My Other Work

The Broader Problems of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"

When I was a child, I was a big fan of Star Wars. So, when I was about ten years old, my mom bought me The Empire Strikes Back. There's a scene where the Millennium Falcon is stuck on an asteroid and Princess Leia is in the engine room trying to fix it. Han comes up behind her, wraps himself around her -- to "help" he says. Leia knocks him back. She calls him a scoundrel. He takes her hands and rubs them, moving them closer to his mouth. "Scoundrel? I like the sound of that." "Stop that," Leia protests. "Stop what?" he responds. He moves in closer and closer, despite her expressions of disinterest.

Even as a ten-year-old I realized Han's behavior was wrong. Leia makes it clear she's not interested. But when I pointed that out to my mom, she told me, "No David, she really wants him to do that. Women have to play hard-to-get." Today I would never recommend delivering that message to an impressionable boy, and I doubt my mom would either. But I do understand where she was coming from at the time. Like other women of pre-Millennial generations, she grew up in a culture where women were expected to repel men's advances. Women who happily received them were thought of as "loose" (and worse).

That brings us to the 2018 conversation about the holiday song, "Baby It's Cold Outside." Written in the mid-1940s, the duet acts out a conversation between a woman and her date who's desperately trying to get her to stay. The subtext is obvious enough.

Many feminists, especially young ones like me, are concerned because the woman's words are being ignored. She's stating, quite clearly, that she needs to leave and he's arguing with her. At worst, it sounds like he might be trying to over-intoxicate her or even drug her to commit date rape.

But other feminists contextualize the song. In the 1940s, a woman couldn't quickly accept his advances. She needs to make excuses first, and gradually get talked into it, all to keep up appearances. And non-feminists who vigorously defend the song brush off the concerns altogether, suggesting the whole debate is a ridiculous overreaction to innocent lyrics.

The debate essentially boils down to this question: What does the woman want to do?

You know what? She never actually tells us.

The decision she's making appears to be based entirely on what other people want and expect of her.

Among the reasons she needs to leave are "my mother will start to worry," "my father will be pacing the floor," "the neighbors might think..." "My sister will be suspicious," "My brother will wait at the door," and perhaps the strangest to modern ears, "My maiden aunt's mind is vicious."

At the same time, she's balancing those expectations with the reasons her date is giving her to stay. Those reasons are primarily based on his own expectations of her. "What's the sense in hurtin' my pride?" he asks her. "How can you do this thing to me?" Even when he expresses concern for her safety (in this supposedly once-in-a-century blizzard), he says "Think of my lifelong sorrow if you got pneumonia and died." HIS lifelong sorrow is what she should consider?

But it works. She decides to stay a little longer, for half a drink more, then a cigarette more. Then, we assume, a little longer still.

But nobody is asking her what she wants. I’m not even sure she’s considering what she wants.

And that's the first problem. This song was written at a time and in a culture when the wishes and feelings of the woman weren't considered. For all intents and purposes, she was the property of her family and he was trying to steal her. That's how the world of those generations viewed women.

The second problem is this: Let's assume she really did want to stay, and that she really did want to do (ahem) the subtext. What about the next young woman this man has over? What happens when she says, "No no no" and she means it?

The "affirmative consent" movement has picked up steam in recent years specifically because the ambiguity of these situations -- situations in which a woman feels the need to play "hard to get" -- lead to the tragedies now widely revealed in the #MeToo era.

Do I have a major problem with "Baby It's Cold Outside?" No. But as Harrison Ford would say in another one of his movies, "It belongs in a museum!"

Dave Broker