The “Courtship Script” is a set of assumptions–with a long history and widespread social acceptance–about how heterosexual men and women go from being strangers, to lovers and/or long-term romantic partners.
In its most basic and caricatured form, the Courtship Script goes something like this: Boy meets girl. Boy desires girl. Boy chases girl. Girl may or may not desire boy back, but either way, she rejects his advances, and “plays hard to get.” Boy persists in hot pursuit, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Eventually, girl gives in to his devotion, submits to his penetrating desire, and surrenders to the love/sex she actually wanted all along.
There’s no question that many men and women find some version of this basic Script “hot” and “romantic.” There’s also no question that it flies in the face of the new standards of consent—sometimes called “yes means yes” or “affirmative consent”—that are fast becoming consensus on the liberal side of the political spectrum.
What happens when a newly-evolving standard of consent flatly contradicts widely-held notions of romance and eroticism? Do we de-prioritize romance, sexual tension, seduction and eroticism (which I refer to loosely as “Eros”) in the name of safety? Or do we develop new notions of Eros that fit with our evolving standards of emotionally-safe, non-coercive sex? And what do we do about the fact that, for thousands of years, it was precisely the unsafety of Eros–its adventure, forbidden temptation, wildness, unpredictability, tension, and transgression–that made it so damn hot?
I don’t believe there are easy answers to any of these questions. I do believe, however, it’s crucial that we start discussing them more widely.
There is perhaps no better entryway to understanding the Courtship Script, and the problems with it from a consent perspective, than by examining the annual controversy that occurs—right around this time of year—over the holiday classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” written by Frank Loesser in 1944.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the “blue dress/white dress” of consent. If you recall, the “blue dress/white dress” debate was a viral craze that consumed large parts of the Internet in the early part of 2015. For this first time, a photo sourced and shared outside of a laboratory environment (randomly on the Internet), activated an obscure phenomenon of visual perception in humans, previously only studied by scientists in controlled experiments. The result was that large portions of Internet viewers simply could not agree—and debated vociferously—as to whether the photo depicted a white dress with gold trim, or a blue dress with black trim. (You can read more about the science behind the debate in this New York Times article.)
The point for our discussion here is that two camps viewed the exact same thing in a opposite light (literally!), and could scarcely imagine how anyone else could see it the other way. This is part of why the debate became so entrenched and ferocious: people sort of started feeling as if they were being “gaslit” (a term from the consent debate) by the other side, as it seemed the other side was saying up was down (and white was blue) and vice versa. It began to drive people more than a little crazy, to think that anyone (let along a huge portion of the Internet) could see it any other way.
While the debate over “Baby” is not as widespread as the dress debate, it has gone on much longer. It now appears to be an annual holiday ritual among blue-state types, like me, and among conservatives, who worry about the “PC police” and the “war on Christmas.” It inspires equally passionate argument as the dress debate—and not along completely predictable political lines—in part because the reigning interpretations of the song are so dramatically different, and it drives people crazy that other people see it the other way. It’s either a song depicting a rape in progress—one of the worst crimes imaginable—or a sweetly romantic Christmas jingle to play for little Johnny and Susie while they open their dolls and Lego sets under the tree.
Let’s examine the debate over the song. I’ll start with the “it’s depicting a date rape” side of the debate, and then look at the “it’s consensual, sweet, romantic, sexy, and/or empowering” side. (Content advisory: date rape.) To understand this discussion, it’s probably best to listen to the first recorded version (sung by the composer, and his wife Lynn Loesser,) and/or watch the first film version, from the 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter (below.) The song won the Oscar for best original song in 1950. Since then, the it has been recorded hundreds of times (by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, Nina Simone and Ray Charles, Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton, and a version with the traditional gender roles reversed by Lady Gaga and Jason Gordon-Levitt, and multiple new versions come out every holiday season. (ASCAP says it’s the 22nd most-played holiday song of all time, according to this according to this Vanity Fair article on the debate.) You can also see the lyrics quoted in their full version via the two next links below.
