Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Baby It's Cold Outside

On my friend Liberty's Facebook feed, a discussion popped up that I found fascinating, and a bit challenging. She posted that "Baby It's Cold Outside" had her vote for "creepiest holiday song." Now "Baby It's Cold Outside" has always been one of my favorite songs. I am a musical theatre geek, and I consider it one of the great duets of the American theatre. There are several versions of it of which I'm fond. It has been covered by everyone, from Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton to Dean Martin and Marilyn Maxwell, to Michael Buble and Anne Murray. Most students know it from the soundtrack to movie "Elf," where it was sung by Zooey Dachenel and Will Farrell in a frightening bit of workplace sexual harassment. (and later beautifully reprised by Dachanel and Leon Redbone). The version I like most is probably the one Sigourney Weaver did with Buster Poindexter on "Saturday Night Live," where she practically rips his clothes off.

To me the song is about the subtext. It has never been about the actual lyrics: the lyrics are brilliant, but they are not telling the story of what is going on. The subtext is that these two people desperately want to jump each other, but being hung up on traditional American morality they can't actually come out and say it. They are, as one of Liberty's friends put it, "creating a mutual fiction" around the fact that they want to sleep together without actually coming out and saying it. I liken it to the famous lie "would you like to come up and see my etchings?" Both parties know that etchings have nothing to do with it. It is innuendo. The etchings are a metaphor for sex, and both perties know it. It is a lie that protects both people. The woman does not have to be offended if the thought of sex would offend her, and she can say no without damaging the fragile male ego. The storm is a similar fiction.

But listening to the lyrics I have to admit that they are a bit creepy. The girl protests that she wants to go, the guy insists that she stay. He plies her with alcohol and she says "what's in this drink" (what indeed?). She pleads with him and he asks why she woud hurt his pride and how she can "do this thing" to him. It is the language of date rape, no doubt about it.

Wanting to get a better handle on it I looked up the original, which I had never seen. It is sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the 1949 musical "Neptune's Daughter." It was written by Frank Loesser, who also penned "Guys and Dolls," and won the Oscar for Best Song.  The song is not different in theme to the Havana scene from Guys and Dolls, where Sky Masterson gets Sister Sarah drunk on Bacardi and she sings the highly sexualized "If I Were A Bell," where a life time of sexual repression suddenly bursts forth. The thing is, although Sarah begs Sky to take advantage of her, knowing that she could not say "no," while drunk nor "yes" while sober, Sky refuses to do so. He insists on being a gentleman and taking her back home to New York. All the elements of a date rape are there, but it does not happen.

At times like this I like to access Shakespeare. It is particularly relevant in this case. The two-couple comic structure used in "Neptune's Daughter" is sometimes called "Shakespearean Comedy" because he employed it so much--in "A Mid Summer Night's Dream," in "As You Like It," in "Much Ado About Nothing," in "Twelfth Night," in "Two Gentlemen of Verona," in "The Comedy of Errors." It is the same structure found in modern musicals such as "Guys and Dolls," film farces such as "Wedding Crashers," and of course "Neptune's Daughter." The common approach to the immorality of Shakespeare's plays is to create an ironic subtext,  like taking "The Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare's comedy about spousal abuse, and emphasizing Kate's agency in the courtship, making her truly love Petruchio, so that her submission is actually a way of dominating him. Sometimes a production will go father and present it as a BDSM romance. Likewise, with "The Merchant of Venice," Shylock's forced conversion is usually either condemned through the reactions of some of the characters on stage, or else Shylock is given some business in which he wordlessly assures us that he was just kidding. This type of ironic approach  is the standard way to undermine the immorality of texts from an earlier time. The solution with "Baby It's Cold Outside" is to emphasize the subtext, the idea that the female character really does want to stay and that the whole thing is a game the two of them are playing, just a bit of foreplay. This is how Sigourney Weaver and Buster Poindexter approach it.

Looking at the original version of "Baby It's Cold Outside" on Youtube creates real problems. It is clear that Esther Williams' character wants to leave and Ricardo Montalban's is forcing her to stay. He even lays hands on her, grabbing her arm, which shocks her, to do so. She looks worried and powerless. She does not have the agency that Sigourney Weaver has in her performance. Gone is the playfulness, the wink and a nod to the double entendre. In the SNL version Sigourney Weaver is the agressor. Her words are ironic, because she has no intention of going home and makes that playfully clear. Buster Poindexter is just along of the ride. In the Original version, although she is probably attracted to him, Esther Williams really wants to get away from Ricardo, and he is not permitting it. It plays to all the standard stereotypes--the macho Latin lover, the frightened and demure woman, and the objectification of all women as vessels of male desire no matter what they might feel about it.

