Maybe It’s Cold Outside?

In recent years, Christmastime in America has meant not the chance to focus on a season of love and joy and time with family, but to weigh in on two contentious topics: whether the Starbucks cup design is Christmasy enough, and whether the lyrics to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” are emblematic of rape culture.

Af Sarah Fuhrman
December 2018

Although it’s troubling (but not surprising) that it’s easier for our country to fixate on the meaning of a decades-old song than to consider the plight of those who are actually cold outside right now, I’m glad to be at a place and time where we can have a public debate over the classic Christmas song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” (Actually, there’s no mention at all of Christmas in this song, it could just as appropriately be sung in February or March as around the holiday.) And a debate it certainly is; people have taken every possible angle on this issue, dug through old movies and grandparents’ reminisces to suss the meaning of lyrics like, “Say, what’s in this drink?”

In case you aren’t familiar with the song, it was penned by a Broadway composer in 1944 for him and his wife to sing to guests at a housewarming party. Covered extensively since then, it takes the form of a call-and-response for two singers. The first, sometimes referred to as the “Mouse,” is telling the second singer, sometimes referred to as the “Wolf,” that they need to say goodnight to the Wolf and head home (see the traditional version, recorded in 1949 above). The Wolf, traditionally sung by a male, is trying to convince the Mouse, traditionally sung by a female, to stay, using inclimate weather (“baby, it’s cold outside”), logistical challenges (“no cabs to be had out there”), and compliments (“your eyes are like starlight now”) to persuade Mouse; implied is that Wolf is in the mood for some Christmas hanky panky.

Despite the plethora of opinions on whether Mouse is an agent or a subject, I see one angle that hasn’t yet been considered; the one that, while impossible in this circumstance, is the one most likely to yield the truth: Ask Mouse!

From these few lyrics, and from the gender norms we habitually ascribe to women and men, we begin to guess and conjecture. Is this all a joke between two established and equal lovers? Is it coercion, a nasty depiction of a man pressuring a woman to override her own desires—perhaps to go home, take off her girdle, and curl up with a good book—so that he can find sexual gratification at the cost of her desires and interests? Or do we have it all wrong? Is Mouse in fact fighting societal norms to make her own decision about her sexuality?

Despite the plethora of opinions on whether Mouse is an agent or a subject, I see one angle that hasn’t yet been considered; the one that, while impossible in this circumstance, is the one most likely to yield the truth: Ask Mouse!

Consent is a gift we give over and over again

Because we can’t ask Mouse, we’re forced to do our own read of the situation. In doing so, we effectively cast ourselves as judge and jury, deciding whether Mouse was pleased when Wolf slid a bit closer or whether she felt trapped. As we try to determine Mouse’s feelings, and as so often happens in our public discussions of sex and sexuality and consent, we impose our own biases and layer our own lenses over the events, whether consciously or subconsciously. Where one person with one set of experiences and views might see a mutual tease between two agreeing partners, another could easily see Wolf engaging in coercion that forces Mouse into a type of pseudo-consent: Mouse might not have chosen to stay if Wolf hadn’t persuaded Mouse, but Mouse also wasn’t kicking and screaming and fighting, so if something happens that Mouse didn’t want to happen, Mouse will have an awfully difficult time proving it in the American legal system.

But here’s the thing that we miss in our debate over these song lyrics, the thing that our judicial systems and cultures have also missed: If we want to know whether Mouse consented or not, we have to ask Mouse. Regardless of what the Wolf thought or what can be proved, Mouse is the only person who can authentically tell us whether Mouse actually made an informed decision to consent to Wolf’s advances (assuming Mouse did actually consent, did actually decide to stay). It’s up to Mouse to tell us whether the events described in the song were menacing and predatory or fun and consensual, because consent belongs to the person who gives it.

Moreover, Mouse, or any person, doesn’t just bestow consent once, like a nice sweater you wrap up and give to your boyfriend’s father for Christmas. Consent is a gift we give over and over again, a choice we make anew in every situation.

Moreover, Mouse, or any person, doesn’t just bestow consent once, like a nice sweater you wrap up and give to your boyfriend’s father for Christmas. Consent is a gift we give over and over again, a choice we make anew in every situation. Mouse might have given informed consent to stay for one more drink, but this doesn’t mean Mouse consented to be kissed, to stay for the night, or to engage in any further hanky panky with Wolf, because consent for one act does not mean consent for another. Mouse always owns Mouse’s consent, regardless of whether we recognize that on individual or structural levels.

But consent is nuanced, and nuance requires more work

This conception of consent is nuanced and individualistic and situation dependent; what might be consensual for Mouse on one snowy night might not be consensual for Mouse a week later. What might be consensual for Mouse might never be consensual for Mouse’s friend. All of this makes it clear why society write large doesn’t like this idea of consent. It’s nuanced, and nuance always takes more work. It doesn’t fit within our cultural framework or our legal system, where we like to evaluate consent in ways that are easy to apply in multiple circumstances and in ways that keep us (read: men) safe. Simply and sadly, it doesn’t fit within our framework —or perhaps our ability—to leave our own preconceptions aside and simply ask the person bestowing consent whether and what they are consenting to, and to believe them when they answer.

But every time we make excuses for why we just can’t ask the bestower of consent whether they really were consenting, we enforce the idea that that person’s consent doesn’t really matter; our/the bystanders opinions are enough.

We’re no less prone to making the same mistake when we debate “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” We don’t consider what Mouse was thinking during all of this. We don’t consider Mouse. At this point, you might be willing to scream, “Sarah! It’s a song! We can’t ask anyone,” and yes, you’re correct. But every time we make excuses for why we just can’t ask the bestower of consent whether they really were consenting, we enforce the idea that that person’s consent doesn’t really matter; our/the bystanders opinions are enough. And it does matter, even in songs, even if the bestower has consented to twelve other things beforehand, even if discerning whether they’ve consented to this particular thing this particular time feels awkward, annoying, or unromantic.

Make space to speak about consent

So what do we do with songs and other emblems of culture like the fraught “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? Getting rid of it might be the easiest solution, but this doesn’t solve the problem; it merely pushes the discussion underground and potentially alienates or confuses those who don’t understand what the problem is in the first place. The answer, difficult though it may be, is to keep engaging with “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” to keep having conversations about what consent looks like, how we can foster it, and how we can teach it. The answer is to make space for Mouse to speak for Mouse’s self, at least in a song, and hopefully, in a not so distant future, in real life.

 

Read a danish translate of this article right here:

Maybe It’s Cold Outside?