It’s the time of year again when we put up our stockings, pay WAAAYY too much for presents, and fight about whether “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” is a rape anthem or not.
In fact, that latter thing is so routine at this point that the very joke I just made about its annual controversy was made in at least two of the articles I read in preparation for this. And to be perfectly honest, the entire point of this article has more or less been done before. Just take a look here, here and here. If you are currently reading the online version, that is. If it is the print article you have in front of you, then just take these last few sentences as a quirky quasi-joke. Hah.
But I should probably let you in on what I intend to make you suffer through.
No, the song is not about date rape. Nor about rape of any kind.
It is a song about what rape culture is.
Or rather, it’s a cutesy song about consensual sex that can be used to highlight and illustrate some of the more sinister and subtle aspects of the oft misunderstood sociological concept of “rape culture”.
Oh, and if you immediately got angry at the use of the term, then I can guarantee you that you have not understood what it actually means and what it describes. But the concept is somewhat unfortunately named, so I guess that is forgivable. I will explain it further down, but first, my defence of the song:
No, the song is not about rape
Honestly, this take is not that original; people fight about it every year. So, if you are overly familiar with the arguments, just skip to the next bit. I promise I will not get mad. I mean, how even could I? I will most likely have no idea who you are, and I have no idea of verifying whether you read this part or not. But I digress.
If you are not familiar with the arguments, however, then come join me on a wonderful little journey. Because you know that thing we all just *loved* doing in literature class? Text analysis and interpretation? Yeah, we’re gonna do that! Yay!
The song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written by Frank Loesser in 1944. It was originally written for a housewarming party hosted by the writer and his wife, where their performance was meant to indicate that it was time for the guests to leave. The song apparently made them “instant parlour room stars. [They] got invited to all the best parties on the basis of ‘Baby’. Parties were built around [them] being the closing act.”
Now, how can a song that was written for and performed by a married – and by all accounts happy – couple be seen as being about date rape? Well, to be quite Frank (heh), the lyrics has not aged well to a modern ear.
The song is a back–and–forth between a man and a woman after they have been to his place for a nightcap. As she prepares to leave, he tries to persuade her to stay, and she in turn responds by pointing out why she should not. Now, we are already on shaky grounds when it comes to possible coercion, but then we have these lines: “I ought to say – No, no, no sir” immediately followed by “Mind if I move in closer?”, which easily looks like the man is not too concerned with the woman’s consent.
And then we have these lines: “The answer is no” which to our modern sensitivities should have immediately put a stop to the man’s advances, and “Say, what’s in this drink?” which makes it sound like he drugged the woman’s drink.
And of course, it does NOT help that the characters were referred to as “the Mouse” and “the Wolf” in the original score. Guess which one is the man and which one is the woman. Go on. I’ll give you exactly zero tries, because we all already know the answer.
What if I told you (queue the Matrix meme), that the song is actually about two people about to have awesome, consensual sex?
You see, this song was written in the 1940s, in a time where women were not supposed to have sexual agency. And the Mouse…. Fuck! Scratch that. That’s too creepy. Let’s go with “and the dudette” is staying over at the dude’s house late at night without supervision. Highly inappropriate! But she wants to stay, something a Good Girl™ is not supposed to do or want, so she puts up a token resistance so that she can later claim that she tried to do what a Good Girl™ is supposed to do. You see, it was all perfectly reasonable for her to stay, and the dude gives her the necessary excuses by countering her arguments.
“I really can’t stay (but baby it’s cold outside)”. “(But baby it’s bad out there)”, “(No cabs to be had out there)”, “(Look out the window at the storm)”, “(Never such a blizzard before)”, “I’ve got to get home (But baby you’d freeze out there”), “(It’s up to your knees out there”).
I only really provided the dude’s counter-arguments above, but what are her arguments? Well, they all have little to nothing to do with her wanting to leave the dude:
“My mother will start to worry”. “My father will be pacing the floor”, “The neighbours might think”, “My sister will be suspicious”, “My brother will be there at the door”, “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious”, “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow”, “At least there will be plenty implied”.
