In defense of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"
Originally written in the 1940s by Frank Loesser (who performed it at parties with his wife), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has become one of the most divisive songs of the holiday season. While some consider it a classic, many find the dynamic throughout the song problematic, even going as far as to call it a ‘date-rape anthem.’
For those not as familiar with the tune, the song is a duet traditionally sung by a man and woman. The woman appears to be saying that she needs to go home, while the man attempts to persuade her to stay. This storyline has been translated by certain people as a dark one, where consent is ignored and a man actually goes so far as to spike his companion’s drink (more on that line later, as it’s the one commonly pointed to as the most problematic throughout the song). And it’s an understandable perspective; even from the conception of the song, the male part was written as “Wolf” and the female part as “Mouse.”
The reason this isn’t an entirely accurate criticism of the song is that it ignores literally all historical context. While the situation described in the song very obviously looks like sexual harassment and assault given a cursory glance in today’s frame of reference, it would not have when the song came out.
Let’s tackle one of the most prominent arguments that the song glorifies rape culture: the lyric “Hey, what’s in this drink?” While this is often taken as indication that the woman’s drink was spiked, the question was a stock joke at the time, and the punchline was invariably that there’s nothing in the drink. Rather than being spiked, the reality is that there is absolutely nothing in the drink – and that makes sense given the rest of the song.
The woman in the song is staying late, unchaperoned, at a male companion’s house, which is blasphemous for a ‘good girl’ in the 1940s. She’s concerned with what others will think (evidenced clearly throughout the song in lyrics like “the neighbors might think,” “my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious,” and “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow”), but she is having a really good time. She wants to stay, so she’s excusing her uncharacteristically bold behavior by blaming it on the drink – despite the fact that the drink is incredibly weak, if alcoholic at all. That’s the actual joke. When a woman in media from the early-to-mid 20th century says “hey, what’s in this drink?” it’s a joke about how she’s perfectly sober and using the drink for plausible deniability because she’s living in a society where women aren’t supposed to have sexual freedom or agency. It is NOT a joke about how she’s drunk and about to be raped.
Essentially, the societal context is that women are expected to reject men’s advances whether or not they actually want to, and therefore it’s not just normal but expected for a gentleman to pressure his companion because he knows she would have to deny him no matter what – if she really wants to stay, she won’t be able to justify doing so unless he offers her an excuse other than “I’m staying because I want to.” That constitutes the bulk of the song, as well – the male part is constantly suggesting excuses she can use when people later ask why she spent the night at his house: it was so cold out, there were no cabs, he insisted because he was concerned about my safety in such bad weather.
Furthermore, in the context of the song, the man is pretty clearly right in his conjecture that the woman wants to stay. She has a voice throughout the song, and she uses it to provide culturally-understood signals that she actually does want to stay but can’t say so. She even says “I ought to say no, no, no” to explicitly underline that she’s just putting up a token resistance so she’ll be able to claim later that she acted appropriately, as highlighted in the line “at least I’m gonna say that I tried.”
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is not a song about rape. If anything, it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a society designed to prevent her from doing so. But it is a song about a time when women weren’t allowed to say yes, which also means a time where women don’t have an unambiguous way to say no. Played today, in an entirely different decade and culture, that creates a problematic theme. If not rape itself, the same situation played out in modern society would at the very least be coercion.
It’s completely understandable to listen to the song and form quick judgements on appropriateness because of a lack of context. But if you then go an publicly disavow or attack the holiday classic without any attempt whatsoever to understand it or think critically about it, it becomes an issue.