminology ‘date rape,’ and perhaps didn’t understand why the persuasion was wrong. Consent wasn’t a hot topic, or a topic at all. So, it’s easy to see why this song, and it’s wolf preying on mouse lyrics wouldn’t have been a cause for any concern. As decades upon decades went by with countless versions of this song playing on the radio, at holiday parties, with flirtatious undertones, role-reversals, etc., it’s easy to see why many (especially from older generations) would not find anything to feel uneasy about when hearing the lyrics.
But, times have changed. People have evolved. At the very least, discussions should be had about the lyrics and the message they send to this generation of young people. I’m 100 percent against anything or anyone perpetuating rape culture. And, this song could be viewed as doing that despite its historic origins. In the current culture, there are a nonzero number of men (and some women) who still don’t find issue with the predator vs. prey dynamic between men and women, and they might not put much stock into the implications of date rape either. This is why the discussion is so important.
When people argue and take extreme stances on whether or not it should be banned or worse, going down the rabbit hole of finding everything that people find offensive and shaming them for said issues, they’re missing the point. The point is that these conversations around the song’s current message are crucial to moving beyond the status quo and trying to eliminate rape culture. When people take sides and throw down stakes on the extreme ends of the issue, they are missing out on the value that could be had in coming together to listen and ask questions and talk.
Music can be intoxicating. It can connect you to a certain time or memory in your life immediately upon hearing the notes played. And that can be a great trip down memory lane, or a negative remembering experience. I was raped in the stairwell at a dance club with music playing in the background when I was 21 and in college, so for me, music has the potential to be especially harmful. I love it, but certain kinds of music or certain lyrics can trigger memories I’d rather forget.
I can acknowledge that’s my thing, and I wouldn’t ban certain music. There’s always going to be something that brings up negative feelings for someone on any given number of topics no matter what. I don’t think the song should be banned. I’m also a strong proponent of the First Amendment. If I don’t like the song, I can choose not to listen to it. I have the freedom to do that, just as Loesser had the freedom to write the song in the first place. It’s okay for people to like the song, and it’s okay to find it inappropriate under the lens we view the lyrics today. What’s unacceptable is to make someone feel unwarranted for his/her feelings. That doesn’t make it offensive for others to like or do those things. What’s offensive is not recognizing that someone with a different experience than your own might feel uneasy about something like the lyrics in a song.
The arguments and uproar and comments that have surrounded this song is doing that by perpetuating the shame for those who do find the lyrics uneasy, and for not recognizing how poking fun at those people is harmful.
The Holderness Family, Raleigh’s own viral video stars, created a parody of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” this holiday season. They called it, “Baby, Just Go Outside,” and the reboot quickly went viral. Fans on both sides of the song’s controversial lyrics shared the new version and found it hilarious from their perspective. For those who found the original lyrics harmless, the “Baby, Just Go Outside” reboot simply confirmed how silly it would be to change them. And, for people who felt uncomfortable hearing the original lyrics, the new version made it undeniable how inappropriate the 1944 version seems in current times. After a barrage of comments, Penn and Kim Holderness also chose to make it clear in a blog post that they decided the 2018 version of the song should have a consent update partly because of their own experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace. So, whether the parody was funny to those who viewed it as mocking the idea that the original lyrics were offensive, or to those who saw this parody as demonstrating just how offensive the original lyrics could be viewed, is not as important as the fact that it got people talking. Talking is key to understanding, and hopefully these conversations can bring us closer to a world where the idea of rape culture is not trivialized, but rather where more efforts are being made to squash it.
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