It’s become a tradition every Christmas to argue about certain harmless holiday takes. When do you put up your Christmas tree? Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? And should we cancel “Baby It’s Cold Outside”?
The song is almost 80 years old; it originally debuted in 1947 as a duet that songwriter Frank Loesser and his wife would perform at their annual Christmas party.
The song features a couple who’s finishing up a date, and the man is trying to convince the woman to stay longer, while she insists she has to go home.
Fans of the song enjoy the playful banter between the two. The back and forth is harmless and flirty, they insist.
Critics of the song in recent years have pointed to the man’s unwillingness to take No for an answer as emblematic of the larger problem of men ignoring women’s autonomy over their own bodies. No means no, critics insist.
But some other feminist critics in recent years have reevaluated that criticism. They see the song as opening up space for liberation, insisting that, in the time the song was written in the 1940s, women had even fewer rights than they had today, and cultural expectations around women’s behavior in public were draconian.
It was actually a pretty big deal, they insist, that the man is having a conversation with the woman in the song. That her feelings do seem to matter, and that their banter is playful and flirtatious.
So… who’s right?
Here’s the thing: I think both parties are, here. The song is definitely more than a little creepy in our day and time, and the way the man tries to pressure the woman is pretty gross. (When the song was originally published, the two parts were identified as ‘Wolf’ and ‘Mouse’, so… yeah.)
But it’s also true that, by the dating standards of the 1940s-50s, this song was a huge step in the right direction.
We might say the spirit of the song is no longer in step with the text of the song. We can feel that dissonance in the annual debate.
It’s a dissonance that can only happen when a text is beloved enough to stick around long enough for the culture to change around it.
So… would you be surprised to learn the Bible has a number of texts like this? Texts that, in their day were liberative and life-giving, pushing the culture into which they were delivered closer to who God created us to be.
But then we actually listened to those texts and grew and changed… and of course the texts didn’t because they’re static. Unchanging. They’re artifacts of an older time.
When we encounter these texts, our temptation is to ignore them, or maybe domesticate them. After all, maybe especially at this time of year, we want faith to be simple, flat, nice and happy. The same way we don’t really want to fight about Christmas songs.
But when we pause to attend to these texts, to why they make us uncomfortable, we can discern the spirit behind them.