According to a survey article about the debate on Snopes.com (yes, it’s been going on long enough to have historical survey articles,) the first sustained analysis of the song in light of consent issues was written in 2006, by blogger J. Brad Hicks in his post, “The Date Rape Christmas Carol?”
The song’s clearly meant as an amusingly rendered seduction. And seduction is controversial enough in and of itself. . . . [T]here are those who would extend the definition of rape to any act of sex where it wasn’t both people’s idea to start with. There are those who say that it is sufficiently difficult to draw the line between persuasion and coercion that there’s no point in doing so, when it comes to sex. So that she says ‘no’ specifically twice in the song (lines 13 & 18) and he keeps leaning on her to persuade her makes it, in no few people’s eyes, rape whether she says yes later or not, and especially if she just fails or declines to say no one last time at the end of the song. Why not? Because, the theory goes, if he refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, how freely is her ‘yes’ given? How certain can she be that a guy who hasn’t taken ‘no’ for an answer will draw the line at verbal persuasion? Note that her bargaining position is terrible, too. The song title, and repeated line, suggests that she’s in substantial danger if she says no.
A year after Hicks’s article, Tess Rafferty and Nic Deleo created a macabre video commentary on the song. In their piece, they use an original song recording, but give it a much more sinister twist in the visuals, recasting it as a violent scene from a horror movie:
Moving along the debate timeline, in a 2010 blog post on the feminist site Persephone Magazine, entitled “Finding Rape Culture in Surprising Places: Holiday Edition?” Hattie McDoogal writes that the song “is about a woman who is trying to leave a man’s place, but he coerces her into staying by exaggerating the weather outside, by creepily complimenting her, and as a last ditch effort, warns her she might die if she leaves his house. Not to mention that the structure of the song is that each bar starts with her objections, followed by him interrupting her.”
The next major critique came from Stephen Deusner, writing in Salon, in 2012 “Is ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ a Date Rape Anthem?” As in Hicks’s 2006 post, Deusner points on that songwriter Loesser labeled one part, almost always sung by a woman, as “The Mouse,” and the part almost always sung by a man as “The Wolf.” Deusner writes:
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is icky at best, at worst reprehensible: It describes what may be a date rape. Let’s examine the situation: A woman has stopped by to visit a man, and he connives to keep her from leaving. ‘My answer is no,’ she states, but he pours on the charm: ‘It’s up to your knees out there.’ His seductions become increasingly smarmy (‘What’s the sense of hurting my pride?’) and eventually sinister. At one point she exclaims, ‘Say, what’s in this drink?’ Is he being generous with the alcohol, or has he slipped her something stronger? At this point, the Wolf and Mouse designations are redundant. It’s all too clear that he’s a predator and she’s prey.”
Since then, the debate has mushroomed, and new written and visual critiques of the song come out ever year, including:
- In 2012, Key & Peele created a take on the song (with new, original lyrics,) showcasing the woman’s self-defense skills, with hints of a BDSM role-reversal towards female dominance at the end:
- In 2014, sex bloggers Em & Lo wrote A Line-by-Line Takedown of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on Huffington Post. In it, they critique “the tired, well-trod territory of the sexual double standard: how women need to protect their reputations and deny their own sexuality, while men have to be virulent sexual creatures as a matter of pride. Add to that his underhanded attempt to appeal to her socially-constructed feminine desire to be accommodating and inoffensive and friendly. And please, let’s not use the Blurred Lines, I-know-you-want-it excuse that she obviously would like to stay and have sex with him but can’t because of the cultural mores of the time: a person can be conflicted about their feelings, but ultimately assert their intentions clearly, as she does — and those intentions need to be respected.”