Notice how they all have to do with society’s judgement of the situation? She’s quite literally afraid of getting slut-shamed. “I ought to say ‘no, no, no sir’”. Because, gosh, a *lady* could not possibly stay over alone at a man’s house! That will certainly lose her all her Good Girl™ points! No, there would need to be a perfectly good explanation for her stay. The storm was just too much. And there were no cabs! And she did try: “At least I’m gonna say that I tried”. But she just couldn’t. I mean, she could have DIED if she tried to get home (“If you got pneumonia and died”), so she stayed where it was warm and safe.
See? Definitely not about sex. Totally innocent!
Even the line “what’s in this drink” has a completely innocent meaning in the original context. Apparently, it was a staple joke in movies at the time, where someone would comment upon the alcoholic contents of their drink in order to excuse whatever they wanted to do but could not due to societal expectations. The joke is that there is actually little to no alcohol in it at all. The are no drugs or alcohol affecting her behaviour. The joke would not work if there was.
And to be clear, she does want to stay, she just cannot say so directly:
“This evening has been (…) so very nice”, “but maybe just half a drink more”, “I wish I knew how (…) to break this spell” (she’s feeling the sexual tension), “at least I’m gonna say that I tried”, “Your welcome has been (…) so nice and warm”, “But maybe just a cigarette more”, “You’ve really been grand”.
To reiterate the main point. This song was written in a time were women was not expected or supposed to have any sexual agency or interest at all. But she obviously wants to stay and have some nice and consensual coitus, so she puts up a token effort while still giving all the culturally understood signals that she does want to stay but cannot say so directly. She “ought to say no no no”, but only does so because that is what is expected of her. And she easily yields when countered, and she jumps at any excuse to stay a little bit longer (“half a drink more”, “maybe just a cigarette more”, until she no longer can get home safely. But at least she tried. And while most of the song is a back-and-forth between the dude and dudette, in the chorus they sing in harmony, because they both understand what is going on and are taking part in the same devious plan to find valid excuses for her to stay with him.
So, to be again be Frank (heh), they both wanna bang but need to go through a ridiculous socially expected ritual to make it happen.
I hope I have definitely and exhaustively proven that the song is not about rape.
There are still some very problematic elements here. Because, as I have shown, the dudette cannot actually say “yes” to shagging the dude. She has to be fake-coerced. All she is *allowed* to do in order to say “yes”, is to say “no” in a weakly way that is expected and supposed to be ignored. This is eerily close to the literal definition of sexual coercion, at least to our modern ears.
This song is not about rape. But it does illustrate pretty neatly one of the many aspects of what feminists and sociologists call “rape culture”. Because in a culture where you cannot say “yes” in any other way than half-heartedly saying “no”, there is also no clear and definitive way of *actually* saying “no”.
I earlier mentioned that I find “rape culture” to be an unfortunately named term. That is because the wording seems to imply a culture where rape is the norm or at least widely practised and accepted. While such a society would definitely fall in under what can and would be called a “rape culture”, it is not what the term was originally meant to describe.
What the term “Rape culture” actually means is societal attitudes and behaviours that normalise, enables and facilitate the existence of rape and sexual assault, on a both direct and indirect level, as well as both in blunt ways and subtle ways. Rape culture is all the little and big ways that make it easier to get a away with sexual assault, that excuses or denies sexual misconduct, that makes it harder for victims of sexual assault to come forward and go to the police, etc..
To give a few examples, the way we joke about American prison rape is part of rape culture. It is part of many things that desensitises us to its existence, to the point where I have seen American cop shows actually use it against suspects during interrogation: “Cooperate with us, and we’ll make sure you’re not sent to state. Because you would not want that would you. You know what happens there.”
Another example would be how we teach women to avoid being raped. Such as avoiding dressing “slutty”, avoiding dark alleyways, etc. While there can certainly be a place for something like this in certain situations, if you do not take steps to avoid it, it can easily seed the conscious or unconscious message that women are at fault if they are sexually assaulted. “You dressed that way. What did you think would happen?” This can easily contribute to low rates of reporting to the police, out of fear for not being believed or for being victim blamed.
Even euphemistic language is part of it. Calling sexual assaults as anything other than what it is glosses over its nature and its effects. Media will sometimes talk about “sexual misconduct”, “inappropriate behavior” or just plain old “having sex” when describing accusations of and even documented cases of actual rape. And sometimes the perpetrator gets more sympathy than the victims themselves. When two young men were given a maximum sentence after being found guilty of rape of an unconscious 16-year old, CNN waxed sorrowfully about how “incredibly difficult [it was to watch] as these two men – who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students – literally watched as they believed their [lives] fell apart”, not even mentioning the effect this would have had on the victim of their crime.
