Because we *do* need to talk about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” every now and then.
Based on the current status of my Facebook feed, it is time to have a conversation that I have somehow managed to not have in my four years as a feminist blogger: the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” conversation. We get to address the backlash to the backlash to the song, and along the way, talk about authorial intent, reception theory, and other stuff that I went to school to learn. (Wooo, take that student loans, I’m doing something useful with my degree.)
So there are two figures/groups that can be held as the most important when it comes to determining the meaning of a work—the author, and the audience. People who adhere closely to authorial intention say that the most important way of interpreting what a work means is by following what the author says that the work means or says that they intended it to mean. Someone who adheres closely to reception theory says that it is the audience that actually determines the meaning of the work—that how the work is received (aka its reception) is more important than what the author meant.
JK Rowling presents a really good case study as a microcosm of the “authorial intention” vs. “reception theory” argument, and how both sides can be correct at the same time. Rowling is able to state that she wrote the character of Dumbledore with the understanding that he was gay. It’s totally fair for her to say that when she was writing the work, this intention affected how she wrote Dumbledore, and for readers to decide that this means Dumbledore is canonically gay. But it’s also totally fair for the audience to say, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” Few readers automatically understood Dumbledore to be a queer character, and they are justified in saying that however Rowling intended the character, he doesn’t come across with that intention clearly actualized.
Personally, I do find authorial intention to be important, and I’m always interested to hear what an author says about their own work. But I’m more closely aligned to reception theory, partly as a matter of pragmatism. It is very easy for an author’s intentions to be overwhelmed, and very easy for an audience to take a creation and do something new with it, for good or for ill. At this stage it is nearly pointless to huffily declare “Frankenstein isn’t the name of the monster, it is the name of the Doctor!” because in the cultural zeitgeist, Frankenstein is interchangeably used for both figures. No matter what Mary Shelley originally intended, her work has been reinterpreted and re-understood by people to the point that when you hear the name “Frankenstein,” your thoughts are more likely to flash to Boris Karloff than Colin Clive. In a much more depressing example, the creator of Pepe the Frog killed off his character and had a “funeral” for him after the character was co-opted by the Alt-Right movement. Matt Furie certainly never intended for his creation to be adopted as the mascot for neo-Nazis, but his desires (his intentions) are also nowhere near enough for the character to be reclaimed. Unfortunately, the character will now probably be permanently associated with this movement. And to return to Rowling, announcing post-series that Dumbledore was gay the whole time is a really convenient way to get brownie points for being progressive whilst not losing any of that sweet, sweet homophobe cash when the books were in their heyday.
I give this introduction because I think it’s an important primer for understanding the various levels of the argument over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” So now, some facts:
- The song was first written in 1944, and became very popular after it was featured in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter—it even won the Academy Award that year.
- The original writer conceived of it as a husband-and-wife duet, meant to be performed at parties—the composer, Frank Loesser, performed it with his wife, Lynn Garland.
- On the score of the song, the traditionally-female character is referred to as “Mouse,” and the traditionally-male character is referred to as “Wolf.” (We are presumably supposed to not make any judgment of the relationship between the characters based on this description… None.)
- In Neptune’s Daughter, the song is first sung with Ricardo Montalbán as the Wolf figure and Esther Williams as the Mouse figure, and then by Betty Garrett as the Wolf figure and Red Skelton as the Mouse figure.
- The song has been covered by basically everyone ever.
- There are two main camps in the argument—one which I associate strongly with authorial intent, and one that I associate very strongly with reception theory.
So the side that frequently defends the song usually puts forward something along the following argument (fairly well articulated in this blog post):
The song has to be understood as a product of its time. The phrase “Hey what’s in this drink?” was a common saying that was basically someone implying that they were doing or saying something that they normally wouldn’t, and joking that it was the effect of an overly-strong drink. It also stands as a good cover for a woman who wants to do something outside of the cultural norm. “I’m an alcoholic” is way more socially acceptable in some circles than “I’m a loose woman.” In this reading, the Mouse figure in the song actually does want to stay (and you know, have sex) but is thinking about the social acceptability of the action—all of her objections refer to what others might think of her. The Wolf figure understands that she wants to stay, and is essentially giving her excuses/helping her build a story that gives an innocent explanation as to why she stayed.
