Christmastime is here again, and what would the holidays be without a warm fire, snowfall, and controversy? As I sit next to my fireplace staring out at a fresh blanket of snow, this year’s controversy is “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.
Is this song an innocent holiday classic from a bygone era? Or is it a dark misogynistic song with undertones of date rape?
I rather see it as a window into the complex intertwining of context, consent, and flirtation. And from a writer’s perspective, I see it underscoring the importance of nonverbal cues in character motivations.
(Also, I happen to like the song.)
The Song and Controversy
For those unfamiliar, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a call-and-response duet written by Frank Loesser in 1944. In it, a hopeful male suitor tries repeatedly to talk his female companion into staying the evening, because, as the title says, it’s cold outside.
Hostility toward this song is nothing new. After all, the female part makes excuses to leave, even asking, “say, what’s in this drink?” In the #MeToo age, some call this “uncomfortable” or even “rapey”, and leading this year to radio station bans.
[I]t’s not actually a song about rape – in fact it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her from doing so. […A] society where women aren’t allowed to say yes…which happens to mean it’s also a society where women don’t have a clear and unambiguous way to say no.
Baby It’s Warm Inside
So to put it bluntly, is this song… um… consensual? Most of the conversations on the song focus on the time period it was written, but flirtation (and basic human nature) has not changed since the 1940s.
At this point you might ask, “hey, Larry, you’re an expert on human relations, so what exactly do you mean by flirtation?”
Well, my name’s not Larry, and I’m no expert on human relations, but as a software engineer, I would describe flirtation as a handshaking process. By flirting, two people seek to exchange knowledge about how interested they are in each other.
So is this song a flirtation, or an unwanted advance?
The pair are on a date, or some sort of planned visit. The woman is at the man’s home. Both are handshaking: in this case, exploring whether there is sufficient mutual interest for the woman to stay the night.
There is in fact little escalation on the man’s part. He mostly repeats the same basic objection to her leaving: it’s cold outside. From this he can judge her reaction: is she open to staying overnight, and if so, is this a prelude to a romantic encounter?
The woman continues to engage. She makes or accepts excuses to stay. “Maybe just a half a drink more.” “I ought to say no… at least I’m gonna say that I tried.” “Maybe just a cigarette more.” Her objections are societal: what would her mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, and the townspeople think.
Never does she say that she doesn’t want to stay. Thus the flirtation continues, with the man testing slight variations on his strategy.
The call-and-response nature of the song enhances the sense of a playful back-and-forth between equals. The woman is not escalating her protests: instead she is “letting” the man continue to talk her into staying.
Or Is It?
Of course, the idea that this is a consensual flirtation still depends on this being a sort of meeting of equals. If the man is being aggressive or unresponsive to the woman’s non-verbal cues, the tone of the song changes dramatically.
The same is true if the woman feels uncomfortable or unsafe making a stronger rebuttal to the man’s advances. In this case, a lack of equal footing between the man and the woman, the interpretation devolves into something very dark.
(Although the movie Elf spins this in an awkward but ultimately innocent way. You shouldn’t walk in on a woman in the shower uninvited to fill in the male portion of the duet, even if you’re an elf from the North Pole.)
I’ll Hold Your Hands; They Like To Write
From a writing perspective, all we have to go by are the lyrics as written, and the tone of the characters’ voices. Again because of the call-and-response format, we know only of the verbal dialog.
We are not presented with non-verbal cues: body language, facial expressions, or even character backstory. And in this case, because we have none of these indicators, we can only impose our interpretation. Readers of a written work will do much the same when details are lacking.
This limitation is why the same song can be seen so differently when presented in the worst possible light:
Or when Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lady Gaga perform a gender-flipped rendition:
But my favorite version remains the Lady Antebellum version, wherein a playful “alright, you win” and a laugh make clear that the woman is a willing participant in this seduction.
(The fact that Hillary Scott sings in it doesn’t hurt, either.)