Earlier in December, I was thinking about trying to somehow merge my love of Christmas music with my attempts to blog feministly (“in a feminist manner” just sounded too formal). But how could I attempt to criticize the upper-middle-class heteronormativity of the Waitress’s “Christmas Wrapping” or the patronizing, Eurocentric claptrap of Band Aid’s “Do they Know it’s Christmas?” when those songs are my childhood favorites? It just felt too grinchy.
Luckily, a friend just posted a link on facebook that reminded me of one of my other favorite Christmas traditions: the annual debate over whether or not “Baby It’s Cold Outside” sounds just a little too much like a date-rape scenario. For those of you not familiar with the song, the lyrics can be found here. You can also listen to / watch it here. The basic gist of the argument about the song is as follows: critics of the song believe that the lyrics, in which a woman repeatedly says that she needs to leave the man’s house and he responds to each line with a reason she shouldn’t, sound uncomfortably as if the woman is slowly being coerced into spending the night with the man. Defenders of the song argue that the woman is simply flirting in a way that was appropriate for a woman of the time period, and that she really does want to stay but propriety prevents her from saying so.
So who’s right?
In the article that my friend posted, the author, writing under the name Slay Belle, claims that most feminist problems with the song centers around the line, “say, what’s in this drink?”. She believes that a closer look at the context of the song, including its time period (1936) and the prescribed gender roles for women at the time, especially concerning sex, reveal that the woman is just as eager to stay as the man is for her to stay, but that propriety prevents her from expressing those kinds of desires.
And you know what? I totally agree that it’s likely that’s how the song was meant to come across.
HOWEVER (you knew there was a “however,” right?), Belle’s claim that the line “say, what’s in this drink?” is the focus of feminist criticism of the song is totally oversimplifying things. In fact, in my previous criticisms of the song, I would only point to that line jokingly, because clearly I don’t think that a songwriter in the 1930s would blatantly imply roofie use.
For me, the discomfort associated with the song comes from the fact that the woman repeatedly states that she has to leave, and the man repeatedly dismisses her concerns (it doesn’t help that the majority of rapes are committed by a friend, acquaintance, or “intimate” of the victim, or that a rape is most likely to occur in the perpetrator’s home). Even when she clearly states “the answer is no,” he still persists, flattering her, touching her, and trying to make her feel guilty by claiming that she’s hurting his pride and sexually frustrating him.
While I totally see how their flirtations were working in the time period of the song, these days we have a better awareness of how these kinds of behaviors can be used in a sexual situation. Many of the male singer’s words/implied actions are recognized methods of coercion, or of manufacturing consent, While it’s likely that someone using coercion or manufacturing consent would be horrified to think that he’d been involved in a rape, these techniques are still aimed at turning a “no” into a “yes,” – or at least into a “fine” or “why not”.
When we constantly see movies or TV shows where the guy just has to be persistent and not give up in order to get the girl, it becomes easy to see how a guy could think that that kind of behavior is appropriate or even desirable. One online anti-rape resource even says “Don’t fall for common stereotypes. When a person says “No”, don’t assume that he/she really means, ‘yes.’” That kind of thinking is only a “common stereotype” because of the persistence of these kinds of narratives.
Slay Belle believes that it’s significant that the female singer never actually says that she wants to leave, only that she “should” leave, or that her parents, sister, neighbors, and maiden aunt will all be worried and/or suspicious. I’d argue that that doesn’t necessarily mean that she doesn’t actually want to leave. Think about how much easier it is to get out of a situation if you can use someone else as an excuse. “Ugh, my mom will kill me if I’m not home soon” is a lot easier to say than “I’d rather not be here right now”. Social norms dictate that, as women, we don’t insult or offend. In fact, many university online resources regarding acquaintance rape recognize this unwillingness to make a fuss – they specifically point out that it can be uncomfortable making a scene, but that you shouldn’t “allow yourself to be coerced in order to avoid” one. (Of course, many of these online resources focus on what women can do to avoid being raped, which is a HUUUUGE problem, but we’ll talk about that later).
So… am I saying that you should delete “Baby it’s Cold Outside” from your iTunes and boycott any mall, radio station, or twee indie band that dare promote this insidious rape anthem?
Of course not.
However, it’s not really useful to deny that the song does reproduce a worrying narrative. Yes, context is important. But it’s also important to remember that the song now exists in a modern context. Just like I roll my eyes every time Bono tells me to “thank god” that other people are suffering, not me, we can admit that even works that were created with the best of intentions (or at least mostly innocent ones) may later be recognized as somewhat problematic.