When my plane finally took off on my way home last week, a blizzard nipping at the heels of our jet, I felt like the weight of the world was lifting off of my shoulders. That marathon of paper writing and packing was sinking down to earth like a mere wisp of a memory, and I was flying far away from Columbia during finals week. I happily turned to my private TV screen to melt my brain a little, and settled on watching Elf, which I love(d). I don’t know what’s happening to me, but I’ve been finding it harder and harder to watch any sort of TV show or movie without being wholly disgusted by how drenched in heteronormativity basically everything is. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m getting older or more radical or what, but it’s getting more and more difficult to ignore. Anyway, I was doing my best to turn a blind eye toward the straight couples and the stay-at-home moms, and tried instead to focus on Will Ferrell in an elf costume. Then came the song…
It’s like my years of enjoying Christmas songs as a child had deafened me! “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a despicable ode to male pride, pressure and coercion, and it hit me all at once like this horrible spirit-shattering brick. What I, as a child, found simply romantic, I now see as misogynistic, chauvinistic, and just downright creepy. The woman clearly wants to leave for a whole host of reasons, only to be persuaded by her male companion to stay (oh, and, you know, have coercive sex), mostly by guilting her. Let’s take a little stroll through the lyrics, shall we?
The song begins with a woman stating that she needs to leave a man’s house, where she presumably had dinner, while this man begs her to stay, calling her “baby” and “beautiful”. Ok, starting with flattery. The stanza ends with him getting her another drink. When she asks him what is in the drink? NO ANSWER. Instead, he feeds her more compliments (and presumably date-rape drugs), while she continues to protest. When flattery seems to get him nowhere, he starts to pressure her with ridiculous assaults on his pride, and guilt-ridden statements like, “baby, don’t hold out”. It’s as if, in order to repay him for his hospitality, she’s going to have to do what he wants now. I mean, he’s basically undressing her, starting with her hat. The woman continues to be very clear (“The answer is no”), and he insists on lavishing her with more compliments. She even throws in her maiden aunt, as a nice reminder to all of us listeners of what happens when one doesn’t put out on snowy nights. More compliments, more drinking, as she is slowly being persuaded (read: drugged) into staying. She is worried about how people will perceive her, though he, of course, is not. He is throwing in guilt-ridden remarks in between telling her how nice her lips are, suddenly making what must have seemed like a nice evening to her a failure because she is not going to let him take advantage of her (“How can you do this thing to me?”). Point is, she stays; he has successfully changed her mind, either through smooth talking, guilt, or alcohol. Or, in other words, coercion.
Is this romance? In a society where female weakness and male power are eroticized, yes. Coercion holds a legitimate place on the spectrum of rape, and is not to be taken lightly. It’s not glamorous to be persuaded into doing something you don’t want to do, especially when mysterious drinks are involved. The placement of the song in the movie is also questionable. Will Ferrell plays a naive human, raised as an elf in the North Pole, sent to New York City to find his family. He falls in love with a women working as an elf at a department store, and he overhears her singing this song in the shower after he stays up all night decorating the store. She’s naked and in the shower, he’s innocently listening outside. The dynamic here is interesting, because she is surly and in charge, and he is oblivious to human social cues. However, as if to counteract this role reversal, she’s singing this song naked and making herself vulnerable, therefore not upsetting societal expectations too much. This song is a disgusting example of how unhealthy and dangerous relationships are normalized and eroticized in our culture, and it certainly does its duty of maintaining systems of power in a gendered hierarchy. I flew across the country in a blizzard. I think she could’ve made it home, too.
Well, maybe there’s hope.