Understanding ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ in a positive light
As December is well on its way, we once again find ourselves within the magical short window of time during which it is socially acceptable to listen to Christmas music. Unfortunately, listening to socially acceptable songs has become increasingly difficult. In a time of heightened awareness about social injustices, many classics are deemed deeply problematic; “Santa Baby” is too materialistic, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” justifies bullying until the victim’s undesirable look proves useful and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” reinforces gender stereotypes.
Despite the criticisms, it is rarely suggested that these songs are questionable enough to boycott completely — the one exception, of course, being Frank Loesser’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”
This infamous duet has always been one of my favorite holiday tunes, regardless of who sings it. The old-timey feel, the story and the harmonies are irresistible to me, so you can imagine my dismay last year when I came across an article someone shared on Facebook explaining that it was, in no uncertain terms, a “date-rape song.”
Apparently, many others were inclined to agree, as it was banned on radio stations all over the U.S. and Canada. People pointed out that the apparent theme, a man relentlessly trying to convince a woman to stay with him despite her repeated attempts to leave, promotes an offensive message masquerading as a love story. Certain lyrics are especially controversial: “the answer is no” seems like the clear opposite of consent, and “say, what’s in this drink” is often interpreted as a reference to the man having spiked her beverage.
Since their original refusal to play the song, however, many radio stations have put it back in its rotation after overwhelming amounts of listeners expressed their support for it. The reasons for supporting the song vary, but a lot of people simply assert that it wasn’t considered offensive when it was written and that it’s just an innocent oldie which shouldn’t be held to today’s social standards.
I had a hard time finding that argument strong enough to justify the song’s harmful facets, and I still felt guilty when I listened to it — but I didn’t stop listening to it. My concern about its alleged connotations was not enough to make me turn it off, and I realized that I was having to force myself to hear it in the problematic way I was meant to. But I wasn’t just blinded by the catchiness of the song; in fact, what I liked most about it was the story itself.
It wasn’t until some reflection and re-reading of the lyrics that I realized why: I admired and felt empowered by the female protagonist. Throughout the song, she experiences a battle not with the man, but with herself; or rather, with her worries about being judged for expressing her sexuality. The real villains of the story are her oft-mentioned friends and family: the sister who will “be suspicious,” the father who will be “pacing the floor,” the maiden aunt whose “mind is vicious” and the neighbors who “might think” she’s off doing something improper. To me, the song clearly conveys love and lust between the pair. These lines are not her excuses to leave, but her genuine worries that “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow” about her exercising her own sexual agency. Beyond this, these lines are mechanisms for her to express reservations that she’s been pressured to understand are appropriate for a woman; she has to show hesitation because she knows that that’s what’s expected of her, regardless of what she wants.
In the context of history, this interpretation makes even more sense. Loesser, a Broadway songwriter, wrote “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in 1944 to perform with his wife at celebrity parties. It became popular in 1949 when it was featured in the film “Neptune’s Daughter” and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. In those years, it was widely considered scandalous for an unmarried woman to stay late at a man’s home.
Through that lens, the man’s responses throughout the song can be understood as playful suggestions for excuses she could use to justify staying to both herself and whoever asks later — because, as a decent and modest woman of the 1940s, simply wanting to stay is not a good enough reason. In context, other controversial lyrics can be explained as well. When the woman croons “I ought to say no, no, no, sir … at least I’m gonna say that I tried,” she seems to be talking to more to herself than her partner. She thinks about what she ought to do based on what she has been taught is proper behavior for a young female, and she discusses how she plans to convince people that she did her best to stay aligned with that behavior. The line “say, what’s in this drink” is a reference to a common joke of the time period in which someone blames alcohol for their surprising behavior. Just like her neighbors, maiden aunt, siblings and parents, the woman looks to her drink for another possible rationalization of her shameful thoughts about staying.
In the end, as the two singers come together for a beautiful harmony, she gives in — not to the man, but to her own desires. The climax of this song is not the victory of a predator, but the victory of a woman against a society that seeks to suppress her sexual freedom and expression. And despite the immense progress that’s been made since it was first performed, its message is still relevant today. Slut-shaming is alive and well, and the song exposes a broader problem of rape culture that has always existed: when there is no clear, judgement-free way to accept sexual advances without feigning hesitation, then someone who genuinely wants to reject them risks being misunderstood.
No matter how many times people try to listen to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” differently, some will still hear it only as a song about coercion and a lack of consent. Whether or not someone feels comfortable listening to the tune depends on their own personal interpretation of it, and it is important to realize that no one is wrong in how they feel when listening to music. On a larger scale, it is vital to recognize that what makes one person uncomfortable might empower another, and vice versa. All of it is valid, and none of it should be condemned. In feminism, this logic has been applied to clothing, sex work and more. It is time that, with context, we also apply it to music — and this Christmas, I’ll be listening guilt-free to the Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer version of an amazing holiday classic.