Baby, it’s rapey outside

It’s mid-December, and approaching winter here in New England, which means that the local radio stations are into playing a month-long orgy of  “holiday music,” which means Christmas carols, Christmas-themed tunes, and a handful of “seasonal” (i.e., winter themed) songs. Personally, I get tired of them after about, oh, 20 minutes, but I manage to tolerate them for a few weeks. But even though I can turn off the radio, I still run across news and blog items about how much a partridge in a pear tree costs, humorous sketches about Santa Claus, and similar items that are not funny for the eleven other months of the year.

Lately, in some of the web forums on which I’ve been lurking, I’ve been running across discussions — apparently having gone on for the last couple of years — about the inherent creepiness or date rapey-ness of the old song “Baby, it’s cold outside.”

A date rape song from the 1930s? Seriously?

[Note: I am not going to offend your intelligence by interjecting at various points disclaimers about the prevalence or immorality of date – or any kind of – rape.  Let’s assume that we’re all adults, and that we can agree on that point.]

Maybe we’ve gone collectively insane, or maybe my advanced age and privileged social status have given me a different perspective, but this is definitely going in the “What the freakin’ hell?” category.

For those of you who don’t have cow-orkers blasting the “lite” station on their radios or iPods, and have somehow missed one of the few enjoyable winter songs written, it’s a low-key duet about a woman who is considering an overnight stay at her swain’s house. The man’s half of the duo sings some enchanting, seductive phrases which intersect and rhyme with the woman’s part; the woman herself appears to be voicing concerns about what other people would say or think about her if she stayed. One of the points at issue is that partway into the song (after she asks for “half a drink more”) she says: “Say, what’s in this drink?”

And that’s it.

You don’t remember the lyrics? They’re all over the place, but I used this version for reference.

First, in the context of time this song was written, that was a pretty innocuous expression. People from the 1930s still remembered the Prohibition years, and as anyone who has watched the old movies from that era  (Marx Brothers come to mind, as do the Nick & Nora “Thin Man” series, and almost anything with Mae West or WC Fields) could attest, characters often said such things, reflecting the quality of the alcohol available at the time. We probably don’t have anything analogous to it now, because you can buy brand-name liquor at the grocery store. Yes, they had “Mickey’s” that were often slipped into a drink, but the rest of that verse, plus the next one, don’t give any indication that this is a possibility.

Secondly, the male character (sometimes referred to as the “wolf”) is not being pushy or even overly seductive. The funny part about the lyrics is that woman’s character (sometimes called the “mouse”) is actually talking herself into ignoring the societal conventions of the time, and is desirous of staying.

I just learned that Zooey “Trillian” Deschanel and M. Ward have a gender-swapped version of this which is supposed to be less creepy. This would have been funnier if the gender-reversed version hadn’t already been done… back in the 1940s by Red Skelton and Betty Garret in “Neptune’s Daughter.” That version, played for laughs simply because it was a role-reversal, actually does come across as being a bit date-rapey, when taken in the context of being seen 60 plus years after it was made.

If you’re looking at just the lyrics — the way the song was actually written — it’s pretty easy to see how the woman’s side of the duo is thinking about what people will say, the possible talk about her reputation, and how she’ll have to explain her actions later on (and even as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, women in media often were seen to have the same concerns as this woman in 1936). There’s nothing that I can see that gives any signal that she feels unsafe, or pressured, or that her partner is forcing unwanted attentions upon her. Various other duets, seen on variety shows from the 1960s onward, generally seem to have highlighted the playful side of these lyrics; that is, the give-and-take of friendly, desired seduction.

There’s a Bob Dylan song from the late 60s or early 70s, called “The Talking John Birch Society Blues,” and I remember it mainly because of a verse near the end, in which the main character, on a mission to root out Communism from our society, discovers that “there are red stripes on the American flag.” In other words, I sometimes wonder if in our collective mania to find something by which we may delight in our feelings of having been offended, we aren’t making things up because in our society, we’ve already run out so many things that are actually offensive.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go marvel at a discussion group in which the members — all of them adults — just discovered that the song “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” (and I swear that I am not making this up) is not about adultery.

About Tom Allen

The Grey Geezer Dauntless defender of, um, something that needed dauntless defending. Dammit, I can't read this script without my glasses. Hey, you kids, get off my damn lawn!
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16 Responses to Baby, it’s rapey outside

  1. Sara Eileen says:

    Tom, I hope you know, in advance of this comment, that I respect you and your opinions deeply and generally think you’re all-around swell. Okay? Okay.

