Culture shifts. Sometimes in a good direction. The pressure to change builds slowly until it is suddenly so apparent that we wonder why it wasn’t always that way. The current poster child for cultural awareness is a 74-year old song Baby It’s Cold Outside.
A few years after it was written it made it into a long-forgotten screwball comedy film called Neptune’s Daughter. (This is one of thousands of movies I haven’t seen so I’m relying on Google for my research here.)
The song is sung twice in the movie. Once by the romantic leads, Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban, then again by the comic foils, Betty Garrett and Red Skelton. Garrett and Skelton reversed the roles. It won the 1949 Academy Award for best song, the only Oscar the film went home with. It beat out My Foolish Heart, a much nicer song, in my opinion.
It is not the first song to cross the line into misogyny. The history of popular music is full of them. Six and a half years ago I wrote a column about this for the Guelph Tribune. It was printed on International Women’s Day, 08 March 2012. Artists ranging from Elvis Presley to John Lennon have recorded songs that won’t get played on any radio stations today.
Baby It’s Cold Outside has always been controversial. Today it is widely seen as a rapey thing in which a man can’t take no for an answer. I’ve always thought of it this way and wondered why it only gets played at Christmas. It’s not a Christmas Carol. It’s a song about sexual desire in the middle of winter, but it’s never played in February. Only in December. Now not at all. It has been frozen out of the CBC and many other playlists.
There’s another view of the song that some feminist writers hold. It looks at the lyrics through a slut-shaming glass. Seventy-four years ago, women were supposed to be well-behaved. This meant a lady ought not stay out past midnight and never slip into bed and spend the night with a man who wasn’t her husband. Loads wanted to but needed an excuse. Without one they would be shamed by society’s moral guardians.
The same shaming lies behind the Everly Brothers’ 1957 song Wake Up Little Susie. In this song, a teenage couple go on a date to a movie, fall asleep and don’t get home until four in the morning. They know they are in deep trouble with the girl’s dad. He’s going to be pissed because he’ll wear some of the shame associated with his daughter’s unacceptable behaviour.
Wake Up Little Susie was banned from radio playlists back in the day, now it is allowed. Baby It’s Cold Outside was acceptable then, now it’s not. Culture shifts. It always has, and always will.
The bottom line is that we don’t judge Baby It’s Cold Outside by the social standards of 1944 when it was written. Don’t forget that in films and television back in the day, mum and dad slept in single beds. We judge yesterday’s songs, books and films by today’s values and on that measure it loses.
On a lighter note, it even fails from an environmental point of view. It is a clear denial of climate change and the cooling effect of global warming.
All the same, it’s nice to see society finally catching up to me.