Point At Issue: Are Today's Standards Censoring Past Work?

A song is supposed to elicit certain feelings. In addition to all the emotions that songs evoke, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has attracted heated debate around its lyrics too. There have been articles written on the song that say that it is about rape and sexual coercion, while others say it actually stands true to feministic principles. But the real question is, should a song made in the 1940s be put to the test about whether it holds up? Is it fair to assess a piece of popular culture by the yardstick of the present?

Films and songs and popular culture have more of an impact than they are credited with. There has been a recent spate of films and TV shows that have positively contributed to the conversation around representation. Films like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ have been appreciated for their representation of black and Asian-American populations. Movies and TV shows of the past have somehow been dragged into this same conversation around contemporary media and has been forced to answer questions that it may be ill- equipped to answer.

In the case of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside,’ the song was written and composed by a Frank Loesser in 1944. Loesser had written the song as a duet for him and his wife to perform at their housewarming party while their guests were about to bid them good night. In 1948, the song was recorded for the musical Neptune’s Daughter. It is also important to note that the song was performed in the movie in two different ways. In the first iteration, the “wolf” part of the song is sung by a man and the “mouse” part by a woman. In its second iteration, the roles are reversed.

The song was written according to the conventions of the day. The conventions in the ‘40s stated that the woman was never supposed to show signs of sexual desire. A viral Tumblr post goes into great detail about how the woman in the song shows sexual agency in a patriarchal society during a time when a woman wasn’t supposed to have any. Some historians even claim that the song used to be a feminist anthem. By analyzing the song according to today’s standards, it robs the song of the significance it had in the decade in which it was produced.

Some TV shows and films continue to be rebooted in order to be introduced to a new generation to a work that might have held great significance when they were introduced to an audience for the first time. Shakespeare’s plays have been performed by theater companies around the world, made into films using contemporary actors. They have even been adapted into different languages around the world. Films like ‘King Kong’ and ‘A Star is Born’ have been remade time and again. Even TV shows like ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’ have been in syndication long after their original runs have ended.

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It makes sense to test the relevance of a piece of popular culture, and whether it can offer its audiences any insight into the times in which it was made, or whether it can add to people’s current tastes. However, commentators often tend to take extreme measures against films or TV shows or songs if they exhibit characteristics that do not match the current climate. It happened in the case of “Baby its cold outside,” when all the debate surrounding it led to the song being banned by radio stations.

Does it make sense to shut out such work if it doesn’t match today’s standards? Doesn’t that become a form of censorship in itself? In the past, banned works like these might have been difficult to find for people to consume, but as for most things in the present, the internet has changed this equation. It isn’t difficult for curious minds to find pop culture works that may not be termed popular or even relevant to today’s times. It is one of the reasons why TV shows from the past have had reboots for current generations.

By criticism of pop culture, there have been positive changes in the media. A recent report by U.S. non-governmental media monitoring organization GLAAD shows how the representation of LGBTQ characters has increased in the media, with even asexual characters finding a place in the media. When GLAAD began the reports in 2005, there was less than 2 percent of characters on broadcast networks that were lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. That has changed to about 6.4 percent in 2017.

 Popular culture is a reflection of the times that we live in. When current popular culture also includes things of the past, it helps the people understand the times gone by. It is important to look at these works and gauge the improvements that we might have made as a society. Not all works may have the same effect as they might have had in the time period in which it was first introduced. To apply today’s yardsticks to a popular work from the past and criticize it to the point where we demand the work to be completely excluded from conversations robs us of the opportunity to assess collective growth.