Kelly Clarkston and John Legend Singing Baby It's Cold Outside

THE VOICE — “Live Top 10 Eliminations” Episode 1718B — Pictured: (l-r) Kelly Clarkson, John Legend — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

It’s back … the sometimes heated conversation about objectionable song lyrics. Once again, the song that hits the top of the discussion board this holiday season is the 1944 classic Baby, It’s Cold Outside, by Frank Loesser. This past November, singers John Legend and Kelly Clarkston released their version of the song with updated lyrics. In a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, Legend states, “We thought it would be fun, you know, we knew there was some controversy around the original lyrics, and looked at it with 2019 eyes.” That’s moved Baby, It’s Cold Outside back into the spotlight. So, where’s the controversy?

The Consent Debate

In the era of the #MeToo movement, sexual consent has become a hotly-debated topic. Not only are we deconstructing and reconstituting consent in college dorm and office board rooms, we also engage in exegetical analysis of holiday tunes. Some might claim this as “overreach,” while others might claim it’s long overdue. In this era of zero-sum analyses and divisiveness over politically-correct language and symbols, I believe it’s both.

You might say, “Hey, you’ve got to take a stand; you can’t claim both.” And, while that may be true in many cases, I think our tendency toward tribal politics makes it difficult to have a nuanced conversation on important subjects that divide us. We tend to take sides, grab our axes, and grind out our opinion on each overturned stone. So, what is this stone? What’s the big deal about this specific holiday tune? Let me take a moment to argue each side a bit.

What Non-Consent Looks Like

Have you watched the video of Baby, It’s Cold Outside, as featured in the 1949 movie, Neptune’s Daughter? It’s creepy. You have a man clearly obstructing a woman’s departure by tugging at her arm, taking away her coat and hat, and even closing the drapes of the room in which he’s making his seductive moves. From what I know about consensual sex education, this would be just the video to show at college freshman orientation on what NOT to do, or more specifically, on what coercive sex might look like.

The late gender studies professor Dr. Harry Brod, Ph.D. reminded us that consent isn’t something you earn or have but something you get or receive. Therefore, if you don’t get it, you don’t have it. Each line of Baby It’s Cold Outside and every move the pursuing man makes is mostly about challenging the woman’s self-agency and breaking down her resistance to staying the night.

If you were to simply dismiss the banter and behavior as innocent without any contextualization other than the “good ol’ days” mantra, I’ d have to question your social consciousness or gender politics. The lyrics and video are laced with classic coercive and manipulative tactics we now see as opening seductive moves to flashpoints of sexual assault. Even as I write this, there are parents and instructors teaching our daughters and sons what non-consent looks like and how to act and react appropriately. And, in many workplaces, you can be suspended or fired for not recognizing and following appropriate behavioral norms.

Context Does Matter

The alternate point of view runs the gamut from protectors of tradition — rabid opponents of anything smacking of politically-correct censoring — to thoughtful and historically contextualized analysis of the nuances in gender roles, relations, and sexuality. For example, a feminist blog Persephone Magazine notes how the song’s historical context matters. For women in the 1940s, staying with your beau overnight because you have sexual interest and self-agency was not only taboo, it was an internalized belief, and most women would not only experience social rejection for being “slutty,” they would experience shame for feeling flawed, and lustful — a “nasty woman.”

What does a sexually-interested 1940’s woman contextually sound and look like? Perhaps, say some feminist writers, a lot like this woman in this song. She goes through all the oughts, shoulds, and coulds, plays hard to get, but, ultimately, does what she wants … stays. Unfortunately, in a different scenario, the woman next door traversing similar banter and behavior truly wants to leave but is forced into sex instead. You see, individuality, nuance, and context matter and, more importantly, consent makes sure it’s mutual since anything else is risky. Ask a male college freshman who thought it was consensual — following an outdated gender role playbook — and now faces suspension and loss of tuition (if not worse).

Men in the 1940s were tragically socialized to view women as objects to pursue instrumentally for sexual pleasure. The sexual conquest was a game to win by introducing a woman to her inherent lustful desires, her hidden sexual needs. Young men were coached by older men that “yes” is first “no,” so go after the “no,” “no,” “no,” “YES.” The man who scored was a man who both had many shots on goal and one who found the openings; or created them with some finesse and flirtatious acumen.

