Baby, it's Cold Outside

[Crossposted to My Vox blog.]

Via Majikthise, Brad Hicks has a good analysis of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

There’s not much more I can say about the analysis, but the responses in comments are quite interesting, particularly in how the song is defended. It’s illustrative of the ways in which the status quo with respect to rape and consent gets defended.

Aesthetic Defense

And analysis destroys another great song.

Here the argument is that we shouldn’t engage in feminist analysis of popular culture, lest we lessen our enjoyment of or ability to participate in said culture. If we look to closely at our culture, the argument goes, all we’ll see is patriarchy. (In this way, it’s similar to the “we can’t complain about coercion or people wouldn’t get laid” argument).

Free Speech

Thus we must ban any song that may seem to have those sorts of connotations!


Occasionally the argument is not that the analysis will “spoil” the work for the critic, but that the critic has an agenda to “spoil” the song for everybody else through censorship. The effect of this argument is to silence criticism because nobody wants to sound like a censor. A related argument is that the critic is against sexuality in general rather than the problematic depiction being critiqued.


People shouldn’t be too uptight about music.

Also known as the “you have no sense of humor” or “it’s just a song” argument. Tekanji posted about this in “Debunking the Myth of Frivolity”, and it’s a better rebuttal than any I could give here.

Good Intentions

Both Frank Loesser and his wife have archived interviews regarding this song, its composition, and premiere at a party they gave for friends. Sorry, I don’t have URLs for them. Neither allude to anything that would lend credence to these darker interpretations of the lyrics.

This is a different kind of argument; it relies on the authority of the author (or someone closer to the author than the critic is) to say what a work is really about. That the author of the lyrics may have thought them playfully sexy and didn’t intend to describe a date rape doesn’t make them problematic; indeed, it’s a quite similar argument to the one that an actual rapist may make – that the understanding was that the encounter was fully consensual. While an artist’s interpretation of his own work can make for interesting conversation material, it doesn’t invalidate other interpretations, and it certainly doesn’t disqualify the work from being used as a springboard to talk about the culture in general.

Armchair Psychoanalysis

I think you have misinterpreted the lyrics according to your own ideas of right and wrong (obviously) and this has defined the result more than the song itself.

This is basically a way of deflecting the criticism back onto the critic, and ties into the argument from popularity: “Nobody else has a problem with it, why do you?” The effect is to get critics to stop talking about the work and focus more on themselves.

Rape Apologism

leaving verbal inflection aside she does a fair amount of dithering but assuming she has her own wheels and car keys the failure to get up and go combined with making *excuses* sounds a LOT like “convince me. I want to have my cake (being a good girl) and eat it too (not live like a nun)”.

In fact the whole point is that she is in the position to definitively say “no,” to leave, to forcefully reject her pursuer, but she specifically never does. In the end her response is always well “maybe.” I ought to say no. Well maybe one more drink. After all, it is cold outside.

“She really wanted it.” “She could have said no, or left.” I think these folks need to read Biting Beaver’s posts on coercive rape and playing hard to get, in order to see how problematic these statements really are.

It Was a Different Time

In a nutshell, she really wants to, but she can’t square that with societal mores.

Some good comments here, but also a lot of temporal imperialism.

It’s very easy to judge people in the past as naive, or stupid, or ignorant, or otherwise somehow shameful because they perceived things or conducted themselves differently from us. They weren’t, they simply lived in a different milieu.

I think these sorts of arguments are fundamentally misguided. “Temporal imperialism” is not the same thing as colonialism. The former is simply reinterpreting the data; the latter involves significant power differentials and the potential for exploitation. Both involve privileged perspectives, but the privilege of hindsight is by definition not exploitative; the past may not be able to answer for itself, but neither can it be altered.

In addition, the criticism of the song isn’t actually all that focused on the time the song was written, because it’s not one that establishes itself as belonging to its time period. These attitudes aren’t altogether gone, and that’s why it’s still important to point out that what’s described in the song is either a prelude to rape or indistinguishable therefrom.

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12 thoughts on “Baby, it's Cold Outside

  1. “Temporal imperalism”? Sounds like a case of the privileged groups appropriating the terminology of the oppressed to further the status quo of oppression.

    On that subject, though, over at the Feminist SF blog Ide Cyan has a post called Timeless that addresses that issue in SF writing. I think it bears some relevance to this conversation, as well.

  2. I like Kevin T. Keith’s comments on the original post:

    I think the analysis of this song is largely in the right direction, and I’ve always had a creepy feeling about it for the reasons you give. But there’s also a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the song: most of the female lines are tentative or evasive (they give reasons why she should leave – “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow” – not indications that she is trying to); every firm rejection she offers (“The answer is no”) is followed by a more ambiguous implication of willingness (“At least I can say that I tried”); there’s an obvious flirtatiousness to the song that makes it plausible as a willing seduction. The song does not describe an assault, or even really a seduction; it is a negotiation.

