In Defence of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’

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 Other critics of the song argue that it pushes the boundaries of consent, that it is outdated and that it is unfit for a 2018 Christmas.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.

The Rise and Rise of the Modern Witch

As Halloween looms, the witches are rising. These witches carry placards not broomsticks, but they are following in the footsteps of women who have for years thrown off oppressive authorities and struck fear into the hearts of the ruling powers. Women have been associated with a dark magic for thousands of years – in the late nineteenth century, Chinese rebels attributed control of the wind and defensive powers to prepubescent girls called ‘the Red Lanterns’, and menstruating women were hugely powerful weapons in battle.

The patriarchy has oppressed this female power for centuries – within the West, the traditional concept of witchcraft is heavily influenced by the Christian notion of a theosophical battle between good and evil, with witchcraft generally associated with evil. This resulted in years of persecution, but modern day Christian views range from intense belief and opposition, to non-belief, to approval in some churches. Modern witchcraft has become an established branch of modern paganism and the shroud of secrecy around witchcraft is lifting. Beyond the Western world, many cultures continue to have widespread practices and cultural beliefs that in English are loosely grouped together as ‘witchcraft’. Historically, attitudes towards these beliefs wereoften heavily influenced by Western hostility towards witches, and witch hunts still occur today.

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But as modern day witchcraft emerges from the shadows, the movement is stoking the fire of feminism. In the 1960s, several US groups campaigned under the acronym ‘WITCH’, from the Women’s International Terrorism Conspiracy from Hell to Women Incensed at Telephone Company Harassment. More recently, the rise of the#MeToo campaign has been mirrored by a rise in the number of women identifying as witches and several witchcraft traditions are increasingly focussed on sexual assault and right-wing politics – a coven recently met to hex Brett Kavanaugh, and mass hexing followed Trump’s presidential inauguration. Against a US administration quick to brand any criticism as a witch-hunt, the so-called ‘nasty women’ have reclaimed the name and the movement to turned the tables on the president.

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However cynical you might be about the magic or power of witches and their hexes, there is no doubting the community building power of such rituals. The term witch has been used for centuries to signify fear and empowerment, often at the same time. The contradictions that modern witches embody – sexually empowered but psychologically mystical,possessing hidden knowledge but led by instinct, eccentric and haggard but intensely seductive – allow for the intricacies that are innate to all people, but often denied to women by the madonna/whore dichotomy. Modern witches are complex, varied and powerful. They are the nasty women the patriarchy fears and they are rising.

The Naked Truth

Kat Harbourne and Jen Eells have a podcast. On that podcast, they interview women, from all walks of life about all sorts of things. Its much like several other podcasts that I listen to, except that when they interview their guest, they’re all naked.

It might sound like an odd premise for a podcast. After all, the listener can’t see Kat and Jen or their guest, there’s no live audience to ogle the naked flesh; it is easy to assume that the nudity is a gimmick designed to make The Naked Podcast stand out from the crowd. But after listening to any episode, it becomes clear that there is much more to this podcast than meets the ear. The guests bare all – flesh, stories, emotions, musings – and within a few minutes of derobing, they often sound as though they had known Kat and Jen for years. Even more interesting than the reactions of the guests is the development of the hosts throughout the series. The nerves of the first episode have long since vanished, replaced with a love and respect for their bodies that is not forced, is not artificial, is not saccharine. It is not present 100% of the time – body positivity activists are incredible people, but occasionally it can feel that if you do not love all of your body all of the time, you are not truly body positive. Kat and Jen are honest about their insecurities and open about the journey the podcast has led them on. In the first few episodes, they talk about the slimming group that Kat has joined; by the most recent episode, they are asking their guest, Mary Mutch, to be more forgiving towards her own body.

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The Naked Podcast

Each episode kicks off with the three Naked Truths. These are:

1.How would you describe your body?
2.What are you proudest of your body for achieving?
3.How do you feel about getting naked right now?

