Opinion

Pulling Baby It's Cold Outside is puritanical and absurd

Women deserve better than lazy, intentionally uncharitable readings of half-a-century-old songs for their feminist causes. People, romance and sexuality are complex.

Nothing says 'happy holidays' like the death of nuance and frantic institutional overreaction

Women deserve better than lazy, intentionally uncharitable readings of half-a-century-old songs for their feminist causes. People, romance and sexuality are complex. (MGM/YouTube)

After a radio station in Cleveland decided to withdraw Baby, It's Cold Outside from its rotation of Christmas songs, Canadian stations (including a couple of CBC Music streams) were quick to follow suit. The concern is that the Christmas classic is inappropriate in the #MeToo era since, on the surface, the lyrics speak to a man pressuring a woman to stay the night.

The Cleveland radio station's own poll, posted to its Facebook page, found that only six per cent of respondents thought the song was inappropriate, while 94 per cent wanted it played.

No matter. The potential alone that the track may attract controversy was enough, apparently. So the track is being pulled, sending the message that the intention of the song doesn't matter, nor does the context in which it was written. After all, nothing says "happy holidays" like the death of nuance and frantic institutional overreaction.

Critics cite the song as inappropriate in the "#MeToo era," where we have come to understand what it means to be a woman in a subordinate position, sexually harassed by a man in a position of power. Yet lyrics in the song such as "Been hoping that you'd drop in" and "How lucky that you dropped in" make it sound a lot like the female character in the song has come over unannounced, surprising the man in his home. She flirtatiously threatens to leave, while accepting excuses to stay. How this is an example of #MeToo, I can't quite connect.

"In the context of this song it seems weird to not engage a little bit with the words and the lyrics," says writer Stacy Lee Kong after broadcasters, including the CBC, pull the song 'Baby It's Cold Outside'. The song is being criticized for what some believe to be problematic lyrics, in the wake of the #MeToo movement. But is taking the holiday tune off the radio the right call? Alan Cross, a longtime music journalist also joins the discussion. 19:52

The accusation that Baby, It's Cold Outside is about sexual assault is absurd unless you isolate the entire duet down to the lines "Say, what's in this drink?" and "The answer is no." That ignores the lyrics that suggest that same character internally wrestling with wanting to stay ("I wish I knew how / To break this spell," "I ought to say 'No, no, no sir' / At least I'm gonna say that I tried").

(Odd that someone applying today's mores to the lyrics "Well maybe just a cigarette more" wouldn't also pause in horror at the mention of smoking in the house, but hey.)

The problem is not that there's any consensus that Baby, It's Cold Outside is incompatible with our modern sensibilities. Rather, current-day interpretations of the song would open the door to all kinds of reasonable, interesting, likely messy conversations about how consent can sometimes be complicated, and not as black and white as many would have us believe.

When art challenges us — particularly art from a different time — it's easier to lock it away in the vault forever, instead of engaging with what it is that makes us uncomfortable. In this case, pulling a song from the airwaves is less hassle than confronting the reality that the push-and-pull dynamic of pursuing and being pursued can involve "no"s that don't necessarily mean no.

In the same way that a verbal yes combined with non-verbal signals of discomfort or reluctance mean no, a verbal no when behaviour indicates the opposite is sometimes a "convince me" — and learning to identify when that's the case is where the adventure of attraction lives. The truth is, blanketing the whole mysterious song and dance with labels of creepy and predatory doesn't benefit either men or women, regardless of who's pursuing who.

Women deserve better than lazy, intentionally uncharitable readings of half-a-century-old songs for their feminist causes. People, romance and sexuality are complex, so taking a catchy tune and highlighting the portions that sound most suspicious in 2018 is not just a stretch — it's dishonest.

Unilaterally moralizing that songs, movies, novels or any art from another time is no longer fit for public consumption sends us down a no-win path. It leaves so many valued cultural artifacts vulnerable to puritanical erasure — whether it happens overnight or over time — and robs us of opportunities to continue seeing ourselves in other humans, stories and cultures from our past. 

Going out of our way to find evil interpretations of classic art doesn't further a feminist agenda, but engaging with and analyzing older works such as Baby, It's Cold Outside just might. But that can only happen if people actually hear the song.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Jessica Goddard

Jessica Goddard is an opinionated millennial living in Toronto.