One of my favorite holiday tunes has always been “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.” It’s catchy. It’s cheeky. It’s cozy. It’s coy. It’s all the happy “c” words.
But in recent years, it’s been rather tarnished for me, since people have assumed the common opinion that it’s a “rapey” song, in that the man in the song is trying to seduce an unwilling woman into having sex with him. And with sexual assault such a prevalent and important topic in today’s world, we absolutely shouldn’t dismiss this song as harmless if it’s not.
But I think it’s mostly harmless. Did you just hear a record needle scratch vinyl? Are you doing a double take? How could Jenny, Feministest of Feminists, possibly be offering a defense to such a misogynistic song? Because I like it a damn lot, folks, and I’d like to keep listening to it during the Christmas season and not feel like I have to turn in my Feminist card.
I recently read a (summary of a) defense of the song, which suggests that, for the time period in which it was written, the song is actually about a woman “exerting her sexual agency.” It makes good sense here. What are her reasons for wanting to leave? They’re all socially based. She’s worried about what her parents are thinking, what the neighbors will say. But when she reflects on her time with the gentlemen, she admits that “this evening has been so very nice” and he’s “really been grand.” She seems to have enjoyed her time with him and perhaps doesn’t really want to leave, especially because she dawdles, accepting another drink and cigarette. She likely wants to stay with him in some capacity but is too afraid to give into her own desires because of the backlash it will cause with those close to her.
If we knew more about the nature of their relationship, the scene set up in this song might be an experience we’ve all had—the clock ticks later and later, and we know we should go home before our parents notice we’re gone or because we have to get up early the next day, but the allure of this interested individual or the warmth of their embrace or the temptation of their sculpted body really begs us to stay. She says she “ought to say no, no, no”—she knows she should be responsible, but really doesn’t want to be right now. She wishes she “knew how to break the spell,” in that she wishes she could get over the temptation to stay and just leave, but she’s too drawn to him to do the “logical” thing.
From her point of view, I think feminists everywhere would encourage her to buck the system, to blow off her nosy neighbors and judgey parents and do whatever she wants to do. If she wants to stay longer, stay longer! Don’t make up a stupid excuse to cover your tracks. Be proud of your sexuality and embrace it, sister! Don’t hide behind social expectations and gender stereotypes!
Yes, indeed, this song could actually be EMPOWERING for women everywhere if read from that point of view, instead of victimizing as people see it now.
And I think the reason people see it as victimizing now is because of the man’s point of view and what he says. Because, as is still true with most men today, this guy is totally unenlightened.
First off, he calls her “Baby” throughout the song and implies that it’s his responsibility to look out for her. Apparently he believes she isn’t capable of making it home without freezing to death or getting pneumonia, so of course she must stay with him so she stays safe. Because a woman mature enough to be involved in a sexual relationship isn't mature enough to actually be able to take care of herself. Pul-lease.
Second, when he’s not calling her “Baby,” he’s calling her “Beautiful,” which makes one wonder, does he even KNOW her name? He’s completely caught up in her looks alone, complimenting her hair, her eyes, and her lips; he never once entices her to stay so they can continue to have philosophical discussions about the meaning of life or so she can continue to tell him all her favorite jokes. He really doesn’t seem to care a lick about what kind of a person she is; he’s simply interested in the warm female body in front of him.
Third, the language he uses to toward her is totally gaslighting. His excuses of “what’s the sense of hurting my pride?” and “how can you do this thing to me?” implies that she is causing him harm by not staying, which places the blame on her for the fact that their relationship isn’t moving forward, causing her to feel guilty. Talk about getting pressured. He really turns up the heat when he demands “Baby, don’t hold out,” “hold out” being a common term for withholding sex, again implying that she’s the one at fault here, that she’s keeping something from him that he wants. How dare she not do every little thing the man wants? If she’s not careful, he’ll leave her for someone else. And all the rest of that kind of garbage.
But really, the trump card here is that the woman in the song, at one point, says, “The answer is no,” and no matter what her intentions, whether or not she’s playing hard to get, joking around, or is totally serious, that’s where the song should have ended. That’s where he should have said, “okay,” and walked her to the door. Because a clear address of “the answer is no” means her answer is no, no “ifs” “ands” or “buts” about it. No more excuses. No more blame. No more guilt. No more teasing. No more singing. The answer is no.
So yeah, even with a feminist reading, there’s still plenty that’s misguided in this song. But the issue I have most is people making snap judgments. Things aren’t so black and white. They’ve taken a two and a half minute song and labeled it with one word, when there’s so much at work here. I’m not saying that people who label it “rapey” are wrong; I’ve clearly given them plenty of evidence here. I just want people to discuss it a little more, be thoughtful about it, dig a little deeper into the meaning behind the lyrics, and tackle these important topics with reason and rationality, just like I want them to do with anything else they see and hear in the media. Because if it’s anything we could all use a little more of this holiday season, it’s reason and rationality.