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.) Continue reading “Whose Meaning? The Debate over “Baby It’s Cold Outside””

“But When it Comes to Investing…”

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Did you ever see this Prudential ad from a couple years back? It features some fun footage from the Candid Camera TV show, back in 1962.

What’s so interesting about the ad is not the basic lesson in sociology — though it’s pretty good, I admit — but the punchline at the end. For the company is literally banking on the fact that it is indeed human nature to follow others despite the closing’s apparent message to the contrary. For the whole point of advertising is to sway the public’s opinions and actions — whether it’s to get us to take off our hats or give our money to this as opposed to that investment firm.

They’re hoping that, when it comes to investing, you’re no different from those poor guys on the elevator — you know, the ones who no doubt felt like they chose to turn around. Coz if you’re the only one — the truly lone wolf, the rugged individual — who opts to go with Prudential, well…, that doesn’t help them, now does it.

Given his interest in understanding myth as something that carries two messages, one smuggled in by the other and which might even contradict the other, I think Roland Barthes would have appreciated this ad.

semiology

Expected Meanings

164281467_0fa7216091_zThe meaning of words, even entire texts, reflect our expectations of them and our assumptions of their context. This point is apparent in the Argentine soccer ad that uses quotes from Donald Trump to hype the national team’s trip to the United States. If you missed this brilliant appropriation, take a look below.

Continue reading “Expected Meanings”

A Rabid Dictionary?

5510506796_dff8c07b64_bAre the accusations of sexism in the dictionary definitions that have moved through social media last week reasonable? While problems in the entries seem clear, the situation is complicated. In case you missed it, Michael Oman-Reagan, a PhD candidate in Canada noted that the Oxford Dictionary presented “rabid feminist” as an example for the entry “rabid,” which he included as one among many examples of “explicitly sexist” entries. The dictionary editors responded that their “example sentences come from real-world use,” but, of course, they chose which everyday example they wanted to enshrine. For a term with a negative connotation like “rabid,” such a choice provides an opportunity to offend someone, making the choice significant. If they had written “rabid NRA member” or “rabid leftist,” different groups might be complaining. Continue reading “A Rabid Dictionary?”

You Are What You Read, with Leslie Smith (Part 1)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.

MythologiesI remember standing in the checkout line at the campus bookstore with my copy of Roland Barthes Mythologies. I admit that I was suspicious of any book supposedly so profound that was also so small. Its size is deceiving just as much as its structure is unique: the first part of Mythologies is comprised of a series of short essays that provide the pop-culture exemplars of Barthes’ theory on how mythmaking operates (covering everything from food to clothing to politics), while the latter half is comprised of a theoretical essay – entitled simply “Myth Today” – that more overtly addresses the workings of this type of semiotic turn. Barthes rejected common definitions of myth that equate it with “falsehood” or “the stories that dead people believed.” Rather, Barthes understood myth as an absolutely ubiquitous process that involves the transformation of “history into nature,” or, put differently, the manner in which otherwise constructed things are made to appear natural or inevitable. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Leslie Smith (Part 1)”

We’re All Fans

Picture 5Are you a Doctor Who fan? The BBC show’s been on TV for fifty years, with a variety of actors playing the lead, so we now find ourselves at the point where the people involved in the show, the people who write the stories and play the parts, grew up on a steady diet of the Doctor’s time-traveling adventures. Continue reading “We’re All Fans”

It’s All Ordinary

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Picture 7So opens Roland Barthes’ little essay — well known to some, of course — in his collection, Mythologies (read the full essay here). Judging by a recent news story, it turns out that he was right: that the ordinary is continually dressed up as extraordinary and that, at every turn, we make our worlds meaningful by crafting History into Necessity, as he famously phrases it. For the headline of the story, posted here, reads:

Picture 8And voila, Einstein’s brain is, in the Barthean sense, a myth. Continue reading “It’s All Ordinary”

On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

leslieQ: Leslie, you have a book out soon that is on the way a certain rhetoric of chaos vs. order is used by some groups in the U.S. to organize themselves, by distinguishing their members from others, their preferences from others, and their values from others. Is that a fair (if general) description of your project? Could you tell us more?

A: Yes – this is a fairly unorthodox approach to a very mainstream subject.  The book, which is about the rhetoric of one Christian Right group, is entitled Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (Oxford, 2014). Continue reading “On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith”

On the Spot with Merinda Simmons

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

merindaQ: Tell us a little bit about your doctoral studies, since they were not carried out in the academic study of religion, yet that’s the field in which you now work as a professor. How was your training in the Department of English relevant to the work you now do and the classes you now teach?

A: I never expected to end up teaching in a Religious Studies department.  But really, my studies in English overlap with the work I now do in a variety of ways.  The strands of literary criticism that I found most interesting were ones that questioned the roles of authorship, text, and readership.  The more literary theory I read, the more difficult it became for me to see “author” and “text”, for example, as two discrete categories.  I remember the first time I read “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes—I was completely floored.  And that was just the beginning!  Continue reading “On the Spot with Merinda Simmons”

A Stark Image/A Stark Truth

Here in the U.S. there’s a new controversy over identity and representation. It involves the picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

rolling-stone-magazine-Jahar-Tsarnaev-boston-bomber-cover-1In case you don’t recognize him, that’s Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a “selfie,” one of the two accused Boston Marathon bombers (the only one who remains alive). In response to the cover, which has been described as glamorizing a terrorist (and which some stores have refused to sell), Sgt. Sean Murphy, who is a photographer working with the Massachusetts State Police, has now released photos that he took when Tsarnaev was apprehended, while hiding in a covered boat in a driveway. Continue reading “A Stark Image/A Stark Truth”