Death and the Meme

In order to understand why the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is in fact, not “rapey”, we must go all the way back to the myth of Hades and Persephone, sometimes nicknamed “Death and the Maiden.” A fantastic play and Roman Polanski film (IRONY) also use this title as a reference to the myth but features an inversion of the genders, text, and subtext to craft a story of revenge both sensual and political. Rape is definitely a theme in that story, and there is certainly reason enough to reference this myth when dealing with such themes. It’s clear from the films he chose that Polanski saw women as powerful creatures brought low by cruel men, and how that pity may lead someone to destruction and resentment of the female is another discussion altogether. We’re here to talk about a Christmas song.

The original “Death and the Maiden” myth tells how Hades, lord of the dead, kidnapped his bride, Persephone, and brought her into the Underworld. Her enraged mother, Demeter, blights the earth with cold and famine on condition of seeing her daughter returned. This continues despite the pleas of other gods until Zeus tells Hades to return Persephone. He does so, but secretly sends her with seeds of the pomegranate. The pomegranate, carnal and chambered like a bloodied heart, is the original Fruit of Knowledge, as there were no apples in the lands where these myths were written. Tasting of food binds Persephone to Hades so that she must spend a third of the year with her husband. When she is away from her possessive mother, we are punished. This is why in winter, it is cold outside, if you will.

“Death and the Maiden” is where the tradition of carrying one’s bride over the threshold, symbolizing the death of the bride’s previous life with her parents through a ritualistic “kidnapping,” originates. It can be seen as a repeating motif throughout art history in countless paintings and repeated whenever a monster picks up a woman draped in white: think Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, all the way to The Force Awakens. If it doesn’t happen in one way or another, possibly even reversed, in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, I’ll be surprised. And it is echoed, in a lighter form, in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Is it a coincidence that this is a winter song? Probably. But in a Jungian way, it may be the subconscious repeating an archetype it doesn’t know it possesses.

The key to understanding, contextually, what is going on, is to understand the place of such stories in history, in ancient gender roles, in politics, and in honor-based cultures, which most conservative wartime cultures like that of Ancient Athens or WW2 America (1944 to be exact) are, almost without deviation.

Persephone ate the seeds willingly. Demeter was no fun to be around. Gods of death, for obvious reason, are often portrayed as possessive and jealous–people’s experience of death and the impossibility of bringing back the dead inform this. But there is a recurring arc of the possessive parent throughout archetypal stories, as well, and it is a right of passage to be “taken” or “freed,” as the case may be. Like Rapunzel, Persephone is her mother’s captive. Hades, “kidnapping” her, frees her from innocence, chastity, childhood, and the shackles of parental overprotection while saving Persephone face with Demeter because it was all “against her will.”

Throughout honor-based cultures run by patriarchal ideals, the Maiden is forced into the role of eternal virgin followed asexually by Motherhood, and then thanklessly, to Cronehood. A father, in this case, the entire Patriarchy, does not want to know how he gets his grandchildren — but make no mistake, a mother character can also be a patriarch.

In the Forties, to have a woman struggle against an implied sexual interlude, but only to struggle lightly, was for her to consent. There is a game being played — sex is never mentioned, and she feigns innocence because to be forward would be to imply a further depth. When culturally a woman hides 90% of her experience, to be forward is to say one is essentially a prostitute, because you’ve implied there’s 90% more beneath that layer. So everyone knows the song is about a seduction, and about the fact that she must let him seduce her, or else everyone, not just the man in the song, would be put off. When she asks what’s in the drink, it isn’t a roofie. She’s implying it’s spiked with alcohol, or stiffer stuff than her usual — because otherwise, she wouldn’t be in the process of consenting. “What’s in this drink?”, the very line many have latched onto as the “rapey” section, is the moment of consent on her part. By establishing an audible excuse for her future behavior, she’s sent the signal that she’s willing while simultaneously saying that this isn’t something she makes a habit of doing.

Persephone ate the seed willingly. Eve ate of her pomegranate first. A woman’s role in the Forties was to put on a shadowplay that the man was in control, sexually, to save face with her parents and the outside world. But we all know a threshold doesn’t hold thresh, that the monster is more alluring than the suitor waiting at home, and that the woman is who spiked her drink in the first place.

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