No, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t need to be updated to emphasize consent

Unpopular opinion time! “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t a rape song. It’s not even a rapey song. It’s a seduction song, and we used to know the difference between seduction and rape, before we elevated consent to the highest good.

Apparently there is an arch parody that updates the song to emphasize consent. I despise arch parodies, so I refuse to watch it, and you can’t make me.

For the record, I don’t even especially like the original song. It’s okay, as far as cutesy duets go. It does an adequate job of capturing a familiar relationship between a man and a woman. As with any song, you can make it come across as creepy and criminal; but you can also make it come across as it was originally intended: as playful.  The couple is literally playing a game, a very old one, where the man wants what he wants, and the woman wants it too, but it’s more fun for both of them when he has to work for it a little bit. It’s a song about persuasion. That’s what seduction is, and that’s what makes the song interesting: the tension. If there is no tension, there is no song.

Here are the full lyrics. The woman’s lines are in parenthesis. If you’re convinced this song is a rape song, please do read through the lyrics before you read the rest of this post!

You’ll note that the only protests the woman makes are that her reputation might be soiled. She doesn’t say that she wants to go, only that she should. This is because  . . . I’m dying a little inside because I actually have to say it . . . she actually wants to stay. As women often do, when they are already in a relationship with a man they are attracted to and with whom they have been spending a romantic evening, and whom they have been telling repeatedly that they are actually interested in staying.

Most critics get hung up on the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” The assumption is that he’s slipped a drug into her cocktail (or, occasionally, that he’s spiked her virgin drink with alcohol). Okay. Or maybe, at the end of an evening of dancing and drinking, he’s added a little more liquor than she’s expecting. Or maybe he hasn’t done anything, other than give her the “half a drink more” she just asked for, and she’s playfully making an excuse for what she’s about to do:  Whoo, what’s in this drink? I’m acting all silly, but it can’t be my fault, mercy me!  This was a standard trope of that era. Anytime something weird goes on, you blame the bottle.

Again: there is no indication, unless you take that one line out of context, that there is anything sinister going on. There is overwhelming evidence, if you listen to the whole song, that it’s a song about a pleasurable interplay between the sexes.

Heck, if we’re going to give this song the darkest possible reading, and single out one line while ignoring the context, why not call it the False Rape Accusation song? After all, the woman says, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried!” You see? She’s calculating a malicious plan to claim that she didn’t give consent, so that when her family and neighbors look askance at her for spending the night, she can make it seem like it was against her will!

Humbug. This is what happens when we’re all trained to see consent as the highest good. This is what happens when we’re trained to ignore context. People who can’t tell the difference between persuasion and force are people who have forgotten why consent is so important.

Consent isn’t valuable in itself. If it were, then it would be a holy and solemn moment when we check the “I agree” box when signing onto free WiFi at Dunkin’ Donuts. Consent is only a good thing because it’s in service to other things — higher things with intrinsic value, such as fidelity, free will, self sacrifice, respect, happiness, integrity, and . . . love. These are all things that you can’t have unless you have consent.

But when all you look for is consent, and you ignore the context, you get two human beings who see each other in rigid roles — business partners with black and white contractual obligations. In short, you have what modern people say they despise about the bad old days: love as a business arrangement.

My friends, I firmly believe there is such a thing as rape culture. When we wink and smirk and say, “Boys will be boys,” we degrade both women and men, and we teach women that they have a duty to give men whatever they want so they’re not a tease or a downer. We teach men that they can’t control themselves. We teach women that they can’t really say no, and that if they do, they’ll be scoffed at or blamed or disbelieved. When we tell the world that “no means maybe,” we’re setting the stage for rape.

But is this song doing that? Or is it just a little vignette of that deliciously warm in-between place, where reasonable people can have fun together? Because when we step outside, and make everything black and white, then, baby, it’s cold. So cold.