    In brief: no.

    In slightly less brief:
    The content you defend is not relevant to vast majority of people who hear this song during this season. While I respect and cherish the added understanding that can result from viewing works within their original context and interpretation, the reality is that when this song is played on the radio today, it’s decontextualized. In other words, we must assume that most of the people listening aren’t aware of the context, which therefore makes the context irrelevant when trying to discern how the song’s message might be consumed by those people.

    (Sidenote: Is a lack of context during media consumption a sort of egregious sin to all of us meta-lovers? Yes. Does it still happen all the time? Yes.)

    So throw out the context. Now, the song is about a woman who tries, in several ways, to politely refuse the advances on a male partner, and is eventually worn down and consents. And not only in euphemisms: she at one point, in the lyrics you’ve quoted, says “the answer is no.” She gives all kids of excuses, worries about what her family will think, tries to leave over and over…but does so politely, kindly, without getting angry or uncomfortable. And in the end, the guy gets what he wants: she stays.

    It is HARD for women to say no to men, Tom. It’s not something we’re culturally taught to do, and it takes a lot of effort to break out of those polite, euphemistic excuses and just plain say no.

    So yea, when I hear a song on the radio about a young woman whose opinion is ignored, run down and eventually dismissed – even in the context of some good old romantic fun – I’m going to get upset about that. I’m going to think it’s a shitty song for my little niece to hear, and I’m going to turn off the radio if it comes on. And I’m going to wish that I didn’t have to stop and talk myself down from getting angry every time it comes on the radio in a public place and I see a whole lot of people who don’t know the context absorbing it as a mass-media portrayal of a supposedly normal relationship interaction.


    • Tom Allen says:

      Sara, thanks for what is actually the most reasoned response to this issue that I’ve seen. The online discussions that I happened to see appeared to be more knee-jerk. You’ve given me something to think about for a bit.

      Also, for some reason, your response made me feel, well, old. I think it’s because I lived through a period where I saw first hand actual changes in the attitudes that people displayed, so I have not just a cultural context, but a personal, historical context within which to view this.

      That said, because I have been able to change my mind and attitudes over the years, I’m going to revisit this. As it happens, my daughter and her friends were just talking about this, courtesy of Nostalgia Chick (who has some screamingly funny takes on other Xmas songs). They are having a sleep-over, and I’m going to take the opportunity to talk to a bunch of them about this subject.


      • Sara Eileen says:

        Obviously I’m pretty damned sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but it’s worth saying…in addition to asking your daughter whether she thinks the song is about date rape, I hope you also talk to her about what to do if she feels uncomfortable about saying no to a boy but doesn’t want to be rude or have the boy think she’s a “bitch” or “mean” or “too sensitive.” Namely, to say no firmly and then call herself a cab.

        I don’t think the song is about date rape, i.e. the poor woman was drugged and is being taken advantage about. But in context or outside of context, it *is* about coercion, and that is a dangerous game to play without prior consent by all parties.


  2. Ella Fitzgerald says:

    I stumbled on to your blog for the first time tonight, and the very first entry is a topic I’ve debated with friends several times. Interesting!

    Communication is complex, and context does matter. The context of the discourse about sex we’ve had in the last couple of decades has been hugely beneficial for both men and women, and although it’s still far from perfect, we’ve come so far in empowering both women and men to enjoy healthy, consensual sex. No question that if say, Eminem wrote and recorded this song today, the context would clearly be date rape and I would be outraged.

    But when I listen to this song I hear more than the words. I listen to the longing in the woman’s voice. I hear the flirtation. What I hear when I listen to this song is a woman embracing her sexuality in a time when we weren’t allowed to say yes. I’ve always found it sexy and charming, and I was genuinely flabbergasted a couple of years ago when a good friend said she heard it as date rape.

    And I get it. I get why it’s problematic. I see that my college students are often poor evaluators of subtext and context, and are much more likely to only take in the words. Meaning is tied up with context, and in the context of today, the lyrics of this song mean date rape.

    I’ve used this song in class to illustrate how the meaning of a word or idea can change over time. Many students have had an “ohhhh, I’ve never understood why this song is on the radio” type of reaction.

    And despite all that, I still smile when I hear this song. It’s on the radio a lot, so for the past few Decembers I’ve had this chat with my students. And we talk about how lucky we are to live in an era when we’re allowd to say yes. We talk about how difficult it must have been for both men and women to have to talk in code to figure out what was consent and what wasn’t, how that confusion sometimes (often, probably) ended in what we would today call date rape, and how all that led us to no means no.

