Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: It’s easier to ban Baby, It’s Cold Outside than tackle today’s toxic rape culture

Rather than see festive hit for what it is, we prefer to misread things and give ourselves a pat on the back, says Gail Walker

Cerys Matthews
Cerys Matthews
A Cleveland, Ohio, Christmas radio station has banned the old chestnut Baby, It's Cold Outside because it is not in tune with these #MeToo times
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

A Cleveland, Ohio, Christmas radio station has banned the old chestnut Baby, It's Cold Outside because it is not in tune with these #MeToo times. Yes, that Baby, It's Cold Outside, the Frank Loesser classic covered by all and sundry, from Dolly and Rod, Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon Levitt, Bette Midler and James Caan, to Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews and (blimey) Willie Nelson and Norah Jones.

The duet in which a man tries to dissuade a woman from leaving, in spite of her repeated protestations. Apparently, we should be concerned that the song is predatory. Indeed, 'Baby' has been called "rapey" and "coercive".

"People might say, 'Oh, enough with that #MeToo', but if you really put that aside and read the lyrics, it's not something that I would want my daughter to be in that kind of a situation," said Desiray McCray, midday host at Star 102, WDOK-FM. "The tune might be catchy, but let's maybe not promote that sort of an idea."

On the station's website, another host, Glenn Anderson, said he didn't initially understand why the lyrics were "offensive".

"Now, I do realise that when the song was written in 1944, it was a different time, but now while reading it, it seems very manipulative and wrong," he wrote.

So, it has come to this.

What's next for the chop? Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer? After all, our eponymous hero is bullied and ostracised by his co-workers because of his 'difference'. His employer, Santa, turns a blind eye to these shenanigans, only to call on Rudolf one 'foggy Christmas eve' when old beardy is in a bit of a hole.

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Or Hamlet? Where that crazy Dane blanks his girlfriend, Ophelia, until she eventually goes mad and drowns herself. Classic gaslighting. Jane Eyre? Where Mr Rochester locks Mrs Rochester up in the attic because she is … ahem … 'mad'. Who says, Eddie? You? And isn't madness a social construct anyway …

Gone with the Wind with its sympathy for the Confederacy? To the wastebasket of history - both the book and the film. As for Abba... ? Does Your Mother Know? About an older man resisting the blandishments of a much younger woman. Hmmm. When I Kissed the Teacher. Ah, but was the kiss consensual? Still, maybe give them a bye ball. Swedish, you know ...

More on topic maybe is Slade's 1973 Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me: "And I thought you might like to know/When a girl's meaning yes, she says no."

In fact, to be on the safe side, let's ban everything in case someone somewhere takes offence. After all, it only took one caller to Star 102 to have them sharpening the blue pencils.

Of course, we should be worried about today's rape culture. In fact, it needs radically tackled with legislation. But is this trolling of old songs and long-dead songwriters and silly game-playing aspects of our culture to be the flagship campaigns of our time?

Baby, It's Cold Outside is not about 'blurred lines' in dating culture, some post facto excuse for sexual assault. As far as misogyny goes, it's not even close to the toxic levels of most contemporary R&B culture, with its hoes and bitches. It is not in any way comparable to the porn out there on the internet and the top shelf with its subgenres of 'forced' or 'non-consensual'. Those may be the real problems, right now, today, and managing those takes much greater levels of nuance and subtlety in policing than you need for simply banning the hummable tunes of yesteryear. It will always be much easier to beat up on an old song from eight decades ago and pretend that something has been done about rape or abuse or bullying or psychological coercion. Of course, what is actually going on is that a kind of historical dyslexia is setting in. Somehow, with contemporary trauma so ubiquitous and the causes for offence proliferating beyond anything any one person or group can hope to control, it is easier to consider it intolerable that the past had the sheer gall not to be like us; had the nerve to see things differently; the arrogance to be simpler, more innocent (oh yes) and (let's face it) much less creepy than we are.

Whatever about private morality in the past, the general public culture was much less crude, the behavioural protocols much more defined.

The paranoia we bring to the past is all of our own making and is very much due to the experiences of our own day, not theirs.

We find it difficult to imagine what the lives of others before us were like, or even that they didn't stand about waiting for 'today' to pass judgement on them. The folks in Cleveland certainly seem to suffer from this simple-minded literalism. The duet is about a woman dropping by her boyfriend's ('beau' would perhaps be more appropriate) house. As the evening wears, on the woman is torn between her desire to stay and fear of what society would say:

My mother will start to worry (beautiful what's your hurry?)

My father will be pacing the floor (listen to the fireplace roar)

So really I'd better scurry (beautiful please don't hurry)

But maybe just a half a drink more (put some records on while I pour)

The neighbours might think (baby, it's bad out there)

The man is not only saying he wants her to stay, but offering her possible excuses against the (undoubtedly condemnatory) gossip that would inevitably ensue: There's bound to be talk tomorrow (Think of my lifelong sorrow)/At least there will be plenty implied (If you got pneumonia and died).

In other words, it is about a man and woman inching towards a mutually desired event. (Whether that event is all night chandelier-swinging sex or relatively-chaste smooching is not even made clear.) Ah, ah, go the puritans, what about that 'Say, what's in this drink? (No cab's to be had out there)'. The prosecution rests - an open-and-shut case of rohypnol and date rape.

Except, of course, that old bugbear, history. The phrase 'What's in this drink?' is used over and over again in films and novels of the period. It was acknowledgement that people weren't acting the way they normally do or should - a kind of formal excuse, a protection from possible criticism. It didn't even have to be used in a sexual or romantic context. An indiscreet man could utter it while passing on work gossip to a work colleague, for example.

Moreover, the context is the Second World War. The song was written in 1944 and it reflects a little of the wartime opportunism as 'romances' came up against the reality of active service abroad. A little bit of reluctant persuasion, a little bit of lying to oneself …

The woman of Baby, It's Cold Outside is not victim. On the contrary, she is a bit of a taboo breaker. It's the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and bitchy friends who want her to go out and face the storm. She is rather enjoying herself in the nice warm flat of her boyfriend and open to persuasion. But it's easier to misread things, to refuse to even try and understand. At heart, it is an exercise in societal solipsism, seeing the past solely in terms of how it comments on our own issues, hot spots, lines of cultural fissure. It is a self-serving exercise in closing down our own imaginations and patting ourselves on the back.

We would do well to remind us of that famous phrase from L.P. Hartley's 1953 The Go-Between: 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.'

Simply shouting it down doesn't achieve anything. It certainly doesn't change it.

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