“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and the Postmodern Puritans


Do the lyrics of the seasonal ditty “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” illustrate a date rape in progress?

That’s the objection which led to Cleveland radio station WDOK pulling the duet from its Christmas rotation, with other stations and broadcast corporations following suit. The announcement prompted eyerolls, sarcasm, and snarling criticisms nationwide; WDOK and CBC Radio subsequently reversed their decisions. Others, however, have not. I’ve heard a couple versions I like, but it wouldn’t kill me to never hear it again on the radio. Others my age (± 15 years) passionately defend it. But is the song really worth defending?

Explaining “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

Most defenses of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” begin with the fact that it was composed and first gained popularity in the 1940s. And that’s the problem in a nutshell: The American white middle-class sexual culture of the 1940s has to be explained. The sexual culture of 2018, in which date rape is a real, honest-to-goodness social problem, is radically different from that of 1944 — so different that we may as well be talking of two different countries as of two different times.

In many cases, critics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” accept all sorts of cultural differences except those of our own past. Such a critic responds, “What was permissible or customary behavior in 1944 is irrelevant. The man’s behavior isn’t acceptable today.” In saying so, the critic disallows any interpretive frame which lets the man be seductive rather than predatory. They know what’s really going on, by gar, and bloviating about the courtship rituals of 70 years ago won’t change their mind. Nothing has really changed anyway, to their thinking; they’re simply “woke” to what has always been real.

In their own fashion, the critics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are as sternly moralistic and intolerant of sin as were the most rigid Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts. But the new Puritans have a point: According to the mores of the 1940s, the woman was imprudent to show up alone at the man’s home in the first place. Waiting until it was time to leave was too late to start worrying about what others would think. But to say that today comes off as victim-blaming. In fact, the standard interpretation — she really does want to stay — now sounds like a rapist’s excuse.

You’re Mean Ones, Mr. and Ms. Grinch

Frankly, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a cultural potsherd, a damaged heirloom that should be put away in the attic to await future cultural historians willing to refurbish it. It’s like Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice — a play that was well-received in Elizabethan England but is risky to produce today, given its anti-Semitic slant. Like “Let It Snow”, it has less intrinsic connection with Christmas than even the movie Die Hard. In a month already stuffed with clamorous, sentimental secular claptrap celebrating winter, we can stand to lose this one ditty even if it is harmless.

Why, then, are so many people at such pains to keep “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in rotation? It’s not simply that they don’t see date rape in the lyrics. Rather, they believe the very attempt to claim that the song celebrates date rape is the kind of mountain-out-of-a-molehill absurdity for which the postmodern Puritans are often ridiculed. (Think of the “subtle form of racism” in the humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich.) The postmodern Puritans appear at times to be so many Grinches upset by the knowledge that someone somewhere is enjoying life without their approval.

But there’s a certain historical irony in the two positions. The courtship rituals and sexual ethos implicit in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” which boomers and older Gen-Xers defend, even romanticize, are the same rituals and ethos we labored so hard to dismantle between 1960, the year the Pill was introduced, and 1994, when “roofies” first became the subject of a moral panic. The new Puritans don’t want the rituals or the ethos because we taught them the 1940s were repressive and chauvinist. However, they do want the same respect for the woman’s “no” the ethos and rituals supported.

Pushing the “Reset” Button

Let’s ask the question again: Why do we who once rejected the sexual ethos behind “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” now defend it? After all, it was that same culture that put Rosie the Riveter back in the kitchen (or in some other “woman’s job”) once our boys came home and she was no longer needed for wartime production.

At least part of the explanation is our subconscious recognition that the culture we built to replace the one we rebelled against is in many ways unsatisfactory, that there were rules and obligations we threw away that we ought to have kept. Date rape has been described as “a crime of entitlement and hedonism.” But the entitlement of the narcissism epidemic and the hedonism of the “party culture” are products of social changes we wrought in the last five-plus decades. They’re epiphenomena of a society we made more wealthy, more self-indulgent, and less self-reliant.

I think that’s why Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was so successful: The romantic nostalgia which now treasures “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is born of a subconscious longing in us older Americans to push the “reset” button on our society and undo the mistakes of the last 60 years. But as part of those mistakes, we developed the social and sexual theories the postmodern Puritans are now using in their attempt to reinvent the moral wheel. We had our fun, then stuck them with the cleanup and the bill. No wonder they sound so self-righteous and humorless.

We think of freedom as the absence of rules and restrictions. But the absence of rules and restrictions is also the absence of guidance and protection. We most often create new conventions to replace the ones we broke. Only angels and the greatest saints, who participate in the divine Love of God, have no need of rules to prompt them to do good or prevent them from doing evil. The rest of fallen humanity needs the clear lines which define roads and mark off “No Trespassing” areas, the mores and folkways which define proper behavior.

“Can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences /Don’t fence me in,” wrote Cole Porter. But you shouldn’t tear down fences until you know why they were put up. After all, you don’t always know everything the fences were meant to keep in. Or keep out. Like wolves.

Conclusion: Let the Puritans Win

More than a resurrection of the manners and obligations which informed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside’s” rather tame naughtiness, America needs an authentic and organic theory of sexuality which would provide a context for those conventions while supporting women’s equality. The Catholic Church has such a theory implicit in its social teachings and made more explicit by Pope St. John Paul II in his “theology of the body.” Ironically, the need is present at the very time that the Church’s moral authority is at its lowest ebb. Nevertheless, the only real antidote to both libertinism and Puritanism is apostolic orthodoxy.

At the same time, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and the controversy surrounding are reminders that the winter festival which appropriated the name “Christmas” is a secularized and commercialized caricature built almost entirely on nostalgia. For us Catholic Christians, the season is a time of penance and preparation for the future — the birth of the Christ and the coming of the kingdom of God. The past was never as innocent or carefree as we imagine it was precisely because we are sinners; the song may not celebrate date rape, but it does slyly approve of fornication.

Let’s let the postmodern Puritans win this fight.

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