Suzanne Rindell’s new novel Three-Martini Lunch is set in the New York publishing industry circa the 1950s. It centers on Eden Katz, a young woman trying to work her way from secretarial duties up to an editorial position. That means spending late nights at work, going through manuscripts — and dodging the drunken, aggressive advances of a man whom she can’t afford to offend if she wants to be promoted.
Because Eden’s been chosen as this man’s prey, she’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t: any accommodation of his demands will make her morally suspect, while if she continues to reject him, he’ll continue to make her life difficult in myriad ways. Many people at the office know what’s going on, but no one is able or willing to intervene. Eden is trapped.
That’s the world in which the Frank Loesser song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” first became a hit. A duet between a man and a woman (originally labeled “wolf” and “mouse” on the printed score, lest there be any ambiguity about the dynamic at play), the song has the female partner repeatedly insisting she has to go, even as she lingers and the man applies steady pressure to get her to stay. “What’s the sense of hurting my pride?” he asks.
This year, the song was rewritten by Minneapolis singer-songwriters Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski. Their rewrite — in which the male partner’s lyrics are replaced with phrases supportive of the woman’s right to choose for herself whether to stay (and, by implication, hook up with him) or leave — has become the center of a still-growing conversation about consent. Many have applauded Liza and Lemanski, while others have mocked the duo’s remake as symptomatic of today’s allegedly hyper-sensitive society.
A main thread of the argument offered by those who dislike the new version is that the song has to be understood in its proper historical context. The traditionalists point out that Loesser wrote the song as a playful duet for himself and his wife, and that in the 1949 film where the song debuted (Neptune’s Daughter), it was heard both as a male-female duet and as a female-male duet with the roles reversed. (Are you surprised at which gender casting became a pop standard?)
In the ’40s and ’50s, the song’s defenders note, the woman’s part might have been heard as the pro forma protestations of a woman who really wants to get hot and heavy by the fire but understands that “nice girls” don’t do such things. In that reading, the male partner is trying to help his visitor shed the strictures of the double-standard.
Okay, sure — but this was always disingenuous in a world where men clearly held the upper hand in both professional and personal spheres. No doubt Eden’s aggressor told himself that the young woman obviously wanted his bod, she just couldn’t say so, because, you know, repression. Grabbing at Eden was practically doing her a favor, this man might have told himself as he whistled the “Baby It’s Cold Outside” melody.
Then there’s the fact that it’s not the 1940s anymore — and, as Liza and Lemanski have repeatedly pointed out, the issue is how the lyrics sound today. Today, the presumption (if not, sadly, always the reality) is that women are in control of their own sexuality, and when we hear a woman say no, we understand that it really means no. The man’s responses sound passive-aggressive at best, and just plain aggressive at worst. If she wanted to stay, she’d say so.
If the song’s defenders want to demand that the song’s critics consider historical context, it’s only fair to ask that the defenders, for their part, consider the nuances of how rape culture works in 2016. A big brass stick that was originally intended to hold a candle can still kill you if it hits you over the head, and just because a song was originally intended to be playful doesn’t mean it can’t perpetuate harmful language and ideas.
The male lyrics in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” draw on a vocabulary that men have been using for centuries to pressure women into unwanted sexual contact. “I just want to protect you! You’re hurting me! Can’t I compliment you? You just thrill me so much! Sip this alcoholic drink, and get over your hang-ups.”
When a woman is the victim of sexual assault, the rapist’s defenders often put the blame on her, compounding the harm. She should have said no more forcefully, people say. It was her responsibility. Look at what’s happening in the “Baby It’s Cold Outside” scenario, though: the “mouse” is saying no, repeatedly, while the “wolf” is pressing all his advantages. It’s literally cold and possibly genuinely dangerous outside, and his response is to hand her a drink and talk about her delicious lips.
Could this scenario be genuinely flirtatious? Yes, but when gendered exchanges like these are heard in the real world today (and when they were heard in the 1940s, too, as many women who were around then can attest), they rarely constitute coded language for mutual attraction: the women mean, literally, what they say. She wants to go, and he’s pressuring her to stay. Is this really what we need to be hearing in shopping malls and TV specials during a season dedicated to love, caring, and hope?
I think I know what Eden Katz would say, “historical context” and all.