“Let the Guy Down Gently”

When I was in college, my father introduced me to a young man working with him. I’ve forgotten the man’s name, and almost everything else about him, except for one thing: he wanted to give me a piece of jewelry as a gift.

I wasn’t interested in this man and I did not want to encourage him by accepting a gift. But I wanted to discourage him politely, so I said, “My parents don’t allow me to accept such gifts from men.” That, of course, was not true, because I wouldn’t have paid any attention if my parents had ever said any such thing.

And he said, “That’s all right. I asked your father and he said it was fine.” (That was true, because I asked my father about it. And was furious when I found out he had said that.)

I can’t remember now what happened after that, except that I must have said something to discourage the relationship because it didn’t continue.

But thinking about it makes me remember all too well that women are raised to be nice and polite even when they want to say no, while men are raised to persist in the face of rejection. And that brings me to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Empowerment self defense instructor and martial artist Sheila Watson already wrote about that song and boundary setting here, so I won’t get into that.

Instead, I’m interested in how that song, like all too many popular songs, makes us all think that such behavior is appropriate, even flirtatious. (If you don’t have the words to that song running through your head, you can find them here.)

My first point is that the woman of the song is coming up with polite explanations of why she needs to leave. That’s what women are taught to do: pretend we don’t want to leave but are forced to because of something or someone else. (“My parents don’t let me accept such gifts from men.”)

The man, on the other hand, doesn’t hear the no, but takes the explanation at face value and argues against it, because that’s what men are taught to do with women: ignore what they say and talk them into things.

It is also possible that the woman doesn’t really want to leave, especially since she dropped by, since women are also taught to pretend they don’t want to spend the night with a guy. From the perspective of boundary setting, that’s not relevant, because you should take someone’s no at face value. But it emphasizes that women are not supposed to come out and say what they want.

The trouble with this song, and so many others, is that it reinforces these attitudes and behaviors, so that we all continue to feel that we’re supposed to do things that way even if that makes us unhappy and uncomfortable.

I don’t think “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the worst offender in popular songs. I recently looked up the words to The Beatles song “Run for Your Life” and was appalled. It’s a song in which the singer says he’ll kill the “little girl” if she cheats on him.

How many variations of that song have we read on the pages of our newspapers?

And of course, there are a lot of songs in which stalkers are portrayed as romantics.

No, I’m not arguing that songs cause murders. I’m arguing that our unquestioning acceptance of misogynistic ideas as they are expressed in popular culture keeps us from being aware of how much they affect us.

Many people, including some men who purport to be progressive, dismiss this kind of concern as “political correctness.” Having been around a great deal of political incorrectness when it comes to men talking about women, I don’t consider that a criticism. But beyond that it’s important for us to realize that who we are and how we deal with each other is formed in part by the culture in which we’re raised.

We need to question that culture on a regular basis, even when it’s being expressed in holiday songs.

As a writer and a reader, I think about it a lot. I’m finding it harder to read old fiction these days because of the assumptions about gendered relationships set out in it. I used to read it by allowing for that or by identifying with male characters, but I can’t do that as well anymore. Nor can I read more recent fiction that refuses to move on from that mode.

We’re on the cusp of a change in the way we deal with each other, one that goes way beyond gender. It’s important to think about it, to question it, and to find new patterns. And it’s particularly important for all kinds of writers to pay attention to it, because we all pick up ideas from what we read and hear and watch.

Let’s start with no means no, whether it’s said nicely or rudely. And go from there.

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“Let the Guy Down Gently” — 18 Comments

  1. I, too, think about these things a lot.

    Part of the problem is the unequal physical threat aspect: there’s a primal urgency in a woman that isn’t in a man, that that emphatic no might result in attack. Letting the man down nicely is an act of self-defense, akin to playing dead so that the predator will lumber away.

    I’m not saying all situations are like that, yadda yadda, just that there is instinct in play, which is going to take time and effort to overcome, as well as cultural conditioning and all the rest of it.

    • There are times when a certain kind of niceness may be the right thing to do. Our intuition is a good guide, if it isn’t too laden with cultural nonsense. But a lot of the time, a blunter no is more effective. This is why I’m such a proponent of learning self defense from the empowerment point of view. Knowing you’ve got some physical resources if you need them — and you don’t have to be a kick ass to use them — makes it a lot easier to tell some one to back off in no uncertain terms and have it work.

  2. In our house we too have been talking about this particular song this year. Every year we’ve been together, we’ve been listening to WBGO, the jazz station out of Newark. Every year at this season this song, in its classic rendition by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, has been a tent pole for many a program. I’ve been listening to this song performed by these two particular great American artists for a very long time.

    It’s really too bad that this particular popular song has become the go to target for these matters in terms of pop music, which is, like Hollywood, built on the sexual predation of young women by old guys.

    What this song has been and still is for many of us who are music lovers is an incredible duet between two of the greatest voices we’ve been blessed to hear. Even musically, with what they do with their two voices, they come together in a most lovely, entwined, blend of wound. It’s not a call and response; it is soloist-ing (is that even a word? I don’t think so!), it’s not protagonist and antagonist, it’s not an advance and retreat. There’s a reason it is called a duet.

