As anyone who has spent the better part of a day listening to Christmas songs while compiling a playlist can attest, not all of them are about Christmas. Some of the best known examples, in fact, are about the weather (“Winter Wonderland,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Jingle Bells” come to mind). At least two of them, besides conjuring up nostalgic scenes of wintriness, are actually love songs: the warm, fuzzy “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and its naughtier cousin, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” occupies a unique spot in the holiday music canon in two respects: one, it’s a call-and-response duet in which one party tries to seduce the other over the latter’s apparent objections; and two, it has gone in a few short decades from being a beloved “fireside couch cuddler” (as one reviewer put it) to being reviled as a so-called “date-rape anthem.”
“Is this the year we finally retire ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’?” wrote USA Today writer Mary Nahorniak toward the end of 2017, a year brimming with revelations of sexual misbehavior by powerful men:
In 2017, America woke up to the systemic sexual predation that pervades every corner of society, but some of our Christmas carols are stuck in the past.
In particular, the drumbeat against “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is getting too loud to ignore.
“Drumbeat” might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it isn’t hard to find detractors on social media:
If you don’t believe that rape culture has been normalized in our society, take another listen to the lyrics of the holiday classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. It’s up to us to make a change. Have no doubt. #StayWoke
— Veronica Varlow (@veronicavarlow) December 11, 2017
Yet there was a time when “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was no more controversial than “Here Comes Santa Claus” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The song itself hasn’t changed in the 73 years of its existence, so what happened?
The short answer is: we changed.
Composed by Frank Loesser (of Guys and Dolls fame) in 1944 and recorded for the first time in 1948 for the Hollywood musical Neptune’s Daughter (for which Loesser won an Oscar for Best Original Song), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” evokes a bygone era when gender politics, when they were brought up at all, were considered little more than a laughing matter.
As the lyrics unfold, one voice (usually female, labeled “The Mouse” by Loesser on the original lyric sheet) ticks off a list of excuses to flee while the other (usually male, labeled “The Wolf”) tries every gambit in the book to get her to stay, presumably for the night:
(I really can’t stay) But, baby, it’s cold outside
(I’ve got to go away) But, baby, it’s cold outside
(This evening has been) Been hoping that you’d drop in
(So very nice) I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice
(My mother will start to worry) Beautiful, what’s your hurry
(My father will be pacing the floor) Listen to the fireplace roar
(So really I’d better scurry) Beautiful, please don’t hurry
(Well, maybe just half a drink more) Put some records on while I pour
(The neighbors might think) Baby, it’s bad out there
(Say what’s in this drink) No cabs to be had out there
(I seem to be in) Your eyes are like starlight now
(Some crazy spell) I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell
(I ought to say no, no, no, sir) Mind if I move in closer
(At least I’m gonna say that I tried) What’s the sense of hurting my pride
(I really can’t stay) Baby, don’t hold out
[Both] Oh, but it’s cold outside
(I simply must go) Baby, it’s cold outside
(The answer is no) Baby, it’s cold outside
(The welcome has been) How lucky that you dropped in
(So nice and warm) Look out the window at that storm….
The back-and-forth continues for several more verses until the song ends abruptly on a harmonious refrain of “Baby, it’s cold — Baby, it’s cold outside.” (In some more recent recordings the line “Well… I really shouldn’t… alright” is tacked on after the refrain, but it’s apocryphal, not to be found in the original.)
Loesser said he wrote the song for himself and his wife Lynn to perform at dinner parties, never expecting it to become a hit. For a sense of how it was meant to be performed, there’s no better rendition than the one recorded by the Loessers themselves in 1949:
For most of its existence, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was universally applauded as “wry,” “playful,” and “flirtatious” (which is certainly the spirit in which it was written). But around the mid-2000s, public opinion of the song took a turn as it dawned on some people that what they were listening to sounded a little too much like sexual coercion.
Interestingly, the earliest example we’ve found of the song being spoken of this way appears to have been written tongue-in-cheek. Rob McKenzie and Joe Bodolai penned this takedown for their humor column “Post Mortem” in the 20 December 2004 edition of the National Post:
On the Christmas playlist there is no fouler song than Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Even the sheer hypocrisy of the brown-nosing reindeer in the Rudolph tune pales next to this bit of trash.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside has a lovely melody but it’s an ode to statutory rape. A man is trying to convince a younger woman to stay at his place rather than go home to her parents.
Her lyrics include: “My mother will start to worry,” “My father will be pacing the floor,” “Say, what’s in this drink?” and “I ought to say no, no, no, sir.”
His lyrics include: “Mind if I move a little closer?” “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?” and “Baby, don’t hold out.”