We degrade both men and women when we tell them that sex is just another contractual obligation — and that there’s no difference between a violent encounter between strangers, and a playful exchange between a romantic couple, and a violent exchange between a romantic couple, and a loving relationship in marriage, and a violent relationship in marriage. We’re told that the relationship doesn’t matter, and that the actual behavior has no intrinsic meaning. The only thing that matters is consent. We think that focusing on consent will ensure that no one will be degraded or taken advantage of; but instead, it has won us abominations like “empowering porn” and 50 Shades of Gray and even the suggestion that children can give consent.  It wins us a generation of kids that asks things like, “How can I tell if she consents or not, if she’s not conscious?” (A real question I read from a high school kid; I’ll add the link if I can find it again!) These miseries are not a side effect; they are the direct result of a culture that elevates consent to the highest good.

It’s not only promiscuous, secular types whose lives are impoverished by the cold rule of consent. I’m a member of a group of Catholics where one young woman wrote for advice about her husband, who, she tearfully reported, kissed her without first asking consent. This made her feel violated.

It was her husband.

Who kissed her.

And she thought he needed to ask consent every time.

This is where the pendulum has swung. We’ve pathologized the normal, healthy, give-and-take of love. We’ve taught people that there is no such thing as context: that’s it’s fair game to ignore the entire relationship and to reduce each other to business partners.

Now, if you’ve been victimized or abused, then this is probably not going to be your favorite song. You’re free to find it creepy, and you’re free to change the station. But we don’t heal from abuse by turning the whole world into an isolation ward. Healthy relationships, where the context does allow for some interplay and ambiguity, should be the norm, and they should dare to speak their healthy name.

And one more thing (and I could write volumes about this): not everything is a lesson. Not every pop song is a primer for how to behave. I tell my kids that it’s our duty to be aware of what the world is teaching us, for good or ill; but just because we’re learning something doesn’t mean there was a life lesson intended.  Sometimes art, including pop art (like pop songs) is just giving you a slice of human experience, and when it feels familiar, then it’s done well, period.

No wonder people have no idea how to stay married anymore. They expect everything to be a lesson, and they expect those lessons to be black and white. They think that life is going to give them crystal clear boundaries. They think that it’s always going to be obvious what they can expect from other people and from themselves.

I’m not talking about sex, here; I’m talking about love, and about life in general — life without context, life without tension, life without ambiguity, life without play. Baby, it doesn’t get any colder than that.

Image: Pedro Ignacio Guridi via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay ran in a slightly different form on Aleteia in 2015.

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14 thoughts on “No, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t need to be updated to emphasize consent”

  1. I think I have seen the song rise and fall in my adult lifetime. It may go back to the forties, but I think it only became a first-tier standard in this century. (This is kind of backed up by Wikipedia, although I am sure that there are many forgotten older versions that the Wikipedia editors failed to take note of:,_It%27s_Cold_Outside#Other_recordings Some of those combinations are pretty interesting.)

    (Also, maybe I am just too innocent here, but it is really a given that the endgame is supposed to be full-fledged sex?)

  2. I appreciate, Simcha, your thoughts on this song because I have not liked the song since I began to have children and care a little (lot) more about what I practice and what I preach. Your thoughts, and the others, give me lots to think about. The main thing that I would like to put out there for others to think about is this: the song wasn’t just lyrics in the original movie. There was a lot of body language involved in the context, so I believe that needs to be considered when interpreting it. And if you’ve ever been in a situation where you were trying to leave and we’re almost physically stopped (even in a playful way), it is VERY scary and you’ll say pretty much anything to seem calm and invoke change.
    And the second thing is this: I don’t want any of my boys treating a woman like this, even if it seems playful. He is way too pushy with his words.

  3. I doubt it, but maybe people would be less judgmental (and even prudish) if they knew the background of the song. It was written in 1944 by the great American songwriter, Frank Loesser. He didn’t write it with the intent of selling it. Is was written for him and his wife to sing at parties when their friends would all share songs and other entertainments. Given both the original intention as well as the time in which it was written it would be an act of cultural ignorance to consider it a “rapey” song. That being said, context is everything, even the current cultural context. Another song that fits into this category is “Santa Baby”. Sung by Eartha Kitt, it is too cute. Sung by Madonna (and just about any other contemporary female singer), it is WAY too creepy. Have a blessed and merry Christmas everyone!