- In 2014, Dara Laine and John Weselcouch created a “feminist approved” version of the song, called “Baby, It’s Consent Inside.” This version cuts out all the parts of the song that seem “rapey” to many modern ears, making the song quite short. One line, to be precise—after which, the man ends the song and offers to call her a cab:
- In 2015, Casey Wilson from SNL and Scott Aukerman from Comedy Bang! Bang! created “An Honest Version of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,'” using the original lyrics and again recasting it as a horror-like scene, replete with the man getting a fire-iron to his head in the end:
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the critiques coming out this Christmas season seem particularly relevant. “Is this the year we finally retire ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’?” Mary Nahorniak asks in a USA Today opinion piece. She writes:
[T]he man smoothly persuading her to stick around feels a little too close to coercion for comfort. He simply doesn’t take “no” for an answer, interrupting her, shooting down her attempts to leave and beefing up her half-baked ideas to stay. This is where the song really sounds off-key to our modern ears and our definition of consent, which has evolved from “no means no” to “yes means yes.”
By now, you get a sense of the major critiques of the song, and why many people are finding it increasingly inappropriate, problematic, dated, and even offensive, as the years go on.
And now, to the other side of the debate.
According to the Snopes survey, the first major defense of the song didn’t come from where you might expect—conservatives bemoaning the “PC-police” and the “war on Christmas.” Rather, it came in 2010, again on feminist site Persephone, in a post by Slay Belle, responding to Hattie McDoogal’s critique of the song on the same site, cited above. Belle’s piece is entitled “Listening While Feminist: In Defense of Baby It’s Cold Outside.” She writes:
At the time period the song was written… “good girls,” especially young, unmarried girls, did not spend the night at a man’s house unsupervised. The tension in the song comes from her own desire to stay and society’s expectations that she’ll go…. Her beau in his repeated refrain “Baby, it’s cold outside” is offering her the excuses she needs to stay without guilt….
As she’s talking about leaving, she never says she doesn’t want to stay. Her words are all based around other people’s expectations of her — her mother will worry, her father will be pacing the floor, the neighbors will talk, her sister will be suspicious of her excuses and her brother will be furious, and my favorite line that I think is incredibly revealing, — “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious.” Vicious about what? Sex. Unmarried, non-good girl having, sex…. [T]his is a song about sex, wanting it, having it, maybe having a long night of it by the fire, but it’s not a song about rape. It’s a song about the desires even good girls have.
Belle also offers a compelling explanation of the most notorious line in the song, “Say, what’s in this drink?” Critics of the song often point to this song as a slam-dunk, “I rest my case” point that the song is depicting a date rape: either the man is giving her an over-strong drink in order to take advantage of her, or possibly even drugging her. (The song was written before the age of Ruffies, but the concept of “slipping a Mickey“—a slang term for giving someone the sedative chloral hydrate without their consent—was common by the early 1900s.) Belle begs to differ from these interpretations, pointing out that, in historical context, the line means almost the exact opposite of what these critics take it to mean:
“Say, what’s in this drink” is a well-used phrase that was common in movies of the time period and isn’t really used in the same manner any longer. The phrase generally referred to someone saying or doing something they thought they wouldn’t in normal circumstances; it’s a nod to the idea that alcohol is “making” them do something unusual. But the joke is almost always that there is nothing in the drink. The drink is the excuse. The drink is the shield someone gets to hold up in front of them to protect from criticism. … in romantic movies where someone is experiencing feelings they are not supposed to have.
Finally, Belle points out that any remaining question as to whether the woman in the scene ultimately “wants it” or not should be dispelled by the musical structure and arc of the song, which starts out in counterpoint, but ends with the couple agreeing that “baby, it’s could outside,” in harmony:
The song, which is a back and forth, closes with the two voices in harmony. This is important—they’ve come together. They’re happy. They’re in agreement. The music has a wonderfully dramatic upswell and ends on a high note both literally and figuratively. The song ends with the woman doing what she wants to do, not what she’s expected to do, and there’s something very encouraging about that message…. [T]hat’s why the harmonizing at the end (indicating the woman has decided to stay) is slyly subversive. She’s going against the expectations (which isn’t always the reality — we all know unmarried couples had sex in the 40s) of the time period.
