Christmas is my favourite time of year, no question. The cold, the food, the presents…the music. But there is one song that dominates the radio waves by its absence and the thought pieces by its presence – Frank Loesser’s ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ This year, in what is being heralded as a ‘post #MeToo’ era, the song was banned by several US radio stations. Glenn Anderson, a host of the radio station Star 102, blogged that the song was ‘manipulative and wrong.’ Other critics of the song argue that it pushes the boundaries of consent, that it is outdated and that it is unfit for a 2018 Christmas.
The song, written by Frank Loesser in 1944, is a call-and-response duet written for him and his wife to bid farewell to their guests at a housewarming party. But as awareness of rape culture and toxic masculinity have developed, so too have critiques of the song as an ‘ode to statutory rape.’ The general gist of these criticisms is that the song essentially describes a man getting a woman progressively more drunk and coercing her to stay the night rather than return home, under the pretence that ‘baby, its cold outside.’
However, although it is certainly true that much of the time, context is a weak defence – 1970s television stars spring to mind here – it is relevant regarding some of the song’s more controversial lyrics. The oft cited ‘say what’s in this drink’ phrase was common in 1940s and 50s popular literature and cinema, often after a character had accidentally revealed a truth or secret. Could it still be a reference to drink spiking? Yes, obviously. But the audience at the time would have been unlikely to make this connection, and I have definitely uttered the words ‘what have you put in this?’ after a friend has mixed me a particularly strong drink.
The only singer who suggests a drink, or a cigarette, is the woman, and her concern is predominantly with the suspicions of relatives and neighbours if she were to stay over at a man’s house. The overwhelming image is a women trapped, not by her lover’s advances, but by the gendered constraints placed on her by society. The idea that she might be seen in the company of a young man and the rumours that might swirl around her if, god forbid, they committed the sin of sex before marriage, would be the ‘talk tomorrow.’ If we are to be outraged by anything, it should be the scandal and debasement female singer wold face in comparison with the oblivious, carefree approach the male singer is granted in his sexuality and flirtations.
The song is outdated, not because it encourages sexual violence, date-rape or coercion, but because it is an explicit demonstration of recent history’s gender inequality. We cannot rewrite history for modern times and simply ignore the oppressions that still exist in society. ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ should be treated as many other songs from the past are treated – as a cracking tune that can provide a insight into the era it represents. Projecting modern sensibilities onto historical events is useful and can highlight flaws and characteristics of historical periods, but it should not necessarily lead to the erasure of a song that at most highlights the gender inequalities that still exist to this day.
If we want to stamp out rape culture, we could start by eradicating the victim blaming of the lawyer who used a victim’s underwear to justify the actions of her alleged attacker. We could teach boys that they are not entitled to girls’ bodies, and we could actively investigate a judge who issues fines and probation rather than prison sentences to rapists. But we can do all this whilst enjoying a festive song to remind us of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.