It seems every holiday season comes with its own salvo in the culture wars: Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas? (or my personal favorite, Merry Christmahanakwaanzica?) Was Jesus blonde? Is Santa white?
This year’s kerfuffle involved the #MeToo inspired movement to ban the holiday tune “Baby It’s Cold Outside. “ The song drew fire because, by today’s standards, it seems to depict textbook sexual harassment—or worse. The woman in the song insists “I really must go; the answer is no,” but the man continues to try to seduce her, citing his wounded pride, her alluring lips and, of course, the inclement weather as reasons she should stick around and submit to his advances. The enduring popularity of Baby runs counter to the idea of affirmative and enthusiastic consent.
For me this posed a serious dilemma: I’m a committed supporter of #MeToo, but Baby It’s Cold Outside is a beloved holiday classic performed by some of the best comic/musical duos in the canon of mid century America pop (Dean Martin and Martina McBride are pitch perfect; Sammy Davis hams it up with Carmen McRae; oddly, it’s one of the only song Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald ever did badly.) Happily, I think I’ve found a way to let #MeToo and Baby It’s Cold Outside peacefully coexist.
It’s worth pointing out that there are thousands of more objectionable songs from a feminist perspective: for instance roughly 30% of all rock and 50% all rap songs ever written. Indeed there are even more objectionable holiday songs: for instance, “Santa Baby,”which is sung from the point of view of a stereotypical conniving gold digger who describes her relationship with her paramour in unapologetically transactional terms: think of all the fun I’ve missed; think of the fellas I haven’t kissed; next year I can be just as good; if you check off my Christmas list… (Eartha Kitt’s rendition is the Platonic ideal.)
Defenders of Baby have pointed out that the song’s critics are making a common interpretive error, reading an old text as if it had been written today. Understood in its original context, Baby depicts an innocent courtship ritual of the kind hook-up culture, “friends with benefits,” and the Tinder dating app have displaced. It was written in 1944, a time when social mores dictated that unmarried women could never say “yes” to romantic overtures—at least not without feigning resistance. While from today’s perspective, the man’s entreaties might sound overbearing or even sinister, the whole point of the song is that the real coercion that drives the narrative comes from a society that demands sexual innocence from women. The woman’s resistance is based entirely on the potential bad opinion of others (my sister will be suspicious, my father will be pacing the floor, my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious). She doesn’t really say “no” for her own sake; instead, she says I ought to say no, no, no, sir. At least I’m going to say that I’ve tried. The man in the song isn’t forcing himself on her; he is helpfully providing her with excuses to do what she wants to do, too. Hence, in the final bars of each verse, the answer and response becomes a harmony sung in unison: ahh but it’s cold outside.
This is all so apparent that it’s hard to believe the critics ofBaby It’s Cold Outside failed to see it. I suspect the song struck a nerve this time around, not because it depicts sexual harassment, but because it so clearly doesn’t. It rather suggests just the sort of ambiguity about motivation and consent that leads people to question the claims of victims of sexual assault. Rules that require affirmative and enthusiastic consent to sexual encounters insist that “no means no.” The implication of Baby It’s Cold Outside—both when it was written and today—is that a woman’s “no” can also mean, “yes, just give me an excuse.”
So can you be a fan of Baby It’s Cold Outside and of #MeToo? You can if you recognize that rules requiring affirmative consent are not rules of interpretation, but rules of construction. “No means no” is not based on a presumption that every woman who says “no” really wants the evening to end. Instead, it imposes a duty to treat no as no and not speculate about alternative interpretations, however plausible. The point is to eliminate ambiguity. And this makes perfect sense because the fog of ambiguity often surrounding sexual consent gives sexual predators an excuse: They can later claim they didn’t know their advances were unwelcome.
The purpose of affirmative consent laws is to change the social norms reflected in Baby It’s Cold Outside, in which one might imply yes while saying no. The goal is to ensure that no one—man or woman, pursuer or pursued—relies on insinuation. Affirmative consent means men hoping to coax sex from reluctant women will have to wait for an unambiguous “yes,” and that women who want sex won’t be able to say they tried to resist. The objective is to put an end to the typical dance of seduction depicted in Baby It’s Cold Outside—not because it was always a sexual assault in disguise, but because the coyness and ambiguity underlying it makes it easier for predators to disguise sexual assaults as misunderstandings.
Of course this means a certain innocent playfulness in seduction will be lost: there is always a cost in changing long standing norms around which rituals and expectations have developed. But for the most part, the tug of war between social expectations and individual desire that drives Baby It’s Cold Outside is rapidly becoming as anachronistic as the social rituals of France’s ancien regime. But just as it wouldn’t make sense to object to Les Liasons Dangereuses as a protest snobbery and classism, I won’t stop enjoying Dean-O and Martina singing Baby It’s Cold Outside just because it reflects—and comments on—the outdated sexual mores of a bygone era. At the same time, just as we’ve rejected the aristocratic affectations of our ancestors, we should also reject the repressive sexual moralism and masculine aggression that have long made the courtship rituals of the past a minefield of shame and physical risk for women.