Earlier this year, I wrote a post about how the critical thinking engendered in higher education can be a curse. Being trained to read deeply into texts — as we English profs are — is a variation on that same curse, and one that I noticed recently as I listened to a holiday standard playing on a TV music station.
Most of you are probably familiar with “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” In case, you aren’t, here is a recent version by Lady Antebellum.
A quick trip to Wikipedia (hey, they should call it “Quick-a-pedia”!) tells me that the song was penned in 1944 and became a huge hit (for numerous artists!) in 1949. The first time I remember hearing it was in the 2003 movie Elf, and its enduring popularity was shown (or perhaps guaranteed) by the fact that it was recently featured in the Christmas episode of Glee.
I’m the first to admit that this little ditty is as clever as they come with its elegantly overlapping melodies. Plus, I love duets. But I really have a problem with the values implied in the lyrics. In case you haven’t heard it (didn’t you click on the link provided? Sheesh…), the premise of the song is that a woman wants to go home but her male date wants her to stay — presumably to have sex — and makes the excuse that the weather outside is too frightful for her to leave. So why not stay (and, again, presumably do it while she’s there)? No matter how many times she insists that she has to go — she refuses sixteen times by my count of the Dean Martin version, but the exact number is a matter of interpretation — he insists that she stay. That her whole family is waiting for her at home is of no consequence, nor is her reputation, nor, for that matter, her own choice. Come on, baby, it’s cold outside!
The more you listen, the harder it is to believe what you’re hearing. Whether she is interested in his advances or not, he keeps after her, plying her with alcohol, moving “in closer,” insisting that she not “hold out” because it will hurt his male ego: “what’s the point in hurtin’ my pride? he asks, and “how can you do this thing to me?” He won’t even lend her a coat!
Even if we set aside the possibility that the man has slipped her a mickey (“what’s in this drink?” she asks and then claims to be under a “spell”), the whole song is based on an out-dated and very sexist notion that if a woman refuses a man’s sexual advances, she cannot possibly mean it. To be sure, her part in the song indicates that she may be willing to be persuaded, but that’s just the point: no really means yes. The sexism might be excused by the period in which the song was written, but the song is not quite old enough to seem like a period piece, and the never-ending parade of modern versions (see above and add James Taylor, Jessica Simpson, Vanessa Williams…) only increases the feeling that this is a modern song.
Of course, songs are just songs, and people can listen to what they want. I just wish these date rape carols weren’t so catchy.