However, there is a different subtext to the original. The plot of "Neptune's Daughter" is confusing in a typical Musical Comedy sort of way. Esther Williams' sister, played by the great Betty Garret (best known as Edna Babish-DeFazio on Laverne & Shirley"), thinks she is in love with a polo player whom she has never met. She falls for Red Skelton thinking he is the polo player. Esther Williams invites the real polo player, Ricardo Montalban, in order to expose Red Skelton, but then Williams falls in love with him herself. Everybody is confused about who loves who, the whole thing is resolved in the end, and they go swimming. The original version of "Baby It's Cold Outside" is complicated by the presence of a comic version sung by Garrett and Skelton. This explains the rather well choreographed clowning bits between Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban with her hat and coat, considering that they are about to be repeated by one of the great movie clowns of all time. In the reprise, the nervous and bumbling Skelton is trying to get away from the sexually aggressive Garrett.  They are the second couple, the comic version of the ingenues. This is a common trope in mid-century musicals, from Ado Annie and Will Parker in "Oklahoma!" to Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls." These girls and their lovers hold up a kind of comic mirror to the courtship of the main lovers around whom the stories revolve, a satirical commentary on the progression of the romance. This also plays to another negative stereotype of women, the comic slut: a highly-sexualized air head, a stripper with a heart of gold, a girl who just can't say "no,"  who shamelessly and comically pursues a man (in this case a man singing with an outrageous and racist Latin accent). The reprise of "Baby It's Cold Outside," ends with Skelton and Garrett wrapped up on her coat on the couch in a sexual embrace (even though Garret does keep one foot on the floor). The reason Esther Williams  character doesn't want to stay with Montalban is not that she wants to get away but that she feels guilty having fallen in love with the man her sister is supposedly in love with. She has shown Montalban that she loves him and he can't understand why she is running away. The meaning of the juxtaposed numbers is clear. In both cases the reluctant party is resisting nature. Garrett, a force of nature, is seeing that nature's demands are met by, essentially, raping Red Skelton. Montalban will not rape Estehr Williams (clown rape is ok, but rape among the ingenues is not), but she does join him in the end.  But we are not meant to see this as violent or even "bad." It is natural--the force of their love driving them together. The comic resolution is always mutually agreeable copulation, and resisting that is, as Ned Beaty would say, "Meddling with the primal forces of Nature."

Maybe Andrea Dworkin was right. We have a rape culture in America. Certainly what was commonly referred to as "seduction" in the 1950s and 60s would be illegal today. I know several women who are made squeamish by the so-called "seduction" scene in "Goldfinger", where James Bond rapes Pussy Galore (this is made even more problematic by the subtext that the lesbian Galore only needed to find a "real man"). I have run these ideas past several of my students and colleagues this week, and most of them think it's ridiculous. Especially telling is that even my liberated and liberal female colleagues teaching theater don't see what all the fuss is about.

Quite frankly, I love this song. I have always loved this song. I see what people are talking about but I have to say "lighten up." Does that make me a horrible person? I don't know.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ever since I saw it done in cabaret (The performer we know as Mistress Lakshmi and a puppet) it has rung to me as a date-rape song. I didn't read it that they both wanted it, but rather that the male singer wants it.

I view it a lot like "I'll Be Watching You" by The Police.

Well-done piece. Very analytical.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

Did not the article say that the original performances of the song were the author and his wife doing it at parties? If so, doesn't that add another layer of subtext? A little sex play between married partners for their sophisticated friends?

8:01 AM  
Blogger Liberty said...

This is a wonderful piece, and well written. I have to say, though, I still find the song particularly troubling.

Here's the thing. It's a pretty song, and some of the performances are fantastic. However, as a text, the narrative of the song models coercion or, at best, a female participant who feels the need to provide at least a token protest. The world of "Baby, it's cold outside" is a world in which the arguments made by the object of desire cannot be taken at face value. Whether the speaker is in distress or simply coy, the other participant has all of the interpretive control. Even if we read this as a moment in which the one attempting to leave is just being coy (as in the Weaver performance), it is still a world in which desire cannot be frankly addressed and where language lacks any real ability to convey meaning or intent. This is a world in which the line between consent and violation rests entirely on context.

And that's really my issue with the song. There are any number of performances that can create a context that suggests both participants are willing, and those performances can be funny or romantic, but it requires that the performance create those contexts to save it from a very dark undertone. There is never a "yes" here.

I'm not suggesting that you stop listening to the song, as the link currently circulating around facebook suggests ( That's entirely the wrong response, in my opinion, to any cultural artifact that raises disturbing questions. I would suggest, though, that we can use this song to think about some of the troubling assumptions it reflects. When I say it's creepy, that's not a vote towards censorship, but a vote towards recognizing things that still need to change and the troubling models highlighted by this song that do create dangerous romantic environments. I teach a lot of material that I would consider in some ways "creepy"; as with those materials, we can recognize the artistry while still discussing the problems inherent in the text.

10:08 AM  

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