    At the same time, it’s sexist and somewhat coercive. The seduction ploys he uses are overbearing and manipulative, and they depend on an understanding from both parties that “No” does not mean no. They also imply a kind of male presumption (“hurting my pride”), and the whole Wolf/Mouse, pursuer/prey scenario is creepy and a good example of why 50s attitudes to sex are fucked up. But within the 1950s perspective, this was not unusual or offensive. It was not coercion or assault. It was the kind of denial and pretense that “respectable” men and women used – and to some degree had to use – to engage in sex without acknowledging themselves as “that kind of man/girl”.

    Nice moderate, balanced view that, with use of qualifiers about time periods and such, encourages keeping the questions going yet channels them so they won’t spin off into unjustified (of the not-considering-others’-points-of-view, even if “others” are just “people in the past”) rage.

    Hope people have some cool comments here based on what he said. No one replied to him in the original thread.

  3. Whoops. I skimmed over your part about “It was a different time.” I guess you already read similar comments (though I still like Kevin’s better than the quotes you used!)

    Anyway, both the point he made and the point you made are why I try to limit what I get mad at from the past to what truly seems abhorrent in context, yet why I also try to participate in some consciousness-raising to stop such things from being repeated in the present.

    But, yeah, even when trying to raise awareness and say to my friends:

    You shouldn’t play this song at swing dances anymore because even though it may have been written imagining negotiation, we in society have been getting people to stop negotiating like that anymore, so implying that the activities described are still harmless by playing it at a “harmless” activity like a swing dance sends the message that such activities, despite what we’ve been trying to say about them for decades so everyone can come away from negotiations happier, are negotiation rather than coercion.

    Now that people have had the chance to hear better ways to negotiate, going back to these ways is just coercion. Here’s this quote to clarify that it wasn’t always–you’re right when it comes to that hunch of yours. But please understand that now that we have better alternatives, you just can’t say that this inferior way of “negotiating” is really negotiation anymore. And if you keep popularizing the song, that’s what you’ll be saying.

    Thanks much, friends & fellow DJs!

  4. For some reason a lot of links on BB’s list seem to be broken, including the “hard to get” one. I searched her archives for a working link: She’s just playing hard to get.

    I got to see only a little bit of the movie Elf (or rather, I managed to not avoid seeing it) where Will Ferrel’s character is sitting outside the shower and the woman in the shower is singing it. She doesn’t know he’s out there until they hit the chorus and he sings too loud, which added a whole level of creepy stalker to the song which I personally didn’t need.

    The way she suspiciously says “What’s in this drink?” has always been the clincher for me. Way “back in the day” there wasn’t GHB, but one could still make a drink a lot stronger than it needed to be in the hopes of “lowering inhibitions”. I’ve never heard a version of this song where the woman didn’t sound a little nervous and/or scared. She tries every way she can think of to say no and he doesn’t take the hint. It’s not cute, it’s not flirtatious, and it certianly doesn’t put me in the holiday mood.

  5. Yeah, GH, one of the other comments that people tended to make was that “what’s in this drink?” was a reference to alcohol, and not “roofies” or “mickeys” or anything. As if that makes it all right.

  6. Katie, I agree that his comments are good. The thing is, this 50’s attitude – that “no” really means “yes, but you have to act like you’re forcing me so I can claim I wasn’t a bad girl on purpose” – has not entirely left us. In the US, there are still regions isolated by religion, extreme conservativism and hatred of progress which have never left that way of thinking behind.

    If the analysis of the song makes one person from one of those regions re-think what tradition has handed to her or him, it’s done a great service.

  7. If the analysis of the song makes one person from one of those regions re-think what tradition has handed to her or him, it’s done a great service.

    Hey, that’s why we blog, isn’t it?!

  8. Sorry for coming back a second time to comment, I probably should have included this in the original post, but I had a brain fart.

    It has been my experience as a woman, that women are aggressively socialized against saying “no”. We’re taught to think of other people’s feelings over our own, to the extent that we try to find polite ways to tell people no. You can see it in every demurral in the song, she’s trying to gently turn aside his advances because she’s been socialized into thinking that a gentle tone of voice is expected. Women are taught, first and foremost, to be people pleasers. It’s not only, as BB says, that she has to be a mind reader to know what level of polite and gentle “no” he’s going to respond to, it’s that she may have trouble reaching for the forceful “no” when push comes to shove. And, as has already been pointed out, the consequences of getting him angry could be severe, as he most likely outmasses her by a great deal, adding an extra level of taboo for the woman on using the forceful “no”.

    Meanwhile, I can’t imagine that men aren’t at least somewhat aware that women are socialized into being gentle with people’s feelings. We’re so often praised for being gentle, kind, conciderate, selfless, etc. So his continued overriding of her protests, in my opinion, cannot be interpreted as him reading her demurrals as flirtation. I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that he’s not using her own conditioning against her.

    I ought to say no, no, no sir. (Mind if I move in closer?)
    At least I’m gonna say that I tried. (What’s the sense of hurtin’ my pride?)

    He basically says “You’ll hurt my feeeeeeeelings.” He knows that she’s expected to think of his feelings before her own.

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