The Date Rape Song

December 19, 2018 § 3 Comments

For roughly the past 25 years or so, I’ve referred to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ as the date rape song.  The lyrics are creepy as all get out. And yes, I know the song was written in 1944.  And I know that the lyrics actually reflect pop culture in the 1940s, including jokes about drinks being spiked (with alcohol) and young men and women were not allowed the kind of freedom depicted in the lyrics in 1944.  And that the song was actually written by a married man so he and his wife could sing it at their housewarming party.    I get that.  But it’s not 1944, it’s 2018.

The lyrics of the song include the woman saying she ought to say no and the man complaining about his wounded pride; then she wonders what he put in her drink; and then she even says the ‘answer is no’, and he continues to badger her.  In 2018, this conjures up images of rape culture, of roofies, and continues the idea that it’s romantic to badger and harass a woman until she gives in.  And in the context of #MeToo, this shouldn’t be acceptable.  The fact it took us until now to figure this out is something else, of course.

I posted something along these lines on Facebook earlier this month (minus the historical context) when a series of radio stations in Canada decided to stop playing the song.  Personally, I see that as no major loss.  There are still countless Christmas songs we can listen to in 45,000 different versions until we want to pull our hair out.  The song kinda sucks anyway, I mean, aside from the rape-y feel to it.

And then the commentariat!  My feed lit up with my friends arguing against me.  I even got chastised for being a bad historian for failing to note the song is from the 1940s.  Over and over, the context of the song was explained to me.  But that’s the thing, this cuts both ways.  If we want to consider historical context for things, then let’s discuss Confederate War monuments.

Historical context is a real and important factor in debates about history and artefacts from the past.  And ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is an artefact.  Questions of historical context and artefacts are immediately loaded.  So, to take the example of the Confederate War monument, it does not belong in a public park, but on the grounds of a museum or inside the museum, where it can be historicized and explained, and put into its context.  That is possible and doable.  And it solves the problem of ‘erasing history,’ which gets pro-Confederates riled up.  But a song is not a monument.  A monument is not a a living artefact.  In the past couple of years, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ has been recorded by a wide variety of artists, from Cee-Lo to Trisha Yearwood.  So in addition to being an artefact, it’s a contemporary pop song.  And radio DJs can’t be expected to provide the historical context of the song, nor can we expect that in our Spotify and Apple Music playlists, or on our satellite stations on our TVs.

Something else was fascinating about my Facebook post and the blowback I got.  There was a very clear disconnect between the ‘likes’ and the comments.  The comments were all written by men, save for one woman, a good friend, who noted that she attempts to keep the context of the song in mind when playing it or when she hears it.  As for the likes, they were 90% women.

At the end of the day, I find the song creepy.  And have for a long time.  And while I don’t think the song should be banned (I’m generally not a fan of this kind of censorship, having grown up in the era of Tipper Gore’s PMRC).  But I am fine with radio stations refusing to play it.  That’s their choice.  We generally skip the song when it plays on random Christmas playlists or Apple Music Radio around here.  Life goes on.

But, perhaps due to what I do for a living, having spent much of the past 20+ years in classrooms with university students, I do see very clearly the effects of pop culture on the kids.  I see the effects of rape culture on both the men and women in my classes, I see the effects of misogyny, racism, classism, etc.  And I see that they (like I did at their age) take their cues from pop culture as a whole first, their education second (generally-speaking).

And it is in this sense that I see the problems with ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ all the more.

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