After reading at least a dozen critiques one way or the other, personally, I’ve come to agree with Belle’s stance. (Her stance was echoed in a 2016 Tumlr post on the topic that went viral.) To be careful, I should be very precise about what, in particular, I’m agreeing with. One of the reasons the debate seems like it will never end, is that people are usually debating different questions, without realizing it (this is almost always the case in debates that don’t end.)
There are at least 4 different questions I’ve seen debated on the topic:
1. Is this song intended to be about date rape? Is it, so to speak, a “rape scene,” as are put—too often—in movies all the time? The clear answer to that “no.” Loesser originally wrote it to sing with his wife, and they did so at holiday parties for years to come. “It was never anything other than a sweet couple’s number for him and his spouse,” Loesser’s son told Vanity Fair. Also, this was long before the concept of “date rape” was widely understood; in fact, marital rape was not even recognized as a crime. There is little chance the Loessers had rape on their mind as they crooned the song for party guests. They were surely depicting what they thought of as a classic instance of the traditional Courtship Script, that men and women have thought of as romantic, seductive, erotic and sexy for hundreds of years.
2. Even though the composer did not intend to depict a rape, is the song nonetheless depicting a rape, by 2017 standards of consent? Here, I completely understand why so many people are uncomfortable with or even repulsed by the song. While a song by itself by definition does not have a visual interpretation, turn the volume off and look at the body language in the first film interpretation of the song, linked above, in Neptune’s Daughter, for which the song won an Oscar in 1949. His body language is extremely pushy, grabby, and dominant (without any clear consensual invitation to be so dominant. This ain’t a pre-negotiated D/s scene here.) Multiple times each, he grabs her and pulls her towards him, slips off her jacket and hat unilaterally, and moves in on her pointedly as she’s moving away. She surrenders to him in her body language at the end, but this seems very much like just once more instance of the classic Hollywood trope whereby the man forces himself on a woman, she struggles and resists, but finally surrenders to the kiss she “wanted all along.”
While people disagree as to where the lines between seduction, persuasion, verbal coercion, and rape should be drawn, there’s no question that the scene depicted in the film, were it to play out in a real date in 2017, could and would be considered by many to be a date rape, particularly with the alcohol involved. I can certainly understand why people who have been victimized by men similar to the one depicted in the song or the film would be triggered by this film scene. Whether or not it depicts an actual rape, by 1949 standards of consent or by 2017 standards, either way the film scene is undeniably “rapey.”
But remember, Loesser had no part in creating that film scene. He just wrote the song, four years earlier, and the song of course has no aggressive, domineering body language (or any body language at all) baked into it. The main thing we have to go on, in interpreting the song itself, are the lyrics. The lyrics themselves are a pretty standard instance of the traditional Courtship Script.
And that’s the crux of the matter. The Courtship Script itself—which suggests that a woman should retreat and a man should pursue—feels rapey to a modern, liberal sensibility. Our entire romantic operating system, for hundreds or thousands of years, is rapey, and we’re struggling to come up with alternatives that preserve at least a little of the romantic and erotic tension of the Script.
