Christmas & Feminism : Baby, it's cold outside
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
In 2018, and in the middle of the MeToo movement, Christmas songs were placed under public scrutiny to find if anything in there would be in any encouraging any kind of form of violence between women and if we could find any characteristic of rape culture. Baby it's cold outside found itself in the middle of a controversy as containing rape references. John Legend took it as his mission to record a MeToo friendly version of the Christmas classic. His duet with Kelly Clarkson has been released earlier in November. So, what was it all about ?
Looking at the lyrics of the original song, there were two lines that were definitely not female friendly : "Say, what's in this drink ?" and "What's the sense of hurting my pride ?". THese two lines can be understood as a risk of the date being out of line and seeing the woman's no as a personal offense and as in not accepting her right to consent or not.
Otherwise, the song surprised me not by its supposed sexism but by how the society is depicted in it. There are many mentions of the public eye and judgement the woman would have to face if she stays : "I ought to say no" / There's bound to be talk tomorrow" / At least there will be plenty implied. There are many mention of her family and the men mainly being worried and what it would mean for her to stay as if she was still a minor, as if there was a concept of honour she had to protect by saying no. Because from her point of view, she wants to stay "but maybe just a half a drink more". It is a carefully crafted seduction game between two adults in quite a traditional / conservative society where the woman can not say yes openly without being seen as too easy or not proper.
As Dean Martin's daughter said when asked about the controversy around the song "it's a song not about a woman that can't say no but about a society that can't hear a woman saying yes". In the song most of her lines include other people's judgement which says nothing about her consent but all about her fear of being judged and feeling like she can't free herself from the expectations the society puts on her.
Instead of changing only the two problematic lines, John Legend's version completely rewrites the song but quite interestingly keeps all the moments of the woman being judged by society for her behaviour. The problem found in the original version still remains. In 2019, one could expect a song with the woman owning her desire for the man and free herself from what society thinks is proper. But the new version only perpetuates this idea that she is not free.
There are still good points like consent being the centre of the song. It's interesting to have lyrics like "it's your body, your choice" or "I want you to stay, it's not up to me)" with the man realising he can not impose his desire. With such a popular tune, the more people listen to it, sing it, the more will start to also get the message and it might change behaviours. Having consent in a song can help to see it as sexy and make it as a part of seduction, relationships, dating.
The song sometimes falls in its own trap with lines like "Oh, I'm supposed to say no (mm, I guess that's respectable)". As a woman, I can not help but wonder why it should be considered as respectable. This song has been released in 2019 - a year in which it is considered respectable to say no to a man even if a woman wants to say yes. What would he have said if she said yes ? I mean, he is very eager to get her, so by this logic, does this mean he is not respectable ? Should she think less of him for that ? Switching the genders, many people would say it would be unfair of her to judge of his character only based on that. But when it comes to women, it seems like we do not get the same courtesy.
Also, for a song that preaches respect, it looks like there is a lack there of : My daddy will be pacing the floor (wait, what are you still livin' home for?). There was no judgement and patronising needed. This is a grown-up woman and she lives where she wants and no one needs to judge her. It is a few lines in the song so the basis for romance and seduction is not there.
There is an attempt from the male part to make a move but it comes out awkward and creepy instead of subtle and sensual with lines like : My sister will be suspicious (well, gosh your lips look delicious) /My brother will be there at the door (oh, he loves my music, baby, I'm sure) / My gossipy neighbor's vicious (I'm a genie, tell me what your wish is). It sounds very pushy and it also looks like he assumes she has given up on leaving. It is very arrogant and can remind a lot of women of the guy in the street that asks you for the time and can not take no for an answer persuaded he is the 8th wonder of the Earth. It feels like the song has gone back to clichés about romance when it's all about getting out of them and offering an equal dynamic in romantic relationships.
Although the newest version leaves out the two problematic lines, the updating reveals other problems that remain accurate today as they were in 1944. Women are still victims of society judgement. In the end, that's what both songs are all about : is it worth taking the risk of having a good time and being judged, rejected for it ? It was never about her choice and consent but about escaping society's control and her reputation being ruined because of society's outdated and gendered standards.
At the end of the day, even now in 2019, a women still risks being considered a slut if she sleeps with a man while the men never face that question. Never once in that song, the man was worried about what other people would think. Not once, he was concerned about anything else but what he wanted and if she was on the same page. The consequences were always heavier for the women, not the men. That's what the rewrite of "Baby, it's cold outside" reveals. Wether you like the rewrite or the original, these two songs will remain formidable documents for History as showing that the problem was never the choice the woman made or didn't make but the society that didn't let her explore her desires freely. It's a song about frustration, unequality, unfulfilled desires at its core.