Can a four-minute holiday ballad be a source of moral harm in the world?
Plato, who suggested that the best political system should either expel artists or strictly censor their work, would certainly have thought so. So would the original Puritans settlers of New England, as well as the Americans who supported the many forms of state and local censorship that prevailed across the United States for much of our history until the mid-20th century.
And so, of course, would the feminists and progressives who have lately directed their attention, and ire, toward the old 1940s duet of wintertime seduction (and, possibly, menacing threat), "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
The song is problematic, we are told, because it takes the form of a kind of back-and-forth negotiation in which (in most renditions of the song) a man repeatedly tries to entice a woman to stay at his home later into the evening when she repeatedly states that she prefers to leave. In the #MeToo era, this sounds a lot like the kind of manipulative, exploitative, and potentially even violent behavior that men too often engage in to get their sexual way with women. (More than one critic has suggested that the song is a prelude to date rape.)
That seems to make the controversy about the song very much a product of our moment. But it turns out that the song has stirred up negative feelings for a long time. As The New York Times notes in its account of the criticisms surrounding the song, Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and major influence on the development of Islamist ideology, took critical note of the song on his travels throughout the United States during the late 1940s. (This account was published by an Egyptian magazine in 1950 under the title "The America I Have Seen.")
In a passage of the memoir that vividly describes an atmosphere "full of desire" at a church social in Greeley, Colorado, where the young men and women rise to dance together, "arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests," Qutb notes that the minister overseeing the event enticed a few wallflowers to take part in the festivities by putting putting on "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Qutb's description of the song's lyrical content highlights the young woman's concern about making it home to her mother and her companion's insistence that she stay longer. It's clear that, for Qutb, the song served as a powerful illustration of the debauchery on display at the dance.
At first glance, it might appear that Qutb's concerns and those of our progressive contemporaries are very different. Qutb is a moral and religious traditionalist who fears sexual desire. Twenty-first-century American feminists are all for sexual liberation and desire — they just believe it needs to be based on consent, and the man's insistent cajoling and manipulation in the song fails to respect the woman's stated (and restated) desire to leave his apartment.
But that way of construing the different responses to the lyrics is too crude.
"Baby, It's Cold Outside" doesn't portray a situation in which a woman lacks sexual consent. It portrays an attempt at seduction. The woman wants to stay but continually resists because it's what she "ought" to do. Her parents expect her home and will worry. The neighbors will spread gossip. The man, meanwhile, wants her to disregard these concerns and give into the desire she feels, and he encourages her by persuasion — telling her how cold it is, suggesting she should have another drink, proposing to put on some music.
It's this back and forth between a man trying to get his way and a woman putting up half-hearted resistance that gives the song its sexiness. She isn't powerless. There's no sign she's being held against her will. She engages in the playful argument throughout most of the song because she hasn't decided what she wants to do — if she will stay for another drink or do the "right" thing by leaving.
The truth is that Qutb and contemporary progressives are offended by much the same thing — the sometimes confusing and complicated interplay of sexual desire and moral imperatives. The primary difference between them is that Qutb believes that individual men and women should avoid situations in which they must negotiate such confusions and complications in the first place, while today's progressives strenuously reject any suggestion that such situations should be avoided. (Recall the anger and ridicule sparked by news that Vice President Mike Pence has long avoided adulterous temptation by refusing to dine alone with women other than his wife.)
The Qutb position easily lends itself to the imposition of legal strictures against men and women interacting — just as Plato's views about the moral power of art led him to propose bringing it under tight political control.
But what about the position of progressives? They obviously believe men and women should work and socialize together. A woman should feel perfectly free to go back to a man's apartment and drink with him on a cold winter's night. But if she says that it's time for her to go, that needs to be the end of it, full stop. Any attempt on the part of the man to try and persuade her to change her mind is an unacceptable prelude to violence. Even writing a song about such a situation is dangerous, because it might encourage men to engage in behavior that simply isn't okay.
For Qutb, moral imperatives must be backed up by law and rigid social mores. For today's progressives, they must be internalized by individuals and supported by social stigma. Hence the talk on the left of becoming "woke." As some writers have begun to point out, what progressives are after is a moral awakening somewhat akin to the religious Great Awakenings that have flared up from time to time throughout American history. A song like "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is "problematic" for this project because it prevents such an awakening from taking place among those who might be charmed by the situation it describes. Therefore it should not be played.
Of course there is another, more liberal possibility — recognizing and accepting that the art of seduction is thrilling but also risky, that often it will go well but sometimes it will not, that the effort to eliminate the risk requires either external (political) or internal (psychological and sociological) forms of control, and that something important (liberty) is likely to be lost in the process of attempting to assert that control.
Like so many parts of life, this isn't black or white. But there may not be room for such shades of gray in our Great Awokening.