3. Is the persistent verbal persuasion by the “wolf” in the song OK, by 2017 standards? Here, I believe the clear answer is no. It is neither OK, by “no means no” standards, or by the newer “yes means yes” standards that are rapidly being put in place on college campuses. While Slay Belle is right in saying that most of the woman’s evasions have to do with what she thinks she should do because of what other people might think, and for most of the song she doesn’t come out and say that she herself actually wants to leave, she does say, in one line, “The answer is no.” That’s clear as could be, and thus, the man flunks both the “no means no” standard, and the “yes means yes” standard. If this man in the song lived in 2017, and he were trying to do the right thing, he should not be persuading her so much. Yes, someone’s “no” can change to a “yes” over the course of the night (and vice versa), but certainly, after someone says “no” clearly, the persuasion should stop. That’s just not OK anymore, at least not in the liberal circles I’m a part of. (What’s OK or not OK in Trumpland is an entirely different matter, beyond the scope of this article.) Again, by 2017 standards of affirmative consent, the lyrics are most decidedly not kosher, and I would strong advise against any man being so aggressively persistent, even if he thinks she’s just “playing hard to get.” Which brings us to…
4. Is this song (not the film version, but the song), in its historical context, depicting a rape, or a sexy, consensual seduction? Here is where Slay Belle’s article just slays the matter. Affirmative consent wasn’t even remotely a concept in 1944. In fact, stopping a seduction immediately after the woman says “no”—i.e., “no means no”—wasn’t even a concept with wide currency back then. At the time the song was written, for a “good girl,” the word no was the default answer right out of the gate to any sexual overture; there was likely little date-sex that didn’t occur after a woman said no initially. One could say, anachronistically, that that means all sex back then was rape. Or one could see, as defenders of the song see, that that’s how the game was played back then–the “hard to get” game–by both genders. And one could see that in this particular instance in the song—not all instances of date sex in 1944, but in this particular instance—the woman clearly wants the man, and is clearly exercising autonomous, sexual agency to get him. She’s thumbing her nose at prevailing conventions that dictate that she shouldn’t have sex with the guy, and playing the game as she needs to play it, to get what she wants (but isn’t allowed to say that she wants.) Taken in context, I agree with Slay Belle that, in depicting a woman going for what she wants in the face prevailing sexist standards, the piece has lightly subversive, proto-feminist undertones.
Here’s how the author in the 2016 viral Tumblr post puts it:
So it’s not actually a song about rape—in fact it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her from doing so. But it’s also, at the same time, one of the best illustrations of rape culture that pop culture has ever produced. It’s a song about a society where women aren’t allowed to say yes…which happens to mean it’s also a society where women don’t have a clear and unambiguous way to say no.
In other words, the standards that the woman is rebelling against—by giving mere lip service to them while going against them in deed, order to get what she wants—are sexist, slut-shaming, and a clear part of rape culture. But that doesn’t mean the song is celebrating those standards. Rather, it seems to be saying—in about as subversive way as could be done in a 1944 pop song—fuck the standards.
In one blog post title, feminist film critic offers what I think is the best position on the song, summarized in two sentences: The Problem With “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Isn’t Consent. It’s Slut-Shaming. She suggests that what we should find problematic in the song is not whether the woman is consenting to sex or not (she is, in the way that women consenting in 1944), but rather, the slut-shaming standards–what I would call the traditional “Courtship Script”–that the woman needs to navigate to have the sex she wants to have:
By accepting this new but incorrect reading of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” [i.e., the “it’s about rape” reading,] we’re negating the real feminist issue [slut-shaming] that the woman in the song is so artfully acknowledging. An issue that women today are still very much dealing with. This not only squanders a classy and adorable chance to tacitly bitch about slut-shaming while listening to holiday music, but it also swashes a coat of paint over discussions of the whole issue in popular culture, making it that much easier for actual slut-shaming to continue.
Not to mention that when activists and socially aware people get something wrong but decide to just barrel forward with the premise anyway, it’s bad for the cause. It makes us look myopic and makes the cause look trivial. Besides, we already have mountains of books and movies and songs that feature genuinely offensive content we have to reckon with in order to enjoy our favorite things.
The Backlash (and the Backlash Against the Backlash, etc.)
Collar’s concern that a misreading of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” provides fodder to conservative critics of feminism is far from baseless.
In a 2016 piece entitled “Dear Millennials, Please Stop Trying To Ruin This Classic Holiday Song,” on the conservative site The Federalist, Bre Payton writes:
As we all know, the original 1944 version is sexy as hell. It’s about a couple who, after attending a holiday party together, find themselves at a somewhat awkward crossroads. The woman, who very clearly doesn’t want to go home, makes up little excuses as to why she should leave, but her date convinces her to stay by pointing out how cold it is outside.
