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The Problem with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Isn’t Consent. It’s Slut-Shaming.

It happens every winter. The clocks change, the chill settles in, and, like the flurries of the first snowfall, a new cascade of shocked friends and acquaintances pepper my social media feed with the observation that, oh my God you guys, the lyrics to the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are actually super rapey.

Aside from this being a little repetitive at this point (this phenomenon’s been on a perennial hot streak for like a decade), this assertion is also, well, wrong. Because like with all art — even popular art — you can’t draw any sort of valuable conclusions about it without a demonstrable understanding of two things: nuance and context. They’ll get you every time.

Penned in 1944, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a duet usually staged between a man and a woman. The lyrics place the pair at the guy’s home following a date, with the woman lamenting that she has to leave and the man trying to convince her to stay. The complaints of skeeviness stem first from the song’s overall tone, in which a man is putting pressure on a woman to engage in assumedly intimate behavior, and second from one now-infamous line in which the woman muses, “Hey, what’s in this drink?”

Composer Frank Loesser and his wife, Lynn Loesser, famously performed the song together at Hollywood parties throughout the 1940s.

Well, I’m not the first to point this out, but based on the frequency of people bringing it up, it bears repeating. Consent isn’t actually a problem in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” because if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the inclination to leave isn’t coming from the woman—it’s coming from the society that wants to control her.

Here are all the statements she gives on the topic of heading home:

  • I really can’t stay
  • I’ve gotta go away
  • My mother will start to worry
  • My father will be pacing the floor
  • I’d better scurry
  • The neighbors might think
  • I simply must go
  • I ought to say “no, no, no, sir”
  • 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

Emphasis added by me. The lady here expresses her concerns through a whole lot of words like better, gotta, and must. But not once does she say she wants to go or would rather call it a night or would prefer to GTFO. She anticipates admonishments from every member of her shitty, judgmental family, but she never implies the slightest moral qualm of her own.

What’s happening here isn’t all that hard to figure out, especially if you remember that the song was written in 1944. The woman wants to spend the night with her date. She just knows that if she does, she’ll be scarlet-lettered by her community for having the audacity to make her own premarital sexual choices. She’s not consternating over letting this guy down; she’s consternating over being publicly and privately maligned for doing what she wants. And clearly this is normal for her, as well as for listeners at the time, who were expected to understand all of this and relate. The problem with this song doesn’t have to do with consent. The problem has to do with slut-shaming.

A few classy examples of vintage slut-shaming.

This is actually the backstory for the notorious “What’s in this drink?” line. Watch some old black-and-white movies. Making a crack about how strong your drink is or whether you’ve been “slipped a mickey” was a way of humorously acknowledging that you’d like to use intoxication as an excuse for “being bad” and doing something your repressive society wouldn’t smile upon.

Once you start looking, you’ll actually find a lot of examples in 20th-century films of situations that look “rapey” at first, but in reality serve to demonstrate the magnitude of shame placed on women for “surrendering their virtue.” In the classic 1959 romcom Pillow Talk, Rock Hudson plays a fuckboy named Brad who lives in a bachelor pad fitted out with switches next to the sofa that can automatically dim the lights, lock the door, drop a swanky jazz record onto the turntable, and expand the couch’s pull-out bed with a single click. Aside from this obviously being douchey, it catches a lot of flack these days, mainly for the lock — since, in all fairness, remote locks don’t have a great rep right now.

Doris Day is not impressed with the technology in Rock Hudson’s smart home.

Realistically, the deadbolt is probably there not to keep girls in but to keep party crashers out. Earlier, we see his wingman Tony Randall waltz in like he owns the place. But it’s easier to draw this conclusion when we consider that none of the many ladies Brad romances ever protest. There’s no Pepé Le Pew discomfort as they purr in his arms, sigh wistfully into the phone, and enjoy his embraces with melodramatic reverie. But as Brad juggles booty-calls with a dozen of them, it’s clear there’s still something shady going on. It’s not between Brad and the ladies; it’s between the filmmaker and the ladies: They’re meant to seem pitiful. Especially compared to our heroine, Jan (Doris Day), a can-do career woman who will have none of Brad’s sass. Jan sets herself apart by not allowing herself to be seduced. She would never fall prey to the wiles of some playboy with a great chin and totally ruin herself. Brad’s many girlfriends never want to leave his arms, let alone his apartment, but we can infer that if that lock were indeed meant for them, it would only be to buy Brad a few more seconds in which he could entice them to finally submit to their own raging desire for him — despite the consequences of becoming pitiful, fallen women as a result.

Rock Hudson entertains a guest in ‘Pillow Talk.’

Don’t get me wrong, both Brad and the man in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are kind of being dicks for pursuing a sexual agenda, even a fully consensual one, while blissfully ignoring the consequences their sexist society will reap upon their partners in the cold light of day. Despite my admittedly flippant attitude and more than occasional cursing, I don’t look down on anyone for misreading “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or Pillow Talk or anything else. We’re experiencing a pandemic crisis of consent, for fuck’s sake, where rapists admit to their crimes but still don’t think they’re rapists. We should be reexamining the things we’ve taken for granted, revisiting narratives that women may well have once accepted only as inroads to happiness within the confines of an inherently oppressive and unsafe world.

But that doesn’t mean we should just let it go when a piece of media like this trips our wires necessarily. By accepting this new but incorrect reading of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” we’re negating the real feminist issue that the woman in the song is so artfully acknowledging. An issue that women today are still very much dealing with. This not only squanders a classy and adorable chance to tacitly bitch about slut-shaming while listening to holiday music, but it also swashes a coat of paint over discussions of the whole issue in popular culture, making it that much easier for actual slut-shaming to continue.

Not to mention that when activists and socially aware people get something wrong but decide to just barrel forward with the premise anyway, it’s bad for the cause. It makes us look myopic and makes the cause look trivial. Besides, we already have mountains of books and movies and songs that feature genuinely offensive content we have to reckon with in order to enjoy our favorite things. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna try to edit Mickey Rooney out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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