I would even argue that the wide-spread usage of the word “rape” instead of the more appropriate “sexual assault” is part of rape culture, because it primes us to hyper-focus on the worst kinds of sexual assaults, the violent and obvious kind. But sexual assault is a wide spectrum of acts and behaviours where not everything is immediately and obviously recognisable as “rape”. Ignoring a “no” is not the defining characteristic of sexual assault. In fact, most victims of sexual assault tend to freeze-up and say or do nothing due to shock, and 80% of all rape is not carried out by sex-crazed and violent lunatics, but by people who know the victim and are otherwise normal people. And there is also the issue of “sexual coercion”, where someone can be badgered or begged or threatened – directly or indirectly – until a “no” is turned into a “yes”. I have myself been very close to doing this one time with a female friend. I thought I was being playful and flirty, when I was in actuality ignoring a “no” I had gotten several times over. Fortunately, I eventually stopped before I did something that could have irrevocably fucked up my friend’s psyche, but I was dangerously close to doing something horrible due to my own ignorance and lack of self-awareness. The fact that our Sex Ed has – at least as far as I have known it – been somewhat unnuanced in its approach to consent is also part of the problem.
Rape culture is not primarily describing attitudes, behaviours and structures that directly incentivise and celebrate rape and sexual assault, but focusing on all the ways – both big and small – in which our culture(s) make sexual assault more prevalent – whether intentional or not. It is meant to be a sociological tool to describe toxic attitudes and structures in order to combat them. Slut-shaming, objectification and sexualisation of women (and men (and variations thereupon)), victim blaming, refusal to acknowledge the harm caused by sexual violence are all part of it. And ironically, claiming that “rape culture does not exist” is also part of rape culture, because denying that structural problems influence the prevalence of sexual assault contributes itself to the prevalence of sexual assault.
I could go on, and on, and on about different examples of rape culture, but my intention and mission here has been to explain what the term is meant to describe, not to prove that the effects of rape culture are real. Although, I do hope that you will agree with me in that at least some of its purported consequences are obviously and undeniably real.
To round off, I would like to reiterate my point about “Baby, it’s cold outside”. The song is not about rape, but it is still a very problematic song that we probably should not celebrate as much as some of us tend to do. Yes, it is cutesy, yes, it is catchy, but it also showcases some of the more insidious aspects of the (rape) culture at the time – aspects that still exist in our society today with the lingering remains of “a ‘no’ does not always mean ‘no’” attitudes of sexual coercion. It slut-shames and infantilises women.
Feel free to listen to it if you want – I am myself still going to put it on every now and then – but I advise you to listen to it responsibly, with knowledge of what it means and what it represents.
“Educate yourself”, is what I am saying, so that we can all raise awareness of rape culture, and thus together help combat the existence and prevalence of sexual assault.
- Baby it’s cold outside:
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby,_It%27s_Cold_Outside#History
- Rolling Stone: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/baby-its-cold-outside-controversy-holiday-song-history-768183/
- National Post: https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/is-baby-its-cold-outside-an-ode-to-rape-that-deserves-its-sudden-banishment-from-canadian-radio
- Famous Tumblr post: https://bigbutterandeggman.tumblr.com/post/154013148291/teachingwithcoffee-its-time-to-bring-an-end-to
- Inc.: https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/baby-its-cold-outside-date-rape-kidnap-banned-history-context-william-shatner.html
- Quartzy: https://qz.com/quartzy/1486507/baby-its-cold-outside-isnt-about-rape/
- Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/baby-its-cold-outside-lyrics-ban-rape-dean-martin-lady-gaga-bette-midler-a8691641.html
- Snopes: https://www.snopes.com/news/2017/12/18/baby-its-cold-outside/
- Vox: https://www.vox.com/identities/2016/12/19/13885552/baby-its-cold-outside-feminist-date-rape-romantic
- Rape Culture:
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_culture
- Wavaw (rape crisis centre): https://www.wavaw.ca/what-is-rape-culture/
- Refinery29: https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/what-is-rape-culture-definition