In sum, the man gets the girl drunk amid her protestations so he can take advantage of her. The fact the song blurs the line between flirtation and molestation is hardly a defence; the very point is, this is a line that ought not to be blurred.
Post Mortem calls on all radio stations and malls to please stop playing this song.
We found a blog post making a similar semi-facetious case (albeit alleging date rape instead of statutory rape) in December 2005, and another published in December 2006 argued at length that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a “date rape Christmas carol.”
The idea went mainstream in 2007. As one example, the video performance below, uploaded to the popular humor web site Funny Or Die in December of that year, won online fame as “a dark re-imagining of a holiday classic”:
The Internet has been debating the true meaning of the song ever since (Huffington Post‘s line-by-line “takedown“of the lyrics in 2014 is a prime example of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” revisionism).
In hindsight, it shouldn’t surprise us that the so-called “rapey” connotations of the song would eventually be questioned — if not 10 years ago then certainly now, in the wake of a seemingly endless string of revelations about men in positions of authority sexually abusing women. (At least one social media post likened the song’s lyrics to some of the things said by Hollywood producer and accused sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein in an audiotape made public by one of his accusers.)
We can’t help but hear the song differently now. If no really means no, then “Mind if I move in closer” is the wrong answer. If she wants to go home, he ought to call her a cab instead of haranguing her into staying. If she thinks he spiked her drink, she ought to call the cops. We are sensitized to these signs. We are triggered by them, in fact, to a degree that would have been unthinkable to the song’s composer in 1944 (Loesser’s son told Vanity Fair in 2016 that his father would have been “mortified” by all the fuss).
It shows both how far we’ve come since the phrase “date rape” first appeared in print some 50 years ago (see Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, 1975), and how far we still have to go. After five decades of educating ourselves on the difference between consensual and nonconsensual sex, we can instantly spot a violation in a popular song, but the distinction remains lost in the male-dominated halls of power.
Which is not to say that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t have its defenders. A December 2010 post on the feminist blog Persephone Magazine argues that considered in its historical context “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” can be heard as an instance of a woman pushing back against the sexist mores of her day:
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. We see this in the organization of the song — from stopping by for a visit, to deciding to push the line by staying longer, to wanting to spend the entire night, which is really pushing the bounds of acceptability. Her beau in his repeated refrain “Baby, it’s cold outside” is offering her the excuses she needs to stay without guilt. …
Later in the song, she asks him for a comb (to fix her hair) and mentions that there’s going to be talk tomorrow – this 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. …
So let’s talk about that drink. I’ve discussed solely looking at the lyrics of the song and its internal universe so far, but I think that the line “Say, what’s in this drink” needs to be explained in a broader context to refute the idea that he spiked her drink. “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.
Armed with these arguments, we asked gender and culture scholar Adrienne Trier-Bieniek to weigh in, starting with the question: Is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” really a song about rape?
“I don’t think it was written as one,” she replied via e-mail. “But it certainly has taken on this feeling as people have progressed in their thinking.” She continued:
I think it can be looked at a couple of ways. The first is the cultural context — when the song was written the “cat and mouse” game between the sexes was just a fun joke. And, that’s an important point to note. But, it’s also a slippery slope when we just rest in “historical context.” Because of course we don’t think about the song the way in the way it was, we think about it in the way it is. With all the coverage of sexual harassment and assault that is happening, it becomes difficult to not strip down parts of our culture in order to figure out where we are supporting this violence. And I’m not sure that is a bad thing. It’s important that we reevaluate what we once thought was right and grow.
She also told us she finds the self-empowerment reading, however reasonable sounding, a stretch.
It’s hard, from a gendered perspective, to accept that she has the power. Even if we keep it in cultural context, as the author notes a few times, there is no doubt that she is being pursued and, at this point in music history, those types of wink-wink songs, where we accept that boys will be boys, were common. Also, if she’s playing coy because she wants to stay, this puts us back into the mindset that women really want sex, but can’t ask for it. So they have to be persuaded. No means yes.
And that’s the crux of the problem. Even if “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” wasn’t written as a date rape anthem, its lighthearted treatment of a scenario we can’t help but perceive as sexual entrapment helps keep the “boys will be boys,” “no means yes” mindset alive.
“Internalized patriarchy runs deep and thick,” Trier-Bieniek says. “Questioning our culture, especially when it is a tradition, is really difficult.”
But question it we must. In one of her e-mails Trier-Bieniek paraphrased Maya Angelou, whose thought cut straight to the heart of the moral dilemma: “When we know better, we do better.”
In October 2019, word got out that a new version of the song—with updated lyrics—was recorded by John Legend and Kelly Clarkson.
For example, in the new song Clarkson sings, “If I have one more drink?”
And Legend responds: “It’s your body and your choice.”