  4. Thank you for this post’s clever reply to the argument that this song is rapey. I do think there’s a deeper problem with it, though: it seems to make sex outside of marriage cutesy. That’s the problem I have with this song. In your sentence about how the guy wants what he wants, and the girl really wants it too, I think you are starting to reveal that the song is really about sleeping together before marriage, and that’s not something to celebrate. The song isn’t celebratory, but it is cutesy about this, and that’s not right either. Thank you for your comments.

  5. Great. Next you’ll be trying to tell us the “Three Little Fishies” song isn’t really a protest against the energy industry’s rape of the environment.

  6. By the way, I also made a slight edit to the lyrics for the benefit of my wife. I rewrote it as a song about secretly feeding her dinner made from our kids 😛

    Where is our babe – Honey it’s dinnertime
    She’s not in her cra(dle) – Honey it’s dinnertime
    This evening she’s been – I’m hoping that it’s not too trim
    So very quiet – Here hold this pan, I’ll get the wine
    (I’m) a mother don’t make me worry – Beautiful, what’s your hurry?
    Honey what’s this meat grinder for? – (I) Didn’t want to go to the store
    Did you read her that bedtime story? – Beautiful, do you like curry?
    Where’d you lay her down afterwards? – Set the table dear while I pour
    The sausage smells great – Do you think it tastes like spam?
    But where is our bab(y)? – It might be a little rare
    She needs a new di… – It’s really one of a kind
    aper right away – just take a bite and clean your plate
    I ought to say no no no – Go on and have some more
    Sausage’s really not on my diet – Maybe I should put it in pie…
    But where is the bab(y) – Baby don’t worry
    Baby it’s dinner time
    I’ve got to get her – Oh, baby, there’s seconds here
    But this sausage is good – There’s plenty to go ’round here
    I know you can cook – No need to take a look
    (But) why can’t you see – It’s my very own recipe
    She’s bound to be up some time now – It’s time to clean up come help out
    At least she’ll be fed later tonight – Now just what do you mean to imply?
    I’m gonna get the bab(y) – I think I should step out
    Ah, but it’s dinner time
    Oh, baby, it’s dinner time
    Oh, baby, it’s dinner time

  7. Eh…I very much appreciate the overall message here about how our culture has pushed much too far in “the other direction,” and (although I’m not sure I agree entirely with the way it’s expressed here) the importance of recognizing consent as one part of a much bigger puzzle in a much larger context. I think most of this is spot on.

    However… I very much disagree with the take on the song itself. I think it’s clearly rapey. Heck, I’m a person who would only to a very, very limited degree say I believe that there is a so-called “rape culture.” I proudly insist that yes, we do need to teach young women that they are putting themselves in dangerous situations when they go off to the bar alone at night. Etc. Even given all of this, I’d say that if the lyrics in this song aren’t an example of a rape culture, I don’t know what is. Telling guys that women who say they don’t want it really do is… pretty much the definition of “rape culture.”

    The idea that the song is about “seduction” and not rape is really problematic in my opinion. Wikipedia gives as an explanation/definition of seduction “temptation and enticement, often sexual in nature, to lead someone astray into a behavioural choice THEY WOULD NOT HAVE MADE if they were not in a state of sexual arousal.” (My emphasis). In other words, it’s a process of trying to manipulate or short-circuit the will into submitting to something that the will, if free, would not submit to. We could just as easily substitute “intoxication” for “sexual arousal” here: “temptation and enticement, often sexual in nature, to lead someone astray into a behavioural choice they would not have made if they were not in a state of intoxication.” Is this statement an example of rape? It sure as heck is. Is the former also rape? I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader.

