5 December 2017
It’s one of the most-recognisable Christmas songs and has been covered by the likes of Tom Jones, Lady Gaga, Michael Bublé, Glee star Lea Michele (pictured above with Joey McIntyre), and Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in the movie Elf.
But is Baby It’s Cold Outside an appropriate festive soundtrack for a year that has been dominated by one story of sexual harassment and abuse after another?
The song, typically a duet between a man and a woman, was originally written in 1944, and recorded five years later for the film Neptune’s Daughter. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1950.
The tune takes the form of a back-and-forth conversation where a man tries to persuade his female guest not to risk the journey home in the titular bad weather, but to have another drink and spend the night with him instead.
On the surface, the song’s lyrics are meant to read as a seduction or flirty banter. But over the last few years, the tone of the song – and its message – have been singled out for criticism around its treatment of consent. One article from 2012 got to the heart of the issue when it asked, ‘Is Baby It’s Cold Outside a date rape anthem?’
The controversy arises from these lyrics especially: “The neighbours might think… Say, what’s in this drink?”
Critics’ interpretation of that section of the song has it that the man has slipped something into the woman’s drink – what modern listeners infer to be a ‘roofie’, the slang word for rohypnol, a drug that can render the taker unconscious or incapacitated.
Even more alarming to today’s audience, the original score listed the man’s part as ‘Wolf’ and the woman’s part as ‘Mouse’, heightening the apparent predatory overtones.
So is the song inappropriate in 2017, an era dominated by sexual assault allegations against a growing number of public figures, among them Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and even the current US president?
Vanity Fair has argued the song is emblematic of the kind of ‘culture clash’ row that regularly flares up in politically and socially polarised times like ours. Last year, a singer-songwriter couple named Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski recorded a version of the song with the lyrics amended to reflect our more ‘woke’ times.
Calling the original wording “aggressive and inappropriate,” the duo’s new iteration has lyrics like, “I really can’t stay/Baby I’m fine with that,” and “What’s in this drink?/Pomegranate La Croix”.
In response to that, one conservative site took ‘social justice warriors’ to task, arguing that the contentious line “what’s in this drink?” could have any number of harmless meanings. For instance, the woman never specified what drink she wanted and so might be seeking clarification. Or, perhaps she’s embarrassed by how drunk she is and wants to deflect blame to the unknown drink.
Another interpretation is featured in a 2016 Tumblr post that has done the rounds online again over the past week. In it, the writer of the post concedes that in today’s heightened culture, the song “absolutely sounds like a rape anthem”.
But the writer places the song in the context of its time, and then flips the argument so that Baby It’s Cold Outside actually becomes a feminist anthem.
The argument goes: the woman is out late in a man’s house, unchaperoned, which was very much frowned upon in the 1940s. She’s concerned about what the neighbours and family will think of her staying the night with the man. She’s not worried about what’s in the drink, but rather wants to ‘blame’ the drink’s potency for her decision to sleep with with the guy – to give herself “plausible deniability” for deciding to have “awesome consensual sex”.
In other words, the writer argues, the woman is just going through the motions of what “good, respectable girls” were expected to in sexual situations at the time. “It’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her from doing so,” the writer concludes.
Baby It’s Cold Outside isn’t the only classic Christmas song to fall foul of modern listeners. Here are a few others:
First composed in 1953, Santa Baby has become a target for critics for its sexist message. Traditionally sung by a woman – Eartha Kitt, Madonna, and Kylie Minogue have covered it – the issue is that, as Kadeen Griffiths points out, “the entire song is essentially someone trying to seduce Santa Claus in order to get a bunch of Christmas presents”.
Others have kicked the song for the lyric, “Think of all the fun I’ve missed, think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed/Next year I could be just as good, if you check off my Christmas list,” with its implication that a woman can only be on Santa’s ‘nice list’ if she refrains from having fun or kissing guys.
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
The issue with this song – about a child witnessing a supposed act of infidelity between their mother and St Nick – is that its true wink-wink meaning is lost on a young audience. As adults, we should get that ‘Santa’ is actually the child’s father dressed up in the costume (and in case there are younger readers here, that it’s not actually the REAL Santa).
But, as this writer points out, a young child listening to the song isn’t likely to understand that nuance, and instead clocks that “his mother is cheating on his dad and potentially tearing the family apart”, resulting in “that little kid’s entire moral compass [becoming] skewed irreparably.”
All I Want For Christmas Is You
This writer argues that the song’s message is that the woman wants nothing more for Christmas but a man – and, to top it all of, she’s relying on another man (that would be Santa) to get that man for her.
But let’s be honest: even if you agreed with that interpretation, it wouldn’t stop you from belting out every word of it on the dance floor at your office party, right?
Source: Lady Gaga