Op Ed

Finding Rape Culture in Surprising Places: Holiday Edition?

Discussing and understanding rape culture is relatively new to me; it’s mostly in just the last few years, and largely thanks to my bloggy feminist comrades, that I’ve come to realize that societal norms contribute to the romanticization or normalization of rape. This new awareness has led me to spot evidence of rape culture in places I don’t expect (including, sometimes, even feminist blogs! Ahem).

For example, take the holiday song “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Two years ago, I set up a Pandora holiday station on my office computer to get myself in the Christmas mood. While I worked quietly at my desk, familiar songs came through my tiny computer speakers. When this song came on, I noticed how blatantly date-rapey (not a real word) it was. And I was kind of horrified.

I’m not sure why I only then noticed it for the first time. Maybe it was my newly-strengthened ideas about the treatment of women in our culture. Maybe it was the fact that I was hearing it in my cubicle, which was a sensory deprivation chamber compared to the gatherings and parties at which I was used to hearing this song. Whatever it was, it hit me hard, and it still hits me, and I haven’t been able to enjoy that song the same way since.

Perhaps, like me, you often conflate this song with its sweeter, cozier, gender-neutral cousin, “Let It Snow.” That song basically says: “It’s snowing out; let’s pop popcorn and make out by the fireplace. Then I’ll go home.” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” on the other hand, is about a woman who is trying to leave a man’s place, but he coerces her into staying by exaggerating the weather outside, by creepily complimenting her, and as a last ditch effort, warns her she might die if she leaves his house. Not to mention that the structure of the song is that each bar starts with her objections, followed by him interrupting her.

Just so you don’t think I’m crazy, take a closer look at the song. A full set of lyrics can be found online, but I’ll pull out the quotes that really jumped out at me that day.

Her lines:
Say, what’s in this drink?
The answer is “no”
My mother will start to worry/my father will be pacing the floor
At least I’m gonna say that I tried

His lines:
Mind if I move a little closer?
What’s the sense in hurting my pride?
Your lips look so delicious
How can you do this thing to me
What if you caught pneumonia and died

My first thought was that I had “ruined” the song for myself. It’s the same feeling I had when, during my freshman Psychology 101 class, my professor told us about the social-psychological concern that Barbie dolls were harmful to little girls. At first I was a little offended. But I had a Barbie! Barbies were fun and I turned out fine. There’s that initial resistance when you’re forced to think critically about something you once enjoyed.

But there are two considerations: one is that I haven’t ruined anything. Those things were already problematic, and were from the start; I didn’t make them that way. I’ve only recognized them for what they are (and always were). Second is that any positive memories I have of something from before I understood what it meant don’t have to be seen as tainted. The hours I spent with happily playing make-believe with some stupid dolls were still good times. Just like how any time I spent with family, or even by myself, in front of the Christmas tree while “Baby It’s Cold Outside” played in the background were still nice, cozy moments. I can just look back on them now with a greater understanding, even if it’s not a good one.

Photo: Getty

11 replies on “Finding Rape Culture in Surprising Places: Holiday Edition?”

It’s funny that you wrote this Hattie, because I’ve been working on a piece for the defense of this song, because I feel the ‘date rape’ interpretation is really far off the mark. The lines you pull out are problematic when you look at them alone, but you need consider them inside both the rest of the lyrics and the time period in which is was written.

I’ll start with ‘say, what’s in this drink?’ It is easy to read that as ‘did you put something in my drink’, but the line ‘say, what’s in this drink’ is actually a common tongue-in-cheek reference of the time period. This was written in 1948, as a party song that was song regularly by Lester and his wife, and eventually included in one of his broadway shows. ‘Say, what’s in this drink’ shows up in numerous movies, plays, and books of the time period — it’s code for, I want to do something society tells me I shouldn’t, but I might get away with behaving badly if I was drunk.’ This isn’t a message that is saying he’s getting her plowed to stay at his house, this is her trying to make sense of her own desires.

This interpretation is backed up by the rest of the lyrics. If you pay attention to her litnany of reasons she has to leave, not one of them has anything to do with her not wanting to stay. Its her aunts and uncles at home. Her mother who might be worried. Her father is going to be mad. People might talk. This is a song about desire, about wanting to spend the night at time when good girls didn’t sleep over at their boyfriend’s house. When she leaves in the morning, she gets to use the excuse ‘I didn’t come home because the weather was so bad’. Everyone will know that she probably could have come home, but it doesn’t matter. She needs to save face. So ‘Baby, it’s cold outside’.