When I started thinking about this post, I wasn’t sure whether or not to answer these myself. But the very fact that I started getting uncomfortable when made to consider my own body and my relationship with it convinced me that these are important questions, not only for me, or the guests on The Naked Podcast, but for anyone who covers up in the gym changing rooms, or avoids their naked reflection in mirrors, or has ever tried a diet. So I’m going to answer the first two Naked Truths (the context of the podcast is sort of important for the last one, so I’ll save it in case I ever manage to sit naked with two lovely ladies from Sheffield.)

How would you describe your body?

There are numerous ways to describe my body. From an objective perspective, I’m about 5’6 and blondish. My knees are scarred from hockey pitches, I’ve got slightly rough skin on my arms which I am constantly being told off for messing with. I’m a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index) for my height and age (although I’m undecided how much store I set by BMI.) I have a straight line of moles on my neck and a very faint birthmark on my lower back. But before any of this, when I am asked to describe my body the first word that comes to mind is deceptive. I don’t always trust my body, I can’t always accept that what I see in the mirror is a reflection of reality. Sometimes it is too large, sometimes too small, often the wrong shape. Sometimes I am happy with what I can see, sometimes I am frustrated – I am rarely at peace with it, but increasingly I can maintain a ceasefire instead of all out war.

2. What are you proudest of your body for achieving?

I find this question easier than the first. I don’t need a consistently positive relationship with my body to recognise that it has achieved a lot in the past three years, despite my best efforts. The obvious – but no less truthful – answer is that I am proud of my body for getting me through a marathon. It got me through the 26 miles, and it got me through the hundreds of miles that I did for training. It healed injuries, dealt with the Beast From the East and coped with every mistake I made, from nutrition to training to clothing. But I am also proud of my body for getting me through my eating disorder. I abused and bullied my body, I denied it the fuel it needed to function. I pinched, pulled and pummelled it, forced it to devour itself in order to exist. And yet it survived, and I will always be proud of my body for that.

Find The Naked Podcast BBC Sheffield, The Naked Podcast, or follow them on Instagram at @TheNakedPodcast and Twitter at @TheNakedPodcast

Nanette

Hannah Gadsby is not a victim. Her story has value. She has a right to tell it, to be heard and understood. And she does it spectacularly.

‘Nanette’, Hannah’s Netflix special, is stand-up at its best, but it breaks all the rules of comedy as we understand it. It is a beautifully crafted tirade, a brutally honest lesson and a brilliantly funny show. Seamlessly weaving gender, sexuality and childhood trauma with art history and laughter, Hannah takes the audience through her story – the whole story, not one that has been sacrificed for a punchline – and uses it to demonstrate and rail against the abuse that she and others have faced. Growing up in Tasmania, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997, meant Hannah was a gay woman who had been raised on homophobia. The internalisation of this hatred led to an adolescence “soaked in shame” and it is Hannah’s journey from this confused childhood to her mother’s apology in the middle of Target that forms the basis of ‘Nanette’.

A story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, but a joke, Hannah says, only has a beginning and a middle. The fact that she and her mother now have a fantastic relationship is no use to a joke that focuses on her mother comparing being gay to being a murderer – “well, you would hope it was a phase.” Breaking down the anatomy of a joke, Hannah describes how the comedian creates tension, and then saves the audience from the tension with a punchline. The best comedians are excellent tension diffusers, and Hannah has been diffusing tension all her life as a survival tactic. The story she tells of nearly being beaten up at a bus stop does not end where she leaves it, the potential threat dismissed in a funny quip. Later in the show she describes how the man came back to assault her, and the tension she creates is no longer diffused by cutting the story short with a punchline. She leaves it in the air, allowing the audience to sit with that tension as she has done all her life, refusing to save them from it. Stories, not laughter, is the best medicine, but only when told and heard in full. For years Hannah’s story has been frozen at its trauma point, the tension repeated every time she tells that story on stage – “you learn from the part of the story you focus on.” In ‘Nanette’ there is no manufactured relief through laughter, but instead, an overwhelming sense of catharsis that can only come when a story is told in its entirety.

