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State of the Arts

‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is not an ode to rape – banning it is stupid

No more Dean Martin, Lady Gaga or Tom and Cerys? Our climate of puritanism, ignorance and fear does a disservice to rape victims, and ignores the push and pull of human seduction, writes our columnist Lucy Jones

Thursday 20 December 2018 06:53
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Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has been recorded so many times since 1944 that you can work out someone’s age by which version comes to mind and reckoning they were probably in their early teens at the time. Heard of the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter? You’re probably in your seventies or eighties (it won an Oscar that year for Best Original Song). Thinking of the Lady Gaga version? I’d wager you’re 12. Bette Midler’s? Pushing 40. The one I know best is the Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews 1999 version.

But the song is no longer simply a beloved wintry ditty that’s been recorded by scores of different artists. Every year there’s a bit of a hoo-ha about the lyrical content but this year, post #MeToo, it has become a new battleground in the culture wars. Calls that it is an “ode to rape” or a “hymn” to rape have led to numerous broadcasters in Canada (Rogers, Bell Media, the CBC) banning it from the radio. In retaliation to the ban, or perhaps because the song is in the news, sales have rocketed by 70 per cent and the Dean Martin version is currently number 10 on the Billboard Digital Sales Chart.

This week, William Shatner exhorted his Twitter followers to call CBC, the Canadian radio network, to request the song and sock it to the “Myopic Censorship Club”. Susan Loesser, daughter of songwriter Frank Loesser (who wrote Guys & Dolls) weighed in, blaming the whole furore on Bill Cosby. “Bill Cosby ruined it for everybody,” Susan Loesser told NBC News. “Way before #MeToo, I would hear from time to time people call it a date rape song. I would get annoyed because it’s a song my father wrote for him and my mother to sing at parties. But ever since Cosby was accused of drugging women, I hear the date rape thing all the time.”

You know the song: “I simply must go (but baby, it’s cold outside) / The answer is no (but baby, it’s cold outside).” It’s a duet of cat and mouse (or Wolf and Mouse, as the original score has it): the man is trying to persuade a woman to stay, stretching out the goodbyes while she seems to want to stay for a snog or whatever but is worried what the neighbours might think. “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow,” she protests. “I ought to say no, no, no.” In some recordings, the female and male parts are switched, such as the Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt version. In the Glee version, Chris Colfer and Darren Criss sing the call and response.

The interpretation that’s led to the song getting a lump of coal this Christmas is that the man is sexually coercing the woman to stay, drugging her, to force her into, one presumes, a sexual position later on. “It’s a lousy model for romance that normalises sexual coercion and date rape,” said Vox. “Ultimately there’s something sinister about the song’s playful ambiguity, as we’ll never truly know if she wants to stay or if it’s just the roofie talking,” said Salon. (“Roofie” is slang for the insomnia drug Rohypnol.) Critics cite the lyric, “Say, what’s in this drink?” as a celebration of date rape. An extremely quick search shows that, according to 1940s idiom, “Say, what’s in this drink?” was a colloquial way of explaining slightly risqué, tipsy behaviour. It had nothing to do with roofies. I remember thinking when I watched the video for Cerys Matthews and Tom Jones’s version that the drink in question was some kind of love potion.

Seeing as the song was written in the 1940s, when eyebrows would have been raised at an unchaperoned woman spending the night with a man (at least in most places, if not perhaps in Hollywood, where the song was written and performed), one might imagine that the historical and cultural context could be taken into consideration. Worrying what people thought was the norm – it was before the 1960s sexual revolution, before the advent of the Pill, before various waves of feminism, before the term date rape became common.

Does it matter if people take offence? Or a few radio stations ban the song? Aren’t there better things to worry about?

Culture that subtly gives rape and assault the OK are – clearly – worth being awake to. And yes the area of sexual coercion and consent in a patriarchal society can be murky depending on the specific power dynamic.

But there is often a push and pull to human relations and seduction. At different points, one person might be more keen than another and employ charm, seduction or persuasion. What happens in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t assault and calling it an “ode to rape” does victims of rape and assault a disservice. It is a worrying signal that facets of liberalism are being infected by puritanism, ignorance and a fear and reluctance to make space for the ambiguities of life, which isn’t progressive and is in fact dangerous because it feeds into the far-right, anti-PC brigades’ hands. It allows broadcasters like Fox News to easily mock the #MeToo movement and dilute its power. Or encourages radio stations to play the song for two hours straight, which nobody wants.

Joan Collins claims consent culture is 'out of control'

It’s good that the song provokes debate. It’s good that the original situation that the woman is in, to live a life without autonomy and choice who must consider neighbourhood gossip above her own desire, is waning in some parts of the world. It’s good that we’re analysing the parts of our culture that may have contributed to “rape culture” and the ease by which some men can justify sexual assault or harassment to themselves. But let’s not forget history, context and the ambiguity of human relations. Censorship of a 74-year-old holiday standard won’t do us any favours.

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