The tension between the two is steamy… because it’s an elaborate dance of subtleties during which a man successfully seduces a woman into staying just a bit longer. The beloved holiday song encapsulates sexual tension and the art of seduction in a way that is interesting and relatable….
But apparently this is all too much for the “can I touch you here” generation.
On practical, personal, and philosophical grounds, I have come to be a proponent of affirmative consent, but I must admit, I laughed out loud at her last line. One of the main—and I think very warranted—critiques of affirmative consent, is that it can be stultifying and unsexy. It’s extremely difficult (though not impossible) to make the line “can I touch you here?” sound anything other than wooden. I appreciate a well-styled jab as much as the next writer, so on that point, I say to Payton’s “touch” line, touché.
Payton takes this line of critique and runs with it, in her analysis of a feminist-friendly re-imagining of the song that went viral in 2016. In the song, written by a young Minnesota couple named Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski, Liza sings lyrics from the traditional women’s part, while Lemanski responds with new lyrics emphasizing that “You reserve the right to say no.”
Explaining his impetus to co-write the song, Lemanski told CNN, “I’ve always had a big problem with the song. It’s so aggressive and inappropriate.” Liza added, “You never figure out if she gets to go home. You never figure out if there was something in her drink. It just leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.”
In response to this explanation, Payton writes, “It’s obvious the song is left vague on purpose so the listener can intimate what happens, because seduction is a mysterious thing.” In response to the song overall, she writes:
Their version is the unsexiest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life…. “[Y]ou reserve the right to say no” is robotic and unnatural…. In the age of affirmative consent, it’s apparently sexier when a man practically pushes you out the door for fear one might mistake flirting for something sinister.
Also, this dude’s obliviousness of the “spell” to which his gal is referring to is face-palm worthy. She’s obviously into him, but he’s too dumb to understand what’s going on, and treats it almost as if it’s an accusation that he’s coercing her into a situation she doesn’t want to be in.
Changing times lead to shifting realignments. In the swinging, free-love 60s and 70s—when liberals and radicals rallied, railed, and revolted against the rigid sexual morality of the 50s—who might have imagined that, fast forward several decades, it would be liberals and leftists tearing down an erotically-charged song about a couple about to have sex, and conservatives defending the value of “sexual tension and the art of seduction,” and reminding us that “seduction is a mysterious thing,” against the attacks of said liberals?
Before trying to answer, scratch your head at these lines, from yet another conservative attack on the liberal attackers of of the song, entitled “Baby, It’s Could Outside”: Consent, Commitment, and Leftist Prudes, by a writer who calls himself “AR-15.” In the article, he writes (with links in the original): “Sex with a leftist must be so incredibly boring and, well, unsexy, signing their consent forms before, during, and after, and all with no alcohol! No wonder conservatives report having more satisfying sex lives.”
When did right-wingers become the ones standing up for exciting sex, against the supposed prudery of the left? What are we to make of this seemingly-puzzling political and generational inversions?
In her 2017 book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, feminist cultural critic and Northwestern film professor Laura Kipnis writes:
It’s long been true of mainstream American feminism that the most supposedly radical factions have been closet conservatives, dedicated to recycling the most conventional versions of feminine virtue and delicacy. There have always been puritanical versions of feminism competing with more emancipatory versions. The so-called radical feminists of the 1980s— the designation was always a misnomer— were short-sighted bluenoses, even aligning themselves with Christian conservatives to fight the demon pornography (just as some first-wave feminists joined with prohibitionists to fight the demon rum).
Yet, even as she’s aware of this history, Kipnis finds herself surprised by some of the contemporary political and cultural inversions:
[C]ampus political culture of the moment throws all traditional left-right distinctions up for grabs. After I got marched on [by Northwestern students, for writing “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” in 2015,] I became, for a time, a darling on the right— well, a certain libertarian flange of the right— who liked that I’d stood up to “political correctness,” even if I was untrustworthy on every other count. Please note that when someone like me gets lauded on the right, politics as we know it is officially incomprehensible…. Straightforward political explanations are insufficient, and the usual alliances don’t hold….