    No matter how we, at this point in time, look at it, we hear something else, which is sweet and romantic.

    Of course, Homer and Jethro’s version is rather different . . . .

    • I find this a lot with music. I love blues, but sometimes I break out the words to some of the songs that move me and am horrified to find I like the song so much. There’s always more to music than the words, and you’re so right about the duet.

      But I still want us to give more thought to the words, because they sneak into our consciousness through the music.

  3. I once saw an interview with Sting, where he mentioned that people sometimes told him that they had used “Every Breath You Take” as a first-dance-at-wedding song. His comment: “good luck with that.”

    For those unfamiliar with the song, the implication is that the singer will be watching everything: every breath, every move. I have to admit that I was surprised (and somewhat heartened) that Sting came flat out and admitted how creepy it is.

    • I was thinking about that song, too. I’m glad he admitted how creepy it was. And there are lots of others about obsessive love that are downright terrifying. We have to stop romanticizing obsession.

  4. The big defense of “Baby It’s Cold” and other such songs is that they were written in different, earlier times. Yes — and it was even worse for the woman back then. No birth control, no legal abortion, no societal awareness of violence against women, but a profound and deep contempt for women who lost their virginity before marriage. Frankly, it’s easier to see the song as ‘romantic’ Now than looking back at it Then. The female voice can play coy if she wants, but she can also sleep with the male if she wants without the fears that would have stopped her back in the day.

  5. Over dinner we talked about this song in particular again. We also had listened to it closely yet again, before dinner.

    We agreed that no matter how hard we listen — to this version (because approaches can be different), but this is the classic version, with Ella and Louis — we cannot see this song that way. We see it as two people dancing, the heat that was kindled between them earlier, continuing to expand. You hear it in the voices of both of them.

    We agreed that it was a dance but done entirely in voice and music. We invoked Fred and Ginger. But this is the thing about music and performing it: performers do melt and meld into each other’s performances, making a sum greater than the parts. And the audience is a part of that circuit, melding through the sound with the performers. The earlier call and response rather mirrors a dance duet, but when when the voices comes together, no longer advancing and retreating, no more backtracking, they are no longer separate.

    At the conclusion of this song, these voices melt and meld. They become one, which is what lovers seek in their romance. The previous call and response, the final coming together, brings the listener with them, melding with them, closing the circuit of romance performed and romance perhaps yearned for, or maybe a kiss with the person who is listening with you.

    Dance doesn’t quite work like that, and particularly not for the watcher. We don’t meld with Fred and Ginger. We are breathless at what they accomplished. (Ya, we often can be and are breathless too, at what musicians and singers do!)

    With this particular song being targeted, once again it’s hard not to think that flirtation is a lost art, and so is a great else, including people falling in love and having fun!

    • Beyond that, we were listing and endless list of popular song that should be real targets such as the Elvis’s Stuck on You — she’ll never get rid of him no matter what.

      One wonders … this one … features … black singers . . . . and it is actually romantic.

      • I really think it’s the specific words drawing the attention to this one, especially the line about “what’s in this drink?”

        We can make a long list of songs that are more problematic.

    • In the context you set out, particularly as performed, this song is lovely flirtation.

      The words by themselves allow for other interpretations. It’s coming up now because women are beginning to say “no” with meaning and some men are learning to pay attention to that. I think those writing songs need to think about different ways of conveying flirtation.

  6. In the version you cite, Foxessa, yes. But there were plenty of others, less skillful, more obvious.

  7. Besides, what’s so valuable about flirting? It degenerates all too easily into manipulation. It’s often misread, and when that happens, it can be very dangerous for the woman. At it’s best it’s a coy kind of game that needs 2 very mature players to avoid those dangerous consequences. At it’s worst, it’s dishonest. We’re probably better off without it.

  8. “Run For Your Life, Little Girl” is the reason I cannot regard John Lennon up as the sacrosanct musical idol he is generally held to be. So many of his lyrics positively drip misogyny. “I’m Just a Jealous Guy” is another one that makes me cringe.

    “Baby It’s Cold Outside” seems to be a controversial song everywhere this year. I have to admit, off-hand, I can’t even remember how this one goes, although I’m sure I’ve heard it many times over the years. I tend to block out most pop Christmas songs—they’re overplayed throughout the ever-lengthening season, in every single muzak-broadcasting venue one ventures into. Maybe it’s just time for someone to come up with some new ones, so we can put the out-dated ones to rest.

    “Fairy Tale of New York,” anyone…?

    • I always think Lennon might have changed a lot in this regard if he hadn’t been murdered when he was.

      What really gets me is how many songs there are like this, some of them set to excellent music. I don’t want to condemn the songwriters or the musicians, but I do want to get us to start paying attention to all these lyrics playing in the background, because I think we get the idea that the world is that way. And it doesn’t have to be.

      Most of the places I frequent don’t have Christmas music playing, so I haven’t heard these songs, either. For which I’m glad. I like listening to some religious Christmas music from time to time, but then I spent a chunk of my childhood in church choir and it brings back fond memories. I could do without most of the pop songs for the season.