The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ was once an anthem for progressive women. What happened?

Broadway composer Frank Loesser and his wife and musical partner Lynn are shown, April 26, 1956, in New York. Their song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was originally a song they performed for friends at their housewarming party. (AP Photo/