    It’s always a great discussion, and it’s one of my favorite classes of the semester.


    • Tom Allen says:

      Welcome, Ella.

      Interesting that you mentioned discussing this in class. I sat down with my daughter and a couple of her friends, and talked about this song (we were having dinner and she happened to ask what my favorite Xmas song was). It was interesting that they did not have a cultural context for it – they just knew it was an “old” song, but being 16, to them, old is “like, I don’t know, 60s or 70s?”

      They all knew about the “What’s in this drink?” line (again, courtesy of Nostalgia Chick, linked above), but none of them *really* believed it had anything to do with Roofies.

      It was a good discussion, and I’ll need to process it before I can write anymore. Thanks for joining in!


  3. Peroxide says:

    I’m going to side with Tom on this one. I’m 22, and maybe I’m more media literate than most of my peers but I’ve always gotten the context of the song.

    Even just listening to the tone, It seems to me that most female vocalists are playing “the mouse” with an undercurrent of desire.


    • Tom Allen says:

      Hey – get off my lawn, yew dang kids! Oh,wait, it’s that young P’roxide feller.

      Seriously, I don’t think that there’s a “side” to side with. While I happened to pick this song to rant about, there are other things – songs, movies, tv shows – that I think send terrible messages to people, but for some reason are very popular. This makes me realize that you dang kids don’t know anything it’s possible to over-think or over-analyze specific things, and completely miss the points that do make them popular.


      • Peroxide says:

        alright, no sides. I just think it’s a bummer when people take things that have always been great and then say that they’re unpc, or inappropriate, or whatever.

        At least no one’s going to ruin my love of Wham!’s Last Christmas


  4. dominationdiary says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there! For some, reading, listening or watching is about looking deeper, analysing and trying to find all manner of meaning in writing, music, films hell, all art in general. For others it’s about enjoying a good story, a catchy tune or an entertaining film. I don’t see either as more valid or worthy than the other. I’m sure there are loads of people who have enjoyed a book, film or tune without ever being aware of the intended meaning and is that such a bad thing?

    I don’t really consider myself an artist but I’m a keen photographer and try to make the sort of digital images I like. I have had a whole range of responses to my work including disgust, awe, love, hate, anger and ambivalence. Some people get the message I’ve tried to portray but others don’t and that’s fine. For me that’s one of the wonders of art, it can be viewed and appreciated in an almost infinite number of ways. I’ve personally experienced people loving my work but taking a completely different meaning from it than I had intended when creating it and others who have over-analysed it and found all sorts of ‘messages’ that I had no intention of creating. Each to their own I guess.


  5. Hedone says:

    Laughing but at the same time saying “WTF…get a life” to all the people looking for wrong in things innocuous and/or innocent.

    There is enough real wrong in the world. Get up in arms about that…

    I like this song, I always have. I’ve also heard the Zooey Deschamel version and didn’t get “rapey” from it.

    The song relays the exact behavior that goes on time and time again at the end of dates. Couple likes each other, are perhaps feeling amorous, man wants “some”…girl does too. Girl can’t make first move due to her upbringing and societal mores, guy makes first move and he’s getting a hard-on so he gets more persistent with his begging. Girl notices hard-on, she gets even more excited but has to play “the role” of what would people think though she knows she wants to shed her clothes as well as shed the oppressive, double-standard sexual morality of society.



    BTW…I raped Santa. At least that’s the story KinkyGent tells about the first time we became intimate. He was wearing a Santa suit. 😀


  6. slave_nemo says:

    Wow. I don’t know what to say, except maybe, I thought I was the only one who ever heard Bob’s song “The Talking John Birch Society Blues.” After all, I’m reaching the age of “Loss.” That’s where you lose you memory and the friends who could remind you of all that you have forgotten.

    Personally, I thought the “Cold Outside” thing was more about a couple who wanted sex, but the women (because of the morals of the time) had to play shy…


  7. Hedone says:

    Just watched the Garrett/Skelton video. It was VERY cute …and rapey on her part 😀


  8. Celtic Queen says:

    I’m with Hedone on this one – cant get overly incensed by it really and my first experience of it was a cover by the great Sir Tom Jones and Cerys Mathews from Catatonia which covered it with himour and a tongue firmly in check ending with Cerys uttering the immortal lines in a strong South Wales lilt ” Bloody freezin’ innit”. Never ever got a date rape thing from it, just a woman doing the coy thing and wanting to be “chased”.


  9. Sex Fairy says:

    All discussion aside, POINTS for the Nick and Nora reference!!


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