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.