“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” criticized in wake of #MeToo

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“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is now on the naughty list of some of Canada’s largest radio stations this holiday. CBC Radio announced on December 4 that it will join Rogers Media and Bell Media in removing the holiday classic from this year’s playlist, and many stations in the United States have done the same.

The trend is a response to the thousands of critics flooding radio stations with calls, vociferously complaining that the song is, among other things, “a rape anthem masquerading as a Christmas carol.” In the wake of the #MeToo movement, when men’s sexual advances have never been so closely scrutinized and unequivocal verbal consent has been made more compulsory, it is no surprise that the man’s persistence in the famous duet is now being deemed “rapey.”

It is obvious how so many people have come to this conclusion. The woman’s lyrics seem to suggest an attempt to escape from the situation, while the man’s lyrics are a no-holds-barred attempt to keep her from leaving. She says things like “I really can’t stay,” and “the answer is no,” which elicit his dogged responses such as “beautiful, what’s your hurry?” and “mind if I move in closer?” He even attempts to guilt her into staying when she tries to refuse: “how can you do this thing to me?”

Many critics begin and end their critique by citing a single line: “say what’s in this drink?” That’s when the alarm bells sound. Date rape, they say—this song is promoting date rape. Before jumping to that conclusion, however, it is vital to consider the lyrics in the historical context.

The song was written in 1944, at a time when promiscuity by women was socially discouraged. She is not supposed to be there alone with him so late, and she is worried about what people will think. As a consequence, she makes excuses like “my mother will start to worry,” and “my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious.” These are not frantic attempts to escape the situation, however, but rather efforts to convince herself not to do what she knows she wants to.

She drops more or less obvious clues of her attraction, lamenting: “I wish I knew how… to break this spell.”  She even admits that she “ought to say, no, no, no sir,” but decides “at least I’m gonna say that I tried.” Clearly, she is very much interested in the prospect of staying with him, but is just concerned about what “the neighbours might think.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a song about two people who are mutually attracted to one another, not about a man who drugs a woman in preparation of raping her. The question she poses about what is in her drink is simply another one of her ultimately half-hearted protests. If someone asks tomorrow, she wants to be able to shield herself from the social consequences by claiming that she was tipsy and that her decision-making was impaired, even though she was just as likely sober as a judge.

This same sort of preemptive, protective strategy is utilized in the Arkells’ “Never Thought That This Would Happen,” when two old friends hook up and are worried about what their peers will think: “we can say we both blacked out/ and my friends seem to trust this/ they believe this silly kind of cop-out.” Here, excessive consumption of alcohol is used as a means for the abdication of responsibility. Similarly, in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the reference to the drink is a “silly cop-out” rather than a genuine cry of alarm.

If any of you are still on the fence as to the intent of the line, it might help to add that the song was written by Frank Loesser, who performed it for many years with his wife, Lynn Garland, at dinner parties. When Loesser sold the rights, four years after authoring it, Garland was furious as she considered it “their song.”

It would seem that you do not have to worry: you can listen to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with a clean conscience (just not on the growing list of radio stations that are not airing it). If you listen to one of the stations mentioned above, you will just have to hope that public opinion shines more favourably on the song next year.

The #MeToo movement has helped to uncover many women’s previously untold stories and has been critical in deposing men who abuse powerful positions. However, the recent controversy about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is perhaps a much-needed reminder that the goal should be to oppose sexual misconduct where it truly is entrenched, not to go searching for it in places where it does not actually exist.