Way back in the forties, my favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser, wrote a humorous duet for him and his wife to perform at Hollywood parties. Everybody loved it; so much so that eventually one of the party guests put it into a movie where it promptly won an Oscar. Over the seventy plus years, two unintended things happened to the song: It became associated with the Christmas season and it’s become criticized as a callous depiction of date rape.
How can such a thing happen to a song? Baby, It’s Cold Outside has unhappily evolved from universal appreciation to widespread condemnation. I believe this has less to do with the song itself than the ways society has evolved. George S. Kaufman quipped that satire is what closes Saturday night. In this case, poking a little fun at – what to call this? – a mating ritual, lasted over sixty years before a committed band of killjoys drew it to its close.
Let’s be frank. (And then, later, let’s be Frank.) There is a scenario that occurs in life. Couples who feel an attraction think about having sex. In the stereotypical twentieth century situation, the male works his charms in hopes that the female will agree to sexual contact of some sort, while the female is bound, by societal restrictions, to put up some resistance. I’m calling this a stereotype: it truly happens with a certain frequency. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all: There are times when the woman is the aggressor and the man puts on the brakes. Sometimes, the couple has mutual willingness, or mutual unwillingness. The male-pursuer/female-resistor thing has been portrayed, in various works of art, thousands of times.
You got a problem with that? Does any of this bother you? Is there some harm in admitting these sorts of scenes go on? Or is your view of heterosexual tussling clouded by the existence of tragic and traumatic male-female interactions?
There’s gotta be a word for you, for the purposes of this discussion. I’ll make up one, SenSoul, and I don’t mean that as an insult. There’s plenty of reasons to be a SenSoul these days. For instance, there’s been greater awareness, in this new century, of a different but not wholly dissimilar scenario: when women are coerced or forced into having sex. That, it should be needless to say, is a terrible thing. And here we must pause to define two types of men.
I’m reminded of a line Joel Grey once sang in a musical set in the middle ages, decrying rape: “It’s no fun unless they want to rape you back.” Gentlemen, to use an old-fashioned term, are interested in mutually-desired sex. They may employ many a technique to get the gal in the mood (beaux’ stratagems?), but if she doesn’t want it, he doesn’t want it either. What word for the ungentlemanly? Punks? Punks don’t care what the woman wants. Her “no” is trumped by his bestial desire. His strategies might include plying with excessive amounts of alcohol, or slipping her a drug while she’s not looking.
In 1944, nobody wrote comedy songs about people like that. We can rail against our paternalistic and misogynistic society until the cows (sorry, bulls) come home but the general public doesn’t consider that amusing. So, now, let’s be Frank. Creating a duet for him and Lynn Loesser, his subject is a gentleman and a certain kind of lady. They’re a happy romantic couple with some amount of mutual desire. In his charming way, the man humorously offers reasons the woman should spend the night. In her charming way, the woman offers reasons why she really can’t stay. And yet, at the end of the song, “Ah, but it’s cold outside” agreement to stay the night has won the day (or night).
The “certain kind of lady” Frank wrote for his better half to play is, I feel, a rather extraordinary character. There is a shibboleth about mid-century musical comedies, that they make the women sexless, somehow, and I relish exceptions to this non-rule. Here is an unmarried woman who is actively considering having some sort of intimate contact, through the night, with a man that appeals to her (pun intended). She is in control of her destiny, and the lyric has her consider the ramifications of staying. (“My father will be pacing the floor.”) And why consider those ramifications? Because she feels sexual desire and is willing to act upon it.
“Nah-nah!” I can hear the SenSouls retorting. She firmly states “The answer is no” and the man doesn’t cease with the implorations. For decades now, we’ve been told that a woman’s “no” means “no” and never yes. That’s a Platonic ideal of twenty-first century heterosexual relations (again, pun intended) and it doesn’t jibe with how both genders viewed the mating dance seventy years ago.
But what of the expression, “Say, what’s in this drink?” Ever-focused on the recent publicity about the date rapes of the once-beloved actor Bill Cosby, SenSouls reflexively glom on to a more modern and malevolent interpretation. But think about it: “Say, what’s in this drink?” is what you say when you’re feeling a bit intoxicated or uninhibited. You choose to joke about the drink rather than stating that you find a man intoxicating. (He can be intoxicating because he’s charming, handsome, sings well, or maybe being alone with him has you all a-flutter.) If you seriously suspect your drink is drugged, the last thing you’d say is “Say, what’s in this drink?”
Tellingly, the song concludes with harmony. Characters harmonize when they’re in some sort of agreement. On the final title, the lady concurs that spending more time inside with the gentlemen is more appealing than going outside in the cold. Whoopee will be made, and I think of that as a happy ending.
But the history of an Oscar-winning song ends less happily. Adding her voice to the chorus of disapproval is Casey Wilson, who many years ago, in a revue, sang my song celebrating the mating of office-mates called Casual Sex Fridays. I wonder how that would sound today.