Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Snowed-in hanky panky

One thing the holiday season brings is a good reason to listen to some of the songs that are more about winter than Christmas. Of these, some of my favorites are "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm." Thinking about their lyrics, it seems that there's a subtle shift in cultural attitudes to be seen in them that I've never heard mentioned, amongst the many more obvious ones.

In each of them (less so the last of them) there's an assumption of a scenario which goes something like this. A romantically interested couple can spend time together without the slightest suspicion of hanky-panky, in which both parties behave like perfect gentlemen and ladies, until a moment comes when weather forces them to stay together past the normally appointed moment when a date ought to end. Once that happens, though, there's a strange and sudden change in which things that were previously not only forbidden but never even hinted at, are suddenly hinted at, suddenly in everyone's thoughts. It's as if naughty behavior becomes possible at 10pm, and so everything before is completely on the up-and-up, and everything after is tainted with the thought of improprieties, whether acted on or simply alluded to in innuendo; and weather is the magical force, the one thing that can drag a couple across the line.

The distinction is subtle and the idea that there's a cultural change behind it even more slippery. After all, it'd be easy to dismiss this as being a simple consequence of the fact that the propriety of courtship has changed, and people are expected to be at least thinking about hanky-panky, if not acting on it, at any time they feel like. But this isn't simply that hanky-panky is accepted and expected now, and innuendo and implication is par for the course. The part that I'm focusing on is the curious idea of the transition, and how sharp it is.

Once it occurred to me, there's something similar in one of the few movies of the period that I (unwillingly) am familiar with, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. A minor plot point in that movie features a male friend of the family being at the house, visiting, which is all considered entirely reasonable and a regular occurrence not worth a second thought, until one day when the river floods the bridge and he can't get back to the train station. The same flood prevents Mr. Blandings from returning home. Thus, the same fellow who regularly is alone in the house with Mrs. Blandings is now alone in the house with her after the time when he would normally have left, and suddenly the entire tone of the situation changes. Of course, it's entirely harmless: he had no designs on her, she certainly wasn't about to cheat on her husband with him, it's a simple matter of affording a friend a courtesy. But the fact that the question suddenly had to be asked and answered, though contrived a bit to give the movie some tension, points up the odd disjunction. If they had had those inclinations, wouldn't they have had them at 6pm as much as at 9pm? It's as if there's a background assumption that everyone has no libido at all, and is perfectly civilized, all day, but when the clock strikes nine everyone transforms like a werewolf, so you have to get apart before that moment comes.

I wonder where this idea comes from and where it vanished to. It seems like the kind of thing that, if you could confront someone from the 1940s with it, they would laugh it off as absurd, because it was too deep in the gestalt to be identified except by contrast to a time when it didn't exist. (I've no doubt we have just as many things that will seem similarly silly once someone can look at them from the outside.) But it has to have come into being at some point, and faded away at another. Or maybe I'm just imagining things.

1 comment:

Siobhan said...

Just to be clear on the details with Mr. Blandings...

He was working late in town and wasn't coming home because of a deadline. The children of the house couldn't get home because of the flooded river, and they spent the night at a friend's house. The housekeeper didn't spend the night at the house because it was her night off and she was visiting her sister (or some such). So Mrs. Blandings and the family friend (who had once been in love with Mrs. Blandings in college, but she chose Mr. Blandings instead) ended up spending the night (because of the flood) with NO one else in the house to attest to there being no hanky panky. :)