Over the years, I've come to the belief that there are three stages of listening to this song. Roughly, they are first thinking nothing of the song and either liking it or not on its merits as a song. I wager the majority of people are on the first stage. You may like the song or not, or may prefer certain versions over others, but it's basically just another Christmas song that you hear a million times, no more notable or memorable than Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It Snow or Silver Bells.
The second stage is an active, often passionate, hatred of the song. This comes about when someone listens closely to the song (or reads/watches/hears from someone else who has) and views the song through modern understandings. It ceases to be a jaunty duet and transforms into That Date Rape Song. Frankly, with this interpretation, the active loathing is pretty understandable.
However, I think there's also a third stage. This is where the listener is more versed in social mores of 1940s America and more understanding of the mindset when the song was written. Then it ceases to be a song about date rape and becomes a coquettish play between two characters who very much want the same thing but are dancing around it and each other because the tease and the chase are half of the fun.
I'll admit that I spent a fair amount of time on stage two. I wasn't too active in my dislike, but that was more laziness and grim amusement than anything. It was largely a lark a few years ago that I started reading more about the song, because it seemed odd that such a vile song would be a Christmas standard.
That's when I discovered this essay from Persephone Magazine. Frankly, it made a lot of sense. After reading that, I did a little more digging on the history of the song, mainly backing up her factual claims. With that information in mind, her analysis is pretty solid, especially in light of the fact that, when it was released, it was viewed as empowering because the female was throwing social mores to the wind by deciding to stay even though it would be scandalous.
Indeed, that's what much of the song is.
She doesn't want to leave because she wants to go home. She wants to leave because the neighbors might talk, or her mother would disapprove, or her father would be mad. A proper girl doesn't stay the night at a male's house, but she very clearly wants to.
I think part of the problem is that modern audiences have become quite sensitive and, paradoxically, while modern society is sexually liberated, it is exceedingly puritanical in many, many ways. In a world where people question if "constant and enthusiastic" affirmative consent is going far enough, I can see how this song would be misunderstood.
Which is kind of too bad. Setting aside its merits as a song, as that's a matter of taste, I think this represents a bit of... temporal jingoism, for lack of a better term. Other eras are hard enough to understand when you try to take them on their own merits. Trying to do so through a lens of modern sensibility is just madness. Sadly, I think the madness is a feature, not a bug. In many ways, earlier generations and eras weren't as enlightened as we are now. If you have no accomplishments of your own, at least you can look down your nose at the savages that came before, and maybe pull down some ancient monuments in a fit of pique.
Baby It's Cold Outside certainly isn't significant enough to be a kind of Chesterton's Gate, but that doesn't mean it deserves to be torn down by people who completely and utterly miss the point. I think the closing from the linked essay sums it up quite nicely:
The song, which is a back and forth, closes with the two voices in harmony. This is important — they’ve come together. They’re happy. They’re in agreement. The music has a wonderfully dramatic upswell and ends on a high note both literally and figuratively. The song ends with the woman doing what she wants to do, not what she’s expected to do, and there’s something very encouraging about that message.I may, and likely do, disagree with Ms. Belle on just about everything political or social, but she and I can agree on this song.
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