Along these lines, earlier in the book, she writes:
Another of the weirder features of campus life now is witnessing a generation of students demanding more regulation over their lives from the administration, in contrast to the demands of previous generations of activists that campus officials get out of their lives. Our rebellions were more straightforwardly Oedipal: overthrow everything, especially the fucking administration.
Kipnis describes herself as an “ironist,” and—back to the “Baby” debate—I must admit it took me about 15 minutes to iron out all the layers of irony (I counted five of them), when I came across a particular reference, in a piece entitled “Chill Out, Culture Police, on ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside‘” by Charlotte Allen. The piece appeared in USA Today as a conservative counterpoint to the liberal piece it published by Mary Nahorniak, cited earlier.
In her article, Allen points out that one of the earliest critics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was one Sayyid Qutb, a major intellectual progenitor of fundamentalist Islamic jihad. Following Allen’s reference, I did some reading and learned that, before Qutb’s radicalization, he was a bureaucrat in Egypt’s Ministry of Education. In that capacity, he traveled throughout America for two years, studying our educational system. He arrived in 1948, and soon found himself taking a few classes at Colorado State College of Education—now the University of Northern Colorado—in the small town of Greely.
One one the defining moments in Qutb’s path from mild-mannered educational bureaucrat to world-famous ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, occurred when he happened to attend a church dance in Greely, and heard, believe it or not, a recording of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” This occurred only 4 years after the song was written, and a year before it achieved fame as an Oscar-winning movie song. Here is Qutb’s lively description of the scene in his 1951 essay “The America I Have Seen:”
In most churches there are clubs that join the two sexes, and every minister attempts to attract to his church as many people as possible, especially since there is a tremendous competition between churches of different denominations. And for this reason, each church races to advertise itself with lit, colored signs on the doors and walls to attract attention, and by presenting delightful programs to attract the people much in the same way as merchants or showmen or actors. And there is no compunction about using the most beautiful and graceful girls of the town, and engaging them in song and dance, and advertising.
A Church’s Party Program
This is an example of the text of an advertisement for a church party that was posted in the student’s union of one of the colleges. “Sunday, October lst, 6: 00 P .M. snacks, magic games, puzzles, contests, fun” There is nothing strange in this, for the minister does not feel that his job is any different from that of a theater manager, or that of a merchant….
A Hot Night at the Church
One night I was in a church in Greeley, Colorado, I was a member in its club as I was a member in a number of church clubs in every area that I had lived in, for this is an important facet of American society, deserving close study from the inside. After the religious service in the church ended, boys and girls from among the members began taking part in chants, while others prayed, and we proceeded through a side door onto the dance floor that was connected to the prayer hall by a door, and the Father jumped to his desk and every boy took the hand of a giri, including those who were chanting.
The dance floor was lit with red and yellow and blue lights, and with a few white lamps. And they danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire. When the minister descended from his office, he looked intently around the place and at the people, and encouraged those men and women still sitting who had not yet participated in this circus to rise and take part. And as he noticed that the white lamps spoiled the romantic, dreamy atmosphere, he set about, with that typical American elegance and levity, dimming them one by one, all the while being careful not to interfere with the dance, or bump into any couples dancing on the dance floor. And the place really did appear to become more romantic and passionate. Then he advanced to the gramophone to choose a song that would befit this atmosphere and encourage the males and the females who were still seated to participate.
And the Father chose. He chose a famous American song called “But Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which is composed of a dialogue between a boy and a girl returning from their evening date. The boy took the girl to his home and kept her from leaving. She entreated him to let her return home, for it was getting late, and her mother was waiting but every time she would make an excuse, he would reply to her with this line: but baby, its cold outside!