It’s important that the song ends on the two voices singing the same line, because they’ve been trading back and forth for the rest of it. Is he asking her to stay? Yes, he is. He’s offering her reasons and excuses she can stay, because she wants to. She needs a way out, because, let’s be honest, it’s been a very recent phenomena that women aren’t immediately assumed to be damaged goods just by spending the night at a male’s house — in 1948, yeah, people slept around, but it wasn’t accepted, and single, good girls who still live with their parents? Yeah, they didn’t sleep around at all. Not and keep their reputation.

I also think it’s important that these are clearly two adult voices singing the song in the original version, which absolutely sets the kind of tone you should be listening to it in. I can’t even think of a version of the song I’ve ever heard where the female voice is young, unsure, or delivers the lines in a way to make the listener think there’s something uncomfortable going on in that house.

I see your point here, but it seems a predatory context is being imposed on this song that wasn’t really intended. Rape culture is indeed evident throughout our popular media, and has been in other far more evident ways. For example, a few decades ago, it was considered hilarious to see a man chase a woman around the house and block her only means of exit because he was just so into her. Even in cartoons it’s pretty easy to see that a character like the suave Pepe LePew was a serial rapist from way back.

Is it really predatory to want to cajole a lover into staying longer than she wanted? Would this be the case if the man and woman swapped sets of lyrics? Is it predatory to have some wit and whimsy in saying “Lets keep each other warm tonight?” I’d like to think gender relations haven’t devolved to the point where the only way a man is a gentleman is to sit there with his hands in his lap and not a say a word if he wants to ask his partner one more time to change her mind as she heads out the door.

I understand your point of view, and I think you aren’t neccesarily off the mark. Especially, upon further research, seeing that it was originally written by a husband and wife and not originally intended for public consumption. There could be a lot that was lost in translation, especially over the more than half-century that’s passed since then.

That said, the point I was trying to make is that I personally hadn’t really listened closely to the lyrics, despite having heard this song my whole life. There were lines, like the ones I pulled here, that jumped out at me, and I think there is more to it than just the fact that the song is outdated. You’ll notice I’m not totally furious about this, rather I am taking the time to think about it critically and share this insight with our readers.

I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this, even if we don’t agree.

I don’t think the predatory context is being put where it wasn’t before, because the lines are divided into “the Wolf” and “the Mouse,” with the woman being the mouse. That seems pretty predatory to me.
While the dynamic would be different, if I saw a guy saying no repeatedly to a woman trying to get him to stay and her ignoring that, hell yes, I would be concerned. Also, respecting someone’s lack of consent does not equal sitting with your hands in your lap saying nothing. There is a huge area of possibilities between those two extremes, and they don’t have to involve being overly prim and silent OR guilting someone into staying with you.

I noticed the horrible not-so-under tones of that song a few seasons back – what a disappointment! I’m sure things like this are going to keep happening as we fight our way towards an equal future. The fact that we notice it, and are horrified by it, means that our world has changed for the better, even if it’s only a tiny bit. Silver lining, perhaps?

I agree with how the song sounds (and with the principle that if a woman is saying no, a man should back off). Thinking about it in the context of when it was written, though, it might be less simple and even less sinister. It could be meant just the way you interpret it, a reflection of the even more powerful patriarchal culture of the 1940s, and rape culture, etc. But at that time the issue would have been even more complicated/ambiguous. Suppose the woman in the song wanted to stay the night? She couldn’t just say yes, okay, let’s do it. As she says in the song, everyone would talk (and the consequences of that could be quite serious), and she feels like she at least needs to be able to say she tried to say no or leave. That makes the song really hard to read, because the woman involved would have felt obligated to protest in the same sort of way whether or not she wanted to stay. Still not a pleasant situation for a woman in general, but at least one in which she’s not necessarily being bullied.

It seems like it has to be read in (potentially) different ways, depending on whether you’re thinking about recent performances of it versus the meaning to audiences at the time it was composed. Thanks for drawing attention to this song. It’s interesting to think about.

Wow, thanks for the thoughtful (and thought-provoking!) response. I think you’re right; there could be layers of nuance there that make it even MORE complicated, especially considering the time period. I think it was just startling for me to notice these undertones after a lifetime of thinking of it as a happy, cozy love song (a la Let it Snow).

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