As the winter season arrives, festive songs fill the airwaves, evoking feelings of holiday cheer. However, not all classic tunes are received with the same enthusiasm. In recent years, one song, in particular, has sparked controversy: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” This article delves into the history and context of the song, exploring the evolving understanding of consent in the 1940s.
The Controversy Surrounding “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
In the era of the #MeToo movement, a song depicting a man pressuring a woman to stay with him is no longer viewed as cheery by some. In 2019, on an episode of “The Voice,” John Legend and Kelly Clarkson performed a cover of the song with revised lyrics emphasizing consent. While intended to address concerns, even this new version generated controversy, with critics arguing that the original lyrics should remain unchanged, akin to preserving nudity in classic works of art.
Understanding the Historical Context
To comprehend the song’s meaning, it is essential to consider the time when it was written: 1944. The daughter of the composer, Frank Loesser, Susan Loesser, defended the song’s original lyrics, asserting that they should be understood within the context of the era. For instance, the line “What’s in this drink?” referred to the alcoholic content rather than insinuating the use of drugs. Interestingly, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” initially began as a playful routine performed by Frank Loesser and his wife at social gatherings.
The Song’s Journey to Popularity
Although the song’s backstory was no secret and was even featured in TIME’s 1949 article on its rising popularity, most people encountered it through Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams’ rendition in the 1949 film “Neptune’s Daughter.” The scene, where Montalban playfully prevents Williams from leaving the couch, added a visual element to the song. The subsequent success of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” led to its Academy Award win for Best Original Song in 1950, becoming one of the most popular holiday tunes in the years that followed. Numerous artists, from Louis Armstrong to Miss Piggy, covered the song, and TIME included it in their list of the 100 best songs of all time. Nevertheless, even during its initial release, the song faced criticism for its risqué nature.
Consent and Dating Culture in the 1940s
To understand the debates surrounding the song, it is essential to examine the evolving notions of consent and dating culture in 1940s America. While the period was marked by increased sexual activity due to World War II, dating as it is known today was still a relatively new concept, with unclear rules and expectations.
During this era, contradictions regarding sexual norms were prevalent. Surveys conducted by Alfred Kinsey, author of “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” indicated that while approximately half of men desired to marry a virgin, over 60% of college-educated men disapproved of premarital sex. Similarly, around 80% of college-educated women expressed moral objections to premarital sex. However, despite these attitudes, around half of women and more than half of men reported engaging in premarital sexual relations.
For women, the consequences of being caught engaging in premarital sex were severe. Personal and family reputations were at stake, and abortions were illegal while contraception faced legal restrictions in most states. Unmarried pregnant women often faced societal pressure to give up their babies for adoption and undergo rehabilitation programs before continuing their education. Additionally, women suspected of promiscuity could be arrested and imprisoned under misguided efforts by the government to protect troops from sexually transmitted diseases.
The societal expectations placed on women during this period resulted in the dynamic portrayed in the song. The woman expresses that she “ought to say ‘no'” and mentions the fear of gossip from neighbors if she stays. These negotiations and contradictions prevalent in daily encounters underscore the song’s significance as a historical document reflecting the era’s complexities.
The Evolution of Consent
Although women of the time may have had reasons to hesitate despite their desires, it is crucial to recognize that the situation depicted in the song is not inherently harmless. The concept of “consent” has evolved significantly over time, making it difficult to assess the song’s meaning through a contemporary lens.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, efforts were made to raise the legal age of consent to protect young women who migrated to cities for factory jobs. However, in this era, being alone with a man, especially in a flirtatious context, could be perceived as consent. If a woman attempted to bring such a case to court, she would often face blame, with questions raised about her decision to be alone with the man. Women of color faced even greater challenges in terms of consent, as interracial rape was a prevalent form of terrorism in the South.
Not until the women’s movement of the 1960s did conversations about consent similar to those addressed in the song gain prominence. The political analysis of sexuality and power began to transform, responding to a more sexualized culture that obscured instances of coercion.
The Resilience of the Song
Despite the ongoing debates regarding its meaning, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has managed to maintain its popularity. Paradoxically, when certain radio stations banned the song in 2018, the controversy surrounding it boosted sales. By mid-December of that year, Dean Martin’s 1959 cover became the second best-selling holiday song in terms of digital sales.
In conclusion, understanding the historical context of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” illuminates the complex dynamics of consent and dating culture in the 1940s. This song serves as a reminder of how societal expectations and understandings have evolved over time, prompting ongoing discussions about consent in our contemporary world.