Tis the season for arguing mindlessly about consent on Facebook? Doesn’t have that typical Bing Crosby “White Christmas” ring to it, does it?
But since the discussion of some radio stations refusing to play the holiday classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is the controversy du jour, I figured I’d open my big mouth about it too. While most of the discussions I’ve seen devolve pretty quickly into nothing useful at all (like most discussion on Facebook), I think that this does have the potential to be a catalyst for important discussions about the difference between intent and impact as well as raise questions about…well, about what we choose to raise questions about.
First let’s talk about the difference between intent and impact.
In the spirit of these kinds of arguments, I’m going to start by saying something inflammatory: if you are honestly trying to say that this song explicitly and consciously depicts someone (in most versions, a man) attempting to coerce another person (in most versions, a woman) into having sex against their stated wishes, encouraging non-consensual relations, then you are a first class idiot.
This song is not about date rape. The intent of this song is very clear: it’s depicting two people who are very much in love who probably have better things to do or responsibilities to maintain (or other people’s perceptions to manage), but who just can’t seem to say goodbye. If you don’t understand that, then you’ve never been that smitten teenager on the phone with their first real boy/girlfriend until late into the night – you hang up. No, you hang up. No, you first. It’s eye-rollingly sweet, and makes anyone who is not in the couple immediately want to gag, but that’s the tone of most non-hymnal Christmas music. It’s Schmaltzy and cute and winks at you a little too obviously.
This is not a song about coercion. In fact, it seems pretty clear that the second voice in the song wants to stay but is actually worried about what other people will think about her: she names off several members of her family and their expected reactions, but in the end she is the one who decides that maybe she’d like “a half a drink more.” Yes, I realize that I’ve resorted back to gendered pronouns when describing the song, but isn’t that what this is about? Our culture only understands sexual aggression in a male perpetrator/female victim model, and people are really only upset about the version that puts a male voice in the first role and a female voice in the second role. In a truly “woke” world we would be talking about what consent and coercion look like throughout the spectrum of sexual and gender diversity…but that’s a post for another time. She’s worried about others’ perceptions of her, and there are some who have argued that this song was actually low key rebellious for the time, presenting a woman who was breaking from societal norms and owning her sexual choices. She’s no Rosie the Riveter, but I think there’s some merit to that argument.
So it’s clear (at least I hope it is) that the intent of this song was never to portray non-consensual relations. That is true.
But what is also true is that intent is not the same thing as impact.
The fact that this song was intended as a sweet celebration of one couple’s infatuation doesn’t change the fact that we live in much different times than when the song was written. The context is different, and context absolutely matters. A line like, “Hey, what’s in this drink?” doesn’t have the same meaning as it did for Dean Martin’s generation. There are people who have been roofied and have experience coercion and sexual assault who hear that song, and that line in particular, and aren’t filled with holiday cheer. The impact is there, regardless of the intention. And to act like that impact doesn’t or shouldn’t matter is ignorant at best and heartless and cruel at worst.
So what’s the answer? Do we pull it off the radio and ban it from our holiday parties, never to be spoken of again? That’s what our current “cancel culture” seems to be promoting. Then you end up with equally zealous people who love that song and cherish it and refuse to believe that anything bad could ever be associated with it. So what’s the answer? Do we ban it? Do we not, and then mock and shame those who claim to be hurt by it? Why is there never any middle ground in these discussions?!
I think it’s a good place to start to have some meaningful discussions about how the culture we consume presents issues of consent, coercion, and healthy adult sexual/romantic relationships. Because what I’ve seen of this incendiary debate so far misses a couple of points that I think are actually very important:
- As noted before, a lot of people are only upset about versions of the song that feature a male voice in the role of the aggressor (or in their worldview, perpetrator) and a female voice in the role of the person being seduced (or, again, in their view coerced). But consent isn’t a gendered issue, and it isn’t an issue for heterosexual relationships exclusively. Our discussions around consent need to be much more inclusive and nuanced to recognize that women can be the aggressor, and that all kinds of queer and trans folks can, and often do, find themselves in both roles in that kind of situation.
- If a radio station chooses to ban “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” I think they are setting a great example for what it means to support and listen to the voices of those who feel uncomfortable or victimized by this song. But are they applying that same standards to their entire playlists? What about Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which is very explicitly about getting women to take drugs so you can sleep with them. Did the stations also remove that song from their playlist? What about some of the older catalog by an artist like Eminem, who wrote very explicit songs about his ex-wife and the violence he wanted to commit against her? Is the station doing this because they really want to support people who have experienced sexual assault, or are they just using a current controversial topic to win some “woke points” from the millennials with something that won’t really affect their bottom line (Robin Thicke tends to bring in more ad revenue than old Dean, after all)?
At the end of the day, I like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I think it’s cute and sweet, and as much as I try to play the hard bitch, I know what it’s like to be in that sort of relationship and know that you have adult-y things you should be doing, but you just want to cuddle for a little while longer. I see the intent of the song, and I feel comfortable listening to it.
But I’m also able to separate my private enjoyment from the issue of public presentation. If I want to hear “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I can do that pretty much any time I want to. I have a subscription to Prime Music, I have the Pandora and YouTube apps on my phone, and I have two Echos (one in my office and a new one in my bedroom that I take with me traveling). I can hear that song whenever I damn well please. So that means that if a radio station decides to stand with victims of assault, I don’t need to get all butthurt about it. I can still hear the song as much or as little as I like. If a radio station does decide to keep it in their rotation, then I might encounter it “in the wild” and I’m fine with that, but I hope that if someone is also hearing it and doesn’t feel comfortable that they are in an environment where they can at least feel comfortable saying so.
People getting upset about radio stations removing this song are representative of a bigger problem in our society, one that mirrors the disgusting politics of “religious intolerance.” People forget that there is an important and necessary distinction between what is public and what is private. If you want to sit in your home and be a racist, or a homophobe, or a transphobe, or a misogynist, or some other type of asshole, that’s actually just fine. I hope that you learn and evolve, and I hope that some day you come out of your ignorance, but you have the right to exist in that state in your private life. But in public, being an asshole has (or should have) consequences. Someone calling you on your homophobic shit isn’t “religious intolerance,” it’s reminding you that you are in a space that is shared with EVERYONE – that’s what the fuck “public” means. To argue that this is somehow “intolerance” is rooted in privilege and entitlement, and if you don’t believe that, look at who is making these claims of religious intolerance: white, hetero, Christians who are trying to openly spout some sort of -ism. No one is claiming “religious intolerance” when communities oppose Muslims creating spaces for them to commune and worship. No one is claiming “religious intolerance” when Native Americans are banned from practicing their traditional religious practices in college campus housing or have the cops called on them for burning sage or other traditional herbs in the privacy of their own homes. But ask some homophobic Christian to bake a cake for a gay wedding, and let the sad tales of persecution flow!
I get that our culture is changing and that it can be hard for us to enjoy the things we used to enjoy in the same ways. And that can be sad, and frustrating. But is it really worth causing harm to someone else just so that you can hold on to one holiday song that you still have every right and opportunity to listen to in the privacy of your own home? And on the other side, are we really going to spend this much time and effort (resources that are very much finite) on a song that only gets played a couple months out of the year, instead of just changing the station or exiting the location where we’re hearing it when there are so many bigger, more worthier things that need our attention?
Maybe I’m not “woke” enough, but this toxic argument culture is putting me to sleep…
(Editor’s Note: Thanks to my friend Nicole for the link to the Washington Post article about the progressive roots of the song, linked above.)