One can hear these moves in each line of the lyrics and vividly see them in the infamous scene from Neptune’s Daughter. Some may not have liked how the rooms in the movie were dangerously covered in lead paint; others, how the actress callously wore a mink wrap, but most likely contextualized it and said something like, “it’s just the way it was; they didn’t know the paint was toxic to children,” or “we didn’t know what we didn’t know about the capture and torture of animals.” The same contextualization argument can be used for the man’s actions in the song and the woman’s response (read the responses to this version on YouTube).

A Chance to Educate and Inform

It’s complicated. Each side has data to support their zero-sum argument, highlighting why they’re right while denouncing and negating the logic and consequences of the other side. What would it look or sound like if we tried to see the truth in both sides; how would we be challenged to integrate the two, rather than yell at each other to get a clue, relax, or wake up?

I can see why a date rape survivor might get triggered hearing Baby It’s Cold Outside on the radio, or why socially-conscious parents trying to teach their young teens about consent may find it easier to just ban such devolved portrayals of the dating game. Why not clean up the airwaves for victims and for easier training for our youth? Yet, I can also see opportunities to educate young eyes and ears on the origins of hegemonic gender roles, oppressive sexuality in women, and entitled sexuality in men. And how decades of sexual harassment and assault toward women went unchecked and unspoken until women’s empowerment gave birth to the burgeoning and necessary #MeToo movement.

Moreover, an understanding of the way it was “then” to the way it is now may open up a conversation about how sexual mores evolve and progress; contract and react. Baby, It’s Cold Outside may be a reflection of sexual repression and oppression in the 40s.

The 1960s were all about the counterculture and breaking with conventions around sexual ideals. The 1990s saw a crescendo of gratuitous sex in young people. And, now, there’s a generation trying to find its way around the rules of sexual titillation and flirtation while integrating consent and respect. The desire for sex and love and connection hasn’t changed, the rules have just evolved. And you know what, there is no way around this, we have to go through it.

Eliminating Social Toxins

Typically, physical toxins, such as lead paint, are easier to eradicate in part because they’re easier to recognize and there’s widespread support for banning. Eliminating social toxins is more difficult. We embrace civil rights laws and speak out against racism, but racism remains woven into the systems, symbols, and songs of the fabric of American life. We have sexual harassment laws and heightened awareness of new codes of conduct for gender roles and sexual consent from the #MeToo movement, but the social toxin of sexism and outdated gender roles pervade our most treasured songs. It’s easier to strip and replace toxic paint from our homes than it is to strip and replace offensive lyrics.

Think about it: If we were to censor or ban Baby, It’s Cold Outside, what’s next when using this criterion? We have to accept the consequences of our choices and be ready for other parallel bans. Take for instance the Beatles’ song of jealous rage and domestic violence, Run for Your Life…”Catch you with another man and that’s the end little girl…I’d rather see you dead little girl, than to be with another man.” Or Brown Sugar, the Rolling Stones song about white slave owners raping young black women…”Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right, Hear him whip the women just around midnight. Brown sugar, how come you taste so good. Brown sugar, just like a young girl should.” Or how about the subordination of women in patriarchy as depicted in Peggy March’s 1963 hit I Will Follow Him… “wherever he may go…he is my destiny…and where he goes I’ll follow, I’ll follow.”

Although John Legend and Kelly Clarkston’s new version of Baby it’s Cold Outside — with lyrics such as “I’ve got to go away (I can call you a ride), If I have one more drink (It’s your body, your choice)” — was a disappointment to traditionalists, it was an attempt to tweak a holiday favorite and make it more open and respectful.

Meanwhile, what do we do with the lyrics of Brown Sugar? I guess you’ll have to ask Mick Jager if he’s willing to re-write lyrics fit for the new millennium. I’m sure, whatever he decides, there’ll be a lot of women who won’t “…follow him.”

Open to Discussion

In a divided country, it’s not surprising we are divided on even our holiday jingles. If we’re going to break down our walls and divisions, we’ll need to learn to listen, have conversations, and be willing to hear both sides, while trying to find the little bit of truth in each position versus working feverishly on proving our rightness while bashing the other side’s wrongness.

It doesn’t help to accuse composer Frank Loesser with the intention of spiking a woman’s drink to reduce her defenses, nor is it helpful to minimize the actors’ banter and behavior when college campuses continue to struggle with ways of teaching the important intricacies of sexual consent. But, if we can’t find these warm places where divergent yet valid points exist, we will continue to stay in our own silos of thought fearing the cold outside.