Friday, April 16, 2010

SAAM: "Baby It's Cold Outside" and Not Family-Friendly, Either

The other day, I browsed Youtube for Alexander Rybak videos and songs. I have a liking for the songs he composes, because they tend to be simple, carefree, and non-jarring - just like light'n'easy pop should be. He has some sad songs, some very emo songs, and most of them are all sentimental with a taste of frivolity. Essentially, fluff, but good fluff.

But I was squicked out to find that he covered Frank Loesser's Baby, It's Cold Outside. Now, I understand why he would - it's a pop standard, and has lasted since the 40's. His voice suits that song perfectly, and much of his fanbase is in the Northern Hemisphere, who would understand the song.

The rest of this doesn't have much to do with Rybak, but the song itself and the fact that it is April.


Baby, It's Cold Outside is often played during winter months, sometimes right next to Christmas songs.

It is April.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

I have no (minimal) experience with sexual assault, and there are many, many stories being told this month about real people's experiences. I'm afraid I can't offer that - what I can offer is an analysis on how a single song represents many tropes depicting possible sexual assault possibilities that go unnoticed by most listeners, because they are such ingrained cultural memes, we don't notice it until we take a closer look.

Baby It's Cold Outside is an excellently-composed song - it's a catchy duet, alternating between the two voices equally, and ends on a major, thus positive-sounding, note.

The lyrics, however, are a different story.

Plenty has been said about the lyrics to Baby It's Cold Outside. Although the song was written by a husband to sing with his wife, and thus could be read as a playful kind of foreplay, the lyrics are filled with a foreboding of many things - judgement, manipulation, non-enthusiastic consent (which is not really consent at all).

The parts of the duet are problematic in itself: the aggressor voice is called "the Wolf", and the rejecting voice is calling "the Mouse". This may not be the intent of Loesser, but it sets up a predatory tone for the song - the aggressor is a hunter, and the rejector is prey, physically weaker, and thus easily overpowered.

In several lines of the song, the Mouse cites several excuses for leaving - she has a mother who will worry, a father pacing the floor, her brother will be waiting at the door, her maiden aunt is "vicious". These are implications of a society which shames women for having sex... it is also a society which shames women for being in situations where sex might have happened, which gives gossips the same license to shame a woman as if she had really had sex. It is also a reminder that in such situations, the blame will be placed on the woman, alone, because we live in victim-blaming societies. When the Wolf says, "I ain't worried about your brother," he's right - the bulk of the blame will be placed on the Mouse; the only thing he has to be worried about is if the brother decides to come after him, which isn't always the case as sometimes brothers also do this exact same thing.

As predators often do, the Wolf has lines designed to emotionally manipulate the prey - he asks her to think of his pride (because we all know that a man's pride is more important than a woman's meaningful consent!) and his "lifelong sorrow if [she] caught pneumonia and died" (because his sadness has more weight than her actual death). There's only a statement that there are no cabs to be had, and he won't let her go despite her continual protests; there's not even an offer to help her get home.

There is a throw-away line which refers to a drink. While date-rape drugs are fairly new to the world, it is well-noted that predators often ply women with alcohol to lower their resistance, often to the point where the victims are almost/completely blacked out and cannot respond. Certainly there is disagreement on whether alcohol absolutely negates consent, and that alcohol often helps move sexual encounters along, but the reliance on 'alcohol courage' should be discouraging, not celebrated.

Literally every other line of the Mouse's is an excuse, and she says "no" several times throughout the song as well. One would think that continuous denial and worry would prompt at least some concern on the Wolf's part - is he not trying to make her comfortable? Doesn't he want her to enjoy herself without any fear of what might come after? No, she's supposed to care about his feelings, oh, how could she do this to him, leave him like this? There's no concern for her which isn't tied to his own self-centered position, and any concerns of hers are conveniently swept aside with flattery and compliments (of her physical beauty, no less).

It is a song that reminds me of the many cases where if a woman didn't say "no" outright, it wasn't rape, despite the fact that many people know body language and other such excuses are used to avoid saying "no" and thus hurting the other person's feelings.

Several arguments are made to defend this song, of course. "It's just a song!" is quite popular, even when the lyrics are questionable and play into harmful tropes about how we view sexual assault.

The other one I see a lot is "Loesser didn't mean it that way," which has some merit, as partners can sing it with each other in a manner that is playful and a lead-up to a sexual encounter. I find this argument weak, though, for two reasons:

1) Intent rarely matters when a work is released to the public. It matters insofar as people care what prompted the creative process, but most people don't really care what an authour's intent is, only what the song means for them, whether it's fun, or playful, or relaxing, so on so forth. Art is transformative in this way; it takes on different meanings in different spheres - for some people, this is a Christmas song, for others, it is played in July. Just as important as intent is how it is placed within the alrger culture that it has been released in, because art does not exist within a void.

2) If it can only be comfortably sung by those who are already committed to the encounter, why the continual resistance in the song? If both Wolf and Mouse are consenting adults, why the continual references to people who don't matter within this intimate encounter between two people?

Which leads to the next argument - forbidden fruit. People love forbidden fruit. It's naughty! It breaks the rules! Except there are no rules being broken here: even today, our social mores dictate that a woman must refuse sex, or she's slut-shamed. A man must continually persist to "win" sex, accordingly to the Manly Rules of Manliness.

With these rules, female sexual desire is not acknowledged, considered non-existant, or masked by coyness and suppressed. When women are not allowed to voice their own desires, it's easy for others to speak for them and pretend it's true: "your lips say no but your eyes say yes," "she secretly wanted it," "who would turn him down?"

Without giving license to women - and men, even - to clearly communicate their desires or lack thereof, any encounter that can be construed as sexual immediately becomes murky, a possible misunderstanding, possibly consensual but just a bit stupid, and we have a slippery slope that does victims of sexual no favours in seeking justice when they have been harmed.

It is all very well to teach that persistence is needed to get what one wants, but it becomes a dangerous meme when that involves another person whose concern for their own well-being, whether socially or physically, is dismissed in order to fulfill one's own desires. It does not require vastly unequal power dynamics between the two parties to happen - all it requires is for one "participant" to place their own desires above the other's need for safety and comfort. This dynamic can exist even if the genders were reversed in the song.

It is, of course, possible to perform the song in such a way that it is clear the Mouse is giving implicit consent. This requires a certain tone in singing, and visual body language. Yet why perpetuate the meme that a woman must say no in order to say yes? How many hearts have been broken because "no means yes" to the extent that "no" becomes meaningless and disrespected?

We pay lip service to the concept of "no means no," to the idea that "rape is bad" and that "consent" is a good thing. So many people do not practise the concept of "no means no," make up various excuses for rapists, and shame women for consenting.

It's true that this song isn't as bad as many outrightly misogynistic songs of today. However, this song is considered a classic, a family-friendly favourite.  These lyrics don't hold up under close analysis. Even its saving graces are burdened by the weight of the unfortunate fact that this playfulness is taken advantage of by predators, who do trap and drug women, who will not take "no" for an answer, and who hurt so many people as a result.

Somewhere out there, there must have been someone who realized this was a terrible idea, and re-wrote the lyrics to make it more affirmative. I'll keep looking.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I never really noticed it until this past Christmas season, when suddenly I listened to the lyrics and went, "HOLY SHIT HE SAID WHAT NOW?" I can't believe this is a "holiday standard." Pleasant sound or not, it's fucking creepy.

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