Friday, 21 December 2018

"Baby, It's Cold Outside!": a cultural and ethical reflection

This month, there's been some controversy in North America over a song.  A number of radio stations in the USA and Canada have been removing the song "Baby, I's Cold Outside" from their playlists over the Christmas holiday season, given concerns that the song depicts a seduction that may not be 100% consensual on the part of the woman in the encounter.  The controversy over the song follows many of the concerns of the "Me Too" movement, following the revelations concerning sexual harassment and, at times, actual sexual assault by a number of high-profile figures in business, politics, entertainment, and the law.

Anyway, the song was removed from the playlists of a few radio stations, and the strident response from some political and cultural ultra-conservatives was predictable.  (Can one of you gentlemen please inform me which amendment protects the "right of seduction"???) 

Part of me is actually rather surprised that the inhabitant of the Oval Office has not yet entered the fray on this one, describing (for example) "Baby, It's Cold Outside" as one of his "favourite Christmas carols" in a similar way as he once described "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" as his "favourite Bible verse".

It's all complicated by the fact that the song, in recent years, has become associated with the Christmas holiday season, even though the song doesn't mention Christmas (or, for that matter, any other holiday).  Because the song is set in the winter, when "... it's cold outside", it's become a song that's played a lot in the lead-up to Christmas, and then disappears from the airwaves even though (in North America) winter continues (and, in many areas, intensifies) during the months following Christmas.  (It's even funnier here in Australia, where it's played during the lead-up to Christmas in early summer.) 

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" isn't alone here.  Other songs with a generically winter theme which are almost exclusively associated with Christmas, even though they never mention Christmas in the actual song, include "Let it Snow!  Let it SnowLet it Snow!", "Sleigh Ride", "Winter Wonderland", and even "Jingle Bells".

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" was never intended to be a song for the Christmas holidays.  The Broadway songwriter Frank Loesser (best known for "Guys and Dolls") wrote the song in the mid-1940s as a party piece for himself and his wife, the singer Lynn Garland.  In this piece, the sleaziness and sliminess of the man, and the naivete of the woman, were exaggerated for comic effect.  One factor in the comic effect of the song as a party piece in its early years was that the people hearing this song were well-aware that the two participants in that mock seduction scene were, in fact, a married couple.  A few years later, Loesser sold the song to a Hollywood studio for use in a film and it became a popular "lounge" standard, rather than merely the Loessers' party piece.

Once "Baby, It's Cold Outside" entered the public zone, rather than the social zone of the Loessers and their friends at private cocktail hours and dinner parties, the potential creepiness of the song began to speak for itself.

Contrast "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with another song from the mid-'40s with a generic winter theme, but which has also become a Christmas season standard, Sammy Cahn and Jule Stynes's "Let it Snow!  Let it SnowLet it Snow!"   The "Baby, It's Cold Outside" guy is definitely trying to manipulate the young lady into bed, while the "Let it Snow!  Let it SnowLet it Snow!" guy is far more of a gentleman, knowing that he and his girlfriend will not be spending the night together but, instead, realises that "... all the way home, I'll be warm."

All of this points to changing moral standards within our community.  In some ways, our moral standards have become more flexible since the days of my youth (and I happen to be a proud "Baby Boomer"), while in other ways, our standards have become far less flexible.

Ways in which our community moral standards have become more accepting and flexible since my own "Baby Boomer" youth include:
  • a greater acceptance of LGBT people, 
  • a greater acceptance of unmarried couples cohabiting, and of single parents,
  • a greater acceptance of couples, married or otherwise, of different racial, religious, or cultural backgrounds.
My response to these social changes is, simply:  "Brilliant!"

Ways in which our community moral standards have become more demanding include:
  • far less tolerance regarding adults sexually preying on underage people (with this change of values reflected in a number of high-profile court cases in a number of countries, some of which are still sub judice, so I'll say no more),  
  • far less tolerance of married men having a "bit on the side", 
  • far less tolerance of men seducing women who are not completely enthusiastic re the arrangement (even when the seduction falls short of actual rape or sexual assault), as illustrated in "Baby, It's Cold Outside".
My response to these social changes also is, simply:  "Brilliant!"

I believe that both sets of changes in values are definite improvements for the well-being of our culture.  The relaxation within some attitudes is very good.  The tightening up within other attitudes is equally good.

I'm not a fan of censorship, but I realise there's a significant difference between censorship and quality control.  If a radio station removes "Baby, It's Cold Outside", with its tale of a clumsy, ham-fisted seduction, from its December playlist, I believe it's less of an act of censorship than it is an act of quality control. 

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