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Photo credit: Marie Curie

Hannah has been performing stand up comedy for a decade, creating a career based on self-deprecation. ‘Nanette’ is a declaration of her refusal to do so anymore. For those “existing in the margins” self-deprecation is not a show of humility, but a necessity to seek permission to speak, a required humiliation. Occasionally, Hannah is mistaken for a man, and is amused by those who frantically apologise after calling her ‘sir.’ Instead, she points out that the mistake allows her to briefly be “top-shelf normal, king of the humans…a straight white man.” And it is straight white men who are at the centre of Hannah’s anger. For the first time in history, men are a “sub category of human.” Campaigns such as #MeToo and podcasts such as The Guilty Feminist mean that they are no longer neutral category creators, but are a category themselves. The show ends on a piece she addresses directly to the white straight men in the audience. She doesn’t believe women are better than men; they are just as fallible, just as corruptible. But power is in male hands, and those hands are not up to the task of wielding such a weapon. When Hannah says “I am not a man-hater, but I am afraid of men” she summarises how many women feel. Being afraid when you are the only women in a room of men, or walking home, or waiting at a bus stop – it is not tangible and it is not hatred, but it is omnipresent and oppressive.

There is so much more to Nanette than I have explored here. Hannah makes her art history degree both hilarious and poignant, talks openly about how mental illness is ‘not a ticket to genius’ but a ticket to nowhere and brutally dissects the gendered boxes we create from day dot. If she does quit comedy it will be a monumental loss, but she is a sparkling addition to humanity. If you haven’t yet watched it I can only demand that you do; if you have already, I can only hope that you look at Van Gogh’s sunflowers in a new light.

An Italian Love Affair

Before I begin, it is important to note that I am not a seasoned traveller and have been to Italy only twice in my life. I am not a natural in hot climates and I despise olives, anchovies and driving on the right. But as I sit here drinking my cappuccino and my insalate miste (pretty much fluent, I know), I can proudly say that I am of Italian persuasion. I adore the country, the people, the food…I am essentially a groupie for Italy.

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A trattoria in Corniglia

My parents first took my sister and I to Italy three years ago, taking us to the Amalfi Coast, Rome and Venice. On our second day, we were sat on a beautiful square, hands sticky with gelato, when an impossibly glamourous group arrived at the church opposite. Swathes of floral silks and gaudy linen filled the square until the church steps were heaving with beautiful young things, the air full of rapid Italian. Men with heavy gold watches and sky-blue shoes paraded across the piazza, women in red-bottomed heels postured on the steps and after an hour of blatant gawking it became clear that we were watching the most surreally beautiful wedding between two Roman gods. I was the captive audience to the unwitting performers, bewitched by the clash of cultures and beguiled by the grandeur taking place in this tiny village by the coast.But though the glamour of the coastal marriage gave me butterflies, what convinced me that this was more than a fling was arriving in Venice. Rome was beautiful, earthy, and baking hot, and we hiked from monument to monument, finding relief in the shade of gelaterias. But if Rome was a scorching summer romance, then Venice was my soulmate. It has a Dior store next to a shop that sells only theatre masks. It has tiny alleyways that require a deep intake of breath to squeeze through, only for that breath to be released in a quiet exclamation as you alight upon another beautiful, hidden piazza. There are artists on every corner and every snap even the most amateur of photographers captures is exquisite. Venice is a paradise, it is manna for the soul. You leave thinking that there must be something in the water, and that whatever it is has soaked from the canals into the very walls of the place, into the blood of the Venetians.

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The harbour in Porto Fino

As I type this I am again in Italy, having spent the day hiking through the Italian Riviera. I have wobbled up the Tower of Pisa, I have wandered through the beautiful hotchpotch that is Genoa and I have eaten slices of watermelon larger than my head. I have gazed through shop windows at Gucci bags and handmade postcards, chatted to a beautiful waiter and and a lady who was was so old and plump that she resembled a beaming walnut. I have been bitten by a horsefly, given myself wonky tan-lines and walked until I had blisters. But I have loved every minute and I intend to continue to do so. This is no fling – I am having a red blooded, full bodied Italian love affair.