The side that is opposed to the song usually puts forward something along the lines of the following argument:
The song is pretty rapey. Or if not rapey, at least a great example of someone not understanding boundaries and consent. The Wolf figure is the poster child for not being able to take no for an answer. The Mouse figure is trying to make her position clear without hurting the Wolf figure or making him angry at the Mouse by stating her intentions and then basically name dropping all of the people that are looking out for her/would be upset if something happened to her/stand in as excuses for why she needs to leave that won’t injure his pride or masculinity. And at this point the whole “What’s in this drink” line is just creepy as hell.
My take: I really do understand the “pro-song” side (and to be honest, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” used to be one of my favorite Christmas songs). It was certainly written with no ill-will, and I think it is a perfectly justified reading of the song lyrics, within the context of the era in which they were written, to see it as a coy back-and-forth between lovers who have a clear understanding of the social mores of their time and the double-speak they have to engage in if they want to have a good time but not leave her with a ruined reputation.
I think that at this point, it takes an (almost overly) generous reading of the song, and understanding of reactions to it, to hold fast to that understanding of the song. Even in the film that made it famous, it’s already kinda iffy. While the characters who are playing the Mouse figure in the song are definitely sending some mixed signals, and both eventually seem happy to stay out of the cold, they also both undergo some pretty troubling things. The characters played by Esther Williams and Red Skelton are both repeatedly, physically prevented from leaving by their Wolf figure counterparts. And even with the mixed signals, just look at that side eye and glaring from Esther Williams. That is a woman who is not super happy to be continually manhandled and redirected.
And at this point, regardless of how it was intended, it sounds a whole lot like a guy pressuring a girl, refusing to take no for an answer, and belittling her concerns. It’s the “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” of Christmas songs. It doesn’t take an easily-triggered “cuck” or an overly-sensitive feminist to see that there’s something pretty messed up about repeatedly telling someone that you want to leave and having them respond by telling you how “delicious” your lips look. This song becomes another entry in a long, long line of media that tells guys that if a woman says no, all you have to do is keep harassing her until she changes her mind just to get you to shut up. There are already a lot of entries in that line, and I don’t know if yet another one also needs to moonlight as a popular Christmas carol that unfortunate retail workers will have to hear roughly two billion times in December. And let’s be real: in the wake of the Cosby trial, I don’t know when, if ever, “hey what’s in this drink” will be taken as an “innocent” joke again.
In my own, humble opinion, I think that the reception theory interpretation is (at least for now) the winner. I just genuinely don’t think that in the current era, we can ignore the implications of a song in which a man repeatedly insists that a woman stay the night and bulldozes over all of her objections. Women already face an uphill battle to have their autonomy and decisions taken seriously, since pretty much all media is against them. Phrases and ideas like “Her lips say no but her eyes say yes,” “She’s playing hard to get,” “Methinks the lady protests too much,” etc. run rampant in popular media. We’re told that if a woman rejects you, you just have to TRY HARDER because eventually you will wear her down, because she secretly always wanted to be worn down. Even when it’s played for laughs or is part of a light-hearted Christmas standard, it sends a dangerous message about ignoring it when a woman tells you no. And that message, the “If at first she won’t fuck you, try, try again” message, is a much more dominant narrative than any potential “It’s secretly empowering to engage in word play with your lover so that you can have sex while still being respectable” message.
Now, despite being an overly sensitive feminist (I don’t think I’m easily-triggered cuck…), I want to make it clear that this is not to say that I fully support a ban on the song, or think that no one should like it, or am secretly judging everyone who hums it, or anything like that. But I do think that it is worth having a conversation, or multiple conversations, about the unintentional messages in the media we consume as well as the intentional ones. And I do think that the situation is more complicated than just rolling your eyes at supposed “snowflakes” who don’t like the song. (Also, in the context of a Christmas song, shouldn’t being a “snowflake” be a good thing? I may be overthinking this.)
Signed: Feminist Fury
Featured image depicts a snowflake up close. It is by maf04 and is used under a create commons, attribution share-alike 2.0 license.