Now the discussion over whether or not “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a date-rape anthem has hit Salon and The Atlantic. It’s moving up the chain of command and will probably be discussed on NPR and written about in the New York Times at some point which means that we’re about five years out from its complete removal from the radio.
“BICO” is a song written by Frank Loesser. It was originally performed by Loesser and his wife at social gatherings before being picked up for the 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter. The song has two characters – a wolf character and a mouse character – engaged in lyrical conversation. Interpreters who see date rape in the lyrics see the wolf and mouse roles as indicators that the song is inherently predatory. After a few drinks together in the wolf’s den, the wolf tries to convince the mouse to stay a little bit longer. The most heavily criticized lyrics in the song are when, after ongoing pressure from the wolf, the mouse says “I said no” and asks “What’s in this drink?”
In his Salon piece titled “Is ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ a date-rape anthem?” Stephen Deusner writes:
If we have to hear the Mouse make the same mistake every year, even when it’s not all that cold outside, here’s a humble suggestion: Switch the parts. Have the woman play the Wolf and the man play the Mouse. Or have two men or two women sing the song. Play around with the gender roles and sexual orientations. Find new ways to stage this disturbing little playlet. It might not make for the definitive version of the song, but at least it would give a new twist to the drama and might make “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” somewhat bearable again. Probably not.
Except…in Neptune’s Daughter, the song (which won an Oscar) is performed twice, once with a male Wolf/female Mouse (Ricardo Montalban/Esther Williams) and once with a female Wolf/male Mouse (Betty Garret/Red Skelton). The TV show Glee also has a same-sex performance of the song. So Deusner either didn’t do his research or just really wants to stick the point that the song is “rapey”.
Neither Deusner nor any other commentators consider the context of these scenes within the movie or the specific delivery of the song on the screen or as a radio hit. Which is the official version? When you watch the performance in the movie you see the physical interaction between the two sets of wolves/mice. Montalban’s character acts much more aggressive in the movie than Johnny Mercer sounds in the classic radio version. And that’s the version that is most widely known. Even then, Montalban’s performance of the song still does not meet the date rape threshold mainly because intercourse is never shown to occur.
Most critics of the song focus on the line “what’s in this drink?”. Rohypnol didn’t exist until the 1970s. It’s closest relative would have been the Mickey Finn which was first used at the turn of the 20th century. But there are no cultural or historical references to the Mickey being used to incapacitate women for the purposes of sex. The established interpretation of that line fits with the common cultural trope seen in movies of the era. The drink serves as a scapegoat which allows someone to rationalize behavior they may not otherwise choose.
We don’t know what happens between them within the context of the song. Does she stay or go? Even if the mouse does stay and has sex with the wolf, this is no form of rape. It is caving to high-pressure sales/seduction tactics which is an entirely different category than rape.
Which leads us to something else.
Loesser had another song that hasn’t been mentioned by anyone discussing BICO. The song is interesting for its juxtaposition of classic seduction and the “seduction” carried out by door-to-door salesmen. In his 1941 song “I Said No” (performed beautifully by Alvino Rey), we are led to believe that a woman is once again resisting a man’s sexual advances.
I said “No!”, he said “Please!”,
I said “No!”, he said “Please!”,
I said “No!”, he said “Please, pretty baby!”,
I said “No!”, he said “Why?”,
I said “No!”, he said “Why?”,
I said “No!”, he said “Try!”,
I said “Maybe!”
But the twist of the song comes at the end:
He said “Now?”, I said “Well!”,
He said “Ah, this is swell,
And you’ll never know how much it will mean;
So at last, confess!”,
I said “Yes yes yes yes yes!”,
That’s how I subscribed to Liberty magazine!
A man peddling Liberty magazine subscriptions being compared to a man (or sometimes a woman) peddling sex. Complaints that the scenes in BICO are high-pressure seduction tactics aren’t completely off the mark. At some point even the biggest supporters of seduction would say “enough”. But if a man convinces a woman to change her mind and stay and perhaps make out or even have sex, is that date rape? No. An intellectually honest discussion of either of these songs by Loesser would investigate the question of why men so often believe that women are always secretly yearning to say “Yes”.
Historical and cultural context is important here too. In a more conservative era, a “no” would be more likely to be fraught with social pressure. The mouse in BICO claims that neighbors and parents and siblings are reasons for not staying longer. If we take those explanatory lyrics at face value and not just as convenient excuses then we could see that the wolf is trying to convince the mouse to let down her/his social inhibitions. Never does the mouse say “No, I don’t want to.” Want is perhaps assumed, and now it’s a matter of discussing payment options. Contrast a 1949 “no” with a modern, age-of-sexual-freedom “no”. “Yes” is much more acceptable today compared to then. This makes the “no” much more robust and full of will.
We see that songs are difficult to deconstruct. Context is important. Which interpretation of the song should we observe to determine whether it is rapey? Was date rape even a thing back then? How was seduction usually performed and received?
Lacking a precise way to compare the then and now, maybe the response of Loesser’s wife and music partner, Lynn Garland, could inform us. According to Frank and Lynn’s daughter Susan, Lynn considered BICO to be “their song” and was upset with her husband when he sold it to MGM. Susan Loesser says that Lynn got over it after the song won an Oscar. What this indicates is that the woman who helped Frank write the song and who was the original performer of the song didn’t see anything wrong with. Neither should we.
(Susan Loesser discusses the song at 12:00 and a version performed by Frank Loesser and Lynn Garland appears at 13:15.)