A new version of the classic song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is making the rounds online as Idina Menzel promotes her recently released Christmas album, Holiday Wishes. The orchestration and vocals are, unsurprisingly, exquisite, and the accompanying video, in which Menzel and duet partner Michael Buble are replaced by dancing, lip-syncing children, is off-the-charts cute. I have lost track of the number of times I have seen it enthusiastically shared in my Facebook feed. So my eye was caught when a friend posted on what she views as the song’s basic creepiness. As I read through the comments, I found she wasn’t alone. Several others criticized the song as being nothing less than a celebration of date rape complete with an illicitly laced beverage (“Say, what’s in this drink?”). A quick search of the Internet archives reveals that this is not a new accusation.
I am surprised at the contempt some apparently feel for what has always struck me as a lighthearted flirtation ditty. The song is probably one of the most popular duet numbers in the history of duet numbers, having been regularly recorded and performed through the years ever since 1948, when songwriter Frank Loesser sold it to MGM (to the great displeasure of his wife, with whom he had performed it at social gatherings for years). In 1949 it was featured by MGM in the motion picture “Neptune’s Daughter,” which depicts the traditional roles of man as seducer and woman as seduced, then the second half flips those roles, putting the female in the position of pursuer. There have been a fair number of similarly upended versions of the song over the years, reflecting the truth that seduction is a two-way street.
Still, the song is most commonly performed with a male as wooer and a female as the one wooed, and there is a reason for that. The picture of man in pursuit of woman that so permeates art, music, and story accurately reflects not only our culture but also our biology. Even today, as “old-fashioned” ideals of dating and marriage have been replaced by more “modern” standards for acceptable behavior, you don’t often see women in movies or television shows proposing marriage. It is the man who buys the ring, gets down on one knee, and puts his heart on the line. It is not considered good manners to congratulate the woman on the occasion of her engagement (that would crassly suggest she is not that much of a catch), but when it comes to the man the opposite is true: he is to be roundly celebrated for snagging himself a wife.
Baby, It’s Frigid In Some Corners
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is not a how-to manual on successful date rape but rather a stylized depiction, akin to a ballet in words, of that strange male-female dance known as courtship. And courtship, by the way, is not confined to people who aren’t married. It turns out happily hitched women like to be courted, too. So while the words of the song, in isolation, could cause one to imagine a situation in which a man is menacing his companion, not taking at face value her repeated attempts to spurn him, they can also be easily interpreted as a playful look at the game of romance. We live in a world that has a heightened awareness of sexual harassment and predatory behavior, and that is a good thing. Young men and women should both be taught that no means no. But that doesn’t negate the appeal of a silly little pop song.
Back to the thread I saw on Facebook. Notwithstanding the changes in lyrics that were made to better suit the song to a younger cast, there was not only offense taken at the song itself, but also at the supposed gall of dramatizing it with children. That view, too, is not an isolated one. But I am not offended by children trying to act like grownups. Dressing up and pretending have always been staples of children’s play. Instead, I am offended by a social milieu in which men don’t woo women as much as state their entitlement to them, and in-your-face female sexuality is celebrated as empowerment while old-fashioned feminine coyness is assailed as weakness. What ever happened to the good ol’ days, when a woman was a pearl of great price, one to whom a man must prove himself worthy before she deigned to even drop her dirty handkerchief in his presence? The princess complex has gotten a bad rap the last few years during the movement to give young girls more realistic and earthy heroines and role models, but I say bring on the princesses: where there are princesses there are more likely to be princes.
Yes, the female in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” repeatedly declines her suitor’s advances. But it’s a song, people. Songs and poems tend to be united by one theme that spins out in different ways. While I am no more a fan of postmodern “truth is subjective” nonsense than the next Federalist writer, there is such a thing as context. Words can be highly ambiguous. The line “Say, what’s in this drink” might be a victim’s sickening realization that she has unknowingly consumed a tranquilizing drug, or it might be the teasing acknowledgment of a grown-up, consenting woman who knows very well what’s in her drink because she asked for it to be put there. Aren’t most of us capable of telling the difference?