    I get the sense here that the laudable desire to promote the authentic message of how far we’ve gone the other way in our culture took this song as an opportunity to make the point, but ultimately the song isn’t a good example of these things. It really is rapey. The attempt to write off the “what’s in this drink” line is, it seems to me, the clearest indication of this. It’s a pretty indefensible line.

    1. “Telling guys that women who say they don’t want it really do is… pretty much the definition of “rape culture.””

      You’re ignoring the context. There’s a difference between a woman who says “no”, then says in other ways “but don’t stop trying”, versus a woman who says “no”, and whose body language, tone of voice and actions indicate that this is a final “no.”

      Women and men communicate differently, but what is undeniably true is that words are only about 5 percent of the content of our communications. The rest is communicated using other means. This is why emoticons and emojis were invented: to replace that missing “other means.” I’m not even going to get into the multiple levels of conversation that are going on.

      It boils down, at the end of the day, to the roles men and women play in such exchanges. The man is expected to be the initiator; to take the chance, and to do what is proper and necessary to get her in the mood; to seduce her. A sterile, unemotional request and response may be legally simple and clear, but is very unrealistic and anti-human. Such an exchange is more a signifier of a business arrangement (of prostitution, for instance), than a romantic interlude.

      Don’t forget the cultural context, as well. At the time this song was written and was popular, there was a radically different culture than we have now. Extramarital sex was taboo, women were taught to be ladies and save themselves for marriage, and men were taught to be gentlemen and that marriage was a state to be desired, and one that increased the man’s social status.

      The new rules are a direct result of destroying the marriage culture. Your grandmother gave consent by saying “I do”, while today between 40% and 70% of babies are born out of wedlock. This abandonment of the social mores and norms of sixty years ago have destroyed the institutions, sex roles, normal vocational track and expectations that provided so many of the safeguards that used to exist in our cultural matrix; protections that did not need the heavy and rigid hand of the law. This destruction of what was necessary inevitably resulted in the attempt to “make people good” through the use of law. Such attempts always fail, but for those who don’t study history, it is tempting to think that the problem can be solved by adding just one more law, or making the existing laws more detailed and inclusive of a greater portion of human interactions.

      At it’s heart, the source of rape culture is the destruction of the marriage culture. Nitpicking old song lyrics that are taken out of context will do nothing to fix that.

    2. Re. “Telling guys that women who say they don’t want it really do is… pretty much the definition of ‘rape culture.'” But she DOES want it. That’s the point. People do speak with more than language; ask any Italian. The woman in the song, as Simcha wrote, doesn’t want to leave; she wants to stay as much as he wants her to stay, and she indicated that by her actions and her words and, when the song is performed, with her body language. We Catholics, of all people, should know better than to downplay the importance of the body and how the body speaks through symbols and signs and such. When we cross ourselves, it means something. When we genuflect — same thing. And when a woman looks at you with “those eyes” and plays with her hair, she is also “speaking.” Written contracts don’t belong in the bedroom.

    3. I am not at all familiar with this song, so my comment is not about the song, or any given interpretation of the song, but more specifically about the difference between seduction and rape. Yes, there is a difference, and yes, there is some overlap.

      There is often no clear, bright line between sexual arousal, leading a person to make decisions they will regret later, and emotional arousal, which is equally likely to lead a person to make a decision which they later are glad about, or to regret. Seduction leads a person to WANT something that they didn’t want before, and is perhaps not in their best interest. Rape is clearly NOT want the person wants, and some form of coercion is applied. A strong willed person, who is clearly intent on what they want, may overwhelm a weaker person to persuade them to want, temporarily, something that they don’t really want. This applies to many activities, not just sex. It is why you really don’t want to go to investment seminars, or Mary Kay parties.

  8. I grew up singing along with Nat King Cole: “She says if I try to kiss her she’ll cry. I dry her tears all through the night.” Now that’s date rape. This “Cold Outside” business is pretty tame to me.

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