Whose Meaning? The Debate over “Baby It’s Cold Outside”

person carrying sign that reads "Even my dog knows what no means"

With renewed attention on harassment, sexual assault, and the importance of consent, the classic Christmas song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has generated renewed debate. Incorporating what we know about literary meaning, they are both right and wrong.

Detractors, including some who have convinced radio stations like one in Cleveland to ban the song, have suggested that it is a “rape anthem,” recognizing in the dialogue one partner pressuring the other to spend the night, despite the person continually saying “No.” This failure to take “no” as a final answer renforces, for those opposed to the song, “rape culture.” Some defenders of the song argue that it is a celebration of women’s sexual liberation when viewed in the context of its recording, when social retribution for spending the night with a man would be fierce. (See one early version from the 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter below, including a gender reversal in the second half.)

Words and groups of words (aka, narratives) do not have stable meanings. As different people can understand words and their relation to each other in different ways, it is a problem to assert a universal meaning for a song’s lyrics. Even placing the song in its historical context (written in 1946) is not sufficient, as Roland Barthes’ well-known assertion “Death of the Author” reminds us that meaning exists in the interaction of the recipient and the text. Any emphasis on an “original” authorial meaning imposes problematic limits on a text. In fact, these ideas extend to recognize that the author themselves is not an authority for what meaning they intended when they original wrote the song. Thus, both meanings are plausible, but neither is the final meaning. They are both right and wrong.

That being said, the Death of the Author implies that the ways listeners understand a song today is more significant for society now than some construction of an original meaning, however widely it might have been accepted in the past. In the context of the far too common experiences of sexual harassment and assault, including date rape, the song, to my ears, normalizes behavior that is unacceptable, as today many, including international rape prevention efforts, emphasize that “no” means no. It might not have been a song about date rape, but if people today interpret it as a song about date rape, as suggesting that “no” does not really mean no or that pressuring someone to give consent to physical contact that they do not want is acceptable, then the song is problematic, and any original intent is irrelevant. Everyone will not understand the song in the same way, which makes the normalization of male entitlement and date rape that many see in the song a serious problem.

 

Photo credit: Alec Perkins from Hoboken, USA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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