Content Warning: This piece will discuss rape and sexual assault in the context of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”
Like many of you, I’m made quite uncomfortable by the lyrics to the song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Also like many of you, a deep affinity arises at the first few bars of the song as it plays. You see, my grandmothers would hum this tune every Christmas season, along with scores of others from the early and mid 20th century.
So, when a Cleveland radio station announced it would no longer play the song due to its lyrics that ring of rape for so many contemporary listeners, my reaction swirled. Though nostalgia was strong within my response, even stronger was simply this: if the song troubles survivors and victims of sexual assault, then we need not keep forcing it on the radio. Also, and not for nothing, but we’re also talking about a single outlet of a dying media. People can still find the song on iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, and hundreds of other places. Those who still want the song can have access to it without demanding it be in the ears of everyone listening to a public broadcast.
Yet, something kept nagging my brain. Could we have really been listening to a song that celebrated date rape without consideration for over seventy years?
Then I encountered an article entitled, “Radio bans ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ because it is a ‘Rape Song’ but an English teacher sets the record straight.” First off, the clickbait title disheartened me. Only one station made this decision (or perhaps a few more have followed suit by now), so neither the entire radio industry nor the FCC banned the song. Secondly, giving such authority to a single English teacher seems, well, unwise.
Even so, this former English teacher and music enthusiast lifted up an fascinating point. Namely, the line “what’s in this drink” was a common trope at the time to joke about how weak a drink was, about how little alcohol was in the concoction at all. Rather than an accusatory statement about the use of GHB or Rohypnol to alter her mental state, the line suggests a strong mental acuity. This author goes on to suggest other lines, such as “at least I’m gonna say that I tried,” give context for a woman’s expression agency and authority over her own body in a time where social norms would shame her decision to engage in intimacy with this man. Given my concerns, I checked out this logic, which was confirmed in a other places and, interesting, by self-identified feminists here and here. More on it here and here.
This is important data to consider. What it does not do, however, is simply end the conversation. Rather, it exemplifies the evolving nature of language and its tie to cultural acceptance of various behaviors. Simply stated, language isn’t static. Over time, our definitions of words change. Or, how we use certain words and phrases changes. Consider this: the word queer was once an innocuous word that meant something was odd, then became derogatory slang for people in the LGTBQIA+ community, and now those people have reclaimed the word as a positive definition of identity, especially for nonbinary folx.
In other words, it can be entirely true that when Frank Loesser wrote Baby It’s Cold Outside in 1944, he intended to speak honestly about an intimate, consensual engagement between a man and a woman who were both in control of what they were doing. It can also be entirely true that, when played now, the juxtaposition of “what’s in this drink” combined with an apparent refusal to honor this woman’s desire to depart communicates a traumatic message to survivors of relationship violence.
What, then, are we to do? Let’s clarify a few things:
Given the evolutionary nature of language and how current listeners hear the words sung within Baby It’s Cold Outside, it is entirely appropriate for people to opt out of listening to or promoting the song. Though such meaning is likely alien to the creator’s intent, that does not necessarily affect the impact upon present-day listeners who have been shaped by rape culture and who are separated from the creator’s cultural context. It can be helpful to know the cultural origin of the song in order to speak meaningfully about the creator, and that should be noted; yet, just because Loesser couldn’t imagine a world where this would be inappropriate does not invalidate the offense people experience as they hear these lyrics in light of our contemporary context.
Similarly, when you use language, take care that you consider how listeners will hear what you say. We are responsible, as speakers and authors to attend to our audience as much as possible so our words resonate not just in their ears but with their lives. They may, eventually, go out of style, as it seems this song has for some. Yet, the more care with which we construct our language, the more potential we have to make an impact.
Similarly, as listeners, we should interpret with both authenticity and humility. In other words, if someone’s use of language hurts, offends, or triggers us. We should also understand that such words might have different meaning in another culture, or within another time period, or even another community. Just ask someone from rural Ohio whether dinner is supposed to be served at midday or in the evening and you’ll find a common confusion. Of course, the content and effects of Baby It’s Cold Outside are much more personal than proper reference to a meal, but again, it simply lifts up the fluidity of language. While indeed some people use language to intentionally hurt us, many other are ignorant to how their use of a certain word or phrase might meet our ears.
Grandma Doris and Grandma Jeanette, both of blessed memory, would have no clue that as they shuffled about their kitchens singing and baking, cooking and prepping for Christmas dinner, their words might communicate anything offensive to one of their guests. That doesn’t mean the words were harmless, but rather, they had no idea how they had caused harm. The only way we can make progress here is through recognizing the flexibility of language and explaining how words that seem innocent to them, or to Frank Loesser, or to so many others who defend them, cause discomfort at the least and perhaps great trauma.
So, despite a catchy melody and an appearance in one of my all time favorite Christmas movies Elf, I won’t be actively choosing or defending Baby It’s Cold Outside. It’s apparently innocent, and even progressive, origins deserve consideration, but there’s plenty of other excellent holiday music I can choose that won’t put loved ones at unnecessary risk. We need not condemn Frank Loesser, or even those who have loved the song before, but now, given the ways that the song rings in the ears of survivors and victims, we can see how language has evolved in ways that should lead us to leave our Baby It’s Cold Outside records on the shelves.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.