And the minister waited until he saw people stepping to the rhythm of this moving song, and he seemed satisfied and contented. He left the dance floor for his home, leaving the men and the women to enjoy this night in all its pleasure and innocence!
This scene occurred in 1948, just four years after “Baby” was written, and a year before the song became a hit, from its 1949 inclusion in Neptune’s Daughter.
Qutb was so disgusted by what he saw, in Greely and throughout the rest of his travels in America, that upon his return to Egypt in 1950, he promptly joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadi organization dedicated to the installation of Sharia law throughout the Islamic world. He became editor-in-chief of the Brotherhood’s weekly paper, and later, head of its propaganda arm.
According to an article entitled “Al Qaeda’s Greely Roots,” detailing Qutb’s short but influential stint in Colorado:
[Qutb’s] writings have become both the inspiration and the blueprint for the fundamentalist jihad that now engulfs the world. Qutb’s work is to militant Islam what Das Kapital was to communism or Mein Kampf was to the Nazis. In American terms, he is Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine, all rolled into one. His disciples include Anwar Sadat’s assassins, and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian cleric convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up several New York landmarks. They include militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And they include a Saudi militant named Osama bin Laden….
And through it all – right up until the day in 1966 when he was executed [for plotting to assassinate Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954] – Qutb remembered Greeley. What he had seen in those few months stayed with him through the decades and filled him with fear, disgust, and contempt. What he saw in Greeley made him hate America.
This is a stretch—a very big stretch—but: given how central Qutb’s experience witnessing dirty dancing to the tune of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” was to the development of his utter revulsion at the West and his determination to overthrow Western influences in the Islamic world, it could be said that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” played some teeny-tiny role in the development of modern jihad.
Charlotte Allen, the conservative author whose piece cited above first made me aware of this fascinating tidbit of history, stretches the inference further. “Feminists,” she writes, “love to cultivate sympathetic ‘allies.’ And they’ve got them aplenty in their grim and puritanical loathing of a cheery Christmas song: radical Islamic terrorists.” On the conservative site Hot Air, Larry O’Connor writes along similar lines: “So the American left, with their penchant for totalitarian control over our behaviors and thoughts, have come full circle and alligned with Islamist totalitarians who wish to do the same. Symetrical, right?”
As I mentioned earlier, I counted five ironies in this whole story of Qutb’s reaction to “Baby,” and the story’s invocation by conservatives in the debate around the song.
- First, there’s the irony implicit in the song itself. The song depicts an era when couples women weren’t openly allowed to say they wanted sex. So, in order to get the sex she authentically desires, the woman pays lip services to those standards, while ignoring them in deed. (It could be said that this irony is implicit in the the Courtship Script itself, which the song depicts.)
- Yet, even though the song was thumbing its nose at the then-reigning religious morality against pre-marital sex, and in particular, women’s pre-marital sex… it was played by a pastor at a church, and church teens were dancing dirty to it. The pastor apparently played it in a knowing bid to attract the youth to the church.
- It was this fundamental disconnect (i.e, the perceived corruption and perversion of traditional religious morality and institutions in the West), that led Qutb to his quest to overthrow Western influences.
- Qutb’s prudish and sexually-conservative take on the song–that it’s too licentious—is now being compared to what is seen by some as a prudish and sexually-conservative take on the song—that it depicts rape and not romance—by the left.
- This sexual conservatism among the left is being mocked be the right—traditionally the defenders of sexual conservatism. Indeed, Charlotte Allen, whose article cites Qutb, praises how the song “tell[s] a tale of sex at its most pleasantly consensual.” Charlotte Allen is a columnist for First Things, a prominent neoconservative Christian journal. So we have writers for religious journals mocking the sexual prudery of the left.
What’s going on with the shifts in sexual morality and ethics in America?
I can’t quite tell, but something major is shifting, and it’s shifting fast. I’m determined to keep figuring it out, and sharing what I learn.
In the meantime, we still have one more day to debate “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” this season.