Is the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" a sweet, flirtatious Christmas standard, or a celebration of date rape? That question has been troubling music historians, feminists, and especially radio stations for some time. But the #MeToo movement has brought unprecedented attention to sexual harassment and abuse that were widely tolerated or ignored in the past. And so this year, the song is especially controversial, attacked by many and defended by many others, notably William Shatner of Star Trek fame. Should we keep listening, or should it be banned from the airwaves?

Several radio stations in the U.S. and Canada decided to stop playing the song, in at least one case because listeners objected to it. A DJ at one such station, Star 102 in Cleveland, wrote in the station's blog: "I gotta be honest, I didn't understand why the lyrics were so bad...Until I read them." Another station, KOIT in San Francisco, also removed it from rotation but then put it back after a survey along with listener comments made it clear that the majority of its audience wanted to keep hearing the song.

There's no question that the lyrics could be a prelude to date rape or kidnap. Consider her lines: "Say, what's in this drink?" "I simply must go," and "The answer is no," and his responses, "How can you do this thing to me?" "Oh baby, don't hold out," and "Get over that old out." To underscore the point, "Funny or Die" created a video of the song in which the man truly is kidnapping the woman, but she escapes by braining him with a fireplace shovel.

The song was written in 1944 by composer Frank Loesser, the brilliant songwriter of Guys and Dolls, to be performed with his wife Lynn at dinner parties. Back then in Hollywood, you were expected to give performances at parties and the song was instantly popular. It got the Loessers invited everywhere. "It was our ticket to caviar and truffles," Lynn would later write.

The song gained immense popularity (and an Oscar) after it was used in the 1949 movie Neptune's Daughter, as a duet between Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán, and then a comedic duet between Red Skelton (who's trying to leave) and Betty Garrett. Like "Walking in a Winter Wonderland," "Baby, It's Cold Outside" doesn't mention Christmas, but has become a holiday standard because it's all about snow.

Defenders of the song stress the need to understand it in its historical context. In the 1940s, they explain, a woman who voluntarily spent the night at a man's home would face grave disapproval for doing so. The woman in the song really wants to stay, but fears the social and familial repercussions if she does--thus the man's insistence enables her to do what she truly wants to do. Here's one such explanation by YouTuber The Pop Song Professor:

Loesser certainly seems to have written the song with this dynamic in mind. The female singer's objections all have to do with what her family member and the neighbors will think, and at one point she sings, "I ought to say 'no, no, no sir.'/At least I'm gonna say that I tried." And then, of course, there's the fact that by the end of the song she's joined him in the chorus of "Baby, it's cold outside."

The problem with this historical context argument is that now, as then, we're living in a world where some people assume that a "no" from a desired sexual partner doesn't necessarily mean no. Men accused of date rape still argue that, even though a woman said no, what she really meant was yes. Or "she was asking for it." Perhaps the simple act of being alone with him in his home was taken to mean that she wanted sex, whether or not she objected, perhaps even if she fought back. Until the question of whether no means no has been cleared up permanently, we just don't need our Christmas songs adding to the confusion.

Take William Shatner, who mounted a spirited defense of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" on Twitter:

To me, that comment perfectly illustrates the problem. I have watched the original choreography, multiple times, and every time I do, the Williams/Montalbán scene makes my skin crawl. He grabs her arm to restrain her no less than ten times. He physically blocks her access to the door. He repeatedly yanks her coat off her. He tells her to look out the window and then immediately closes some heavy drapes, as if to demonstrate that no one will be able to see what he does to her. From the choreography, I find it impossible to tell whether she really wants to leave or not because his body language has made it very clear that he won't let her. And yet, Shatner, along with many of his Twitter followers, seems to find it innocent and charming.

Putting things in historical context is no excuse for an offensive song. Consider "My Old Kentucky Home," which is sung by fans led by the University of Louisville marching band right before every running of the Kentucky Derby. The original lyrics were all about the life of a slave and contained lines like this: "The head must bow and the back will have to bend/Wherever the darky may go." The song as sung today is completely different. "The Old Folks at Home" (Swanee River) went through a similar alteration. It's the state song of Florida. No one is suggesting that the old lyrics of these songs should still be sung because they were unobjectionable when they were written and therefore we modern people should accept them.

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" remains a beautiful melody and a wonderfully written and clever duet and I agree it seems a shame to stop playing it. Instead, like "My Old Kentucky Home," it could be updated. Songwriters Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski did just that, writing a new and fun set of lyrics that includes lines like, "Baby, I'm cool with that." Some of the proceeds from this new version are being donated to organizations that help survivors of sexual violence. Seems like a great solution to me.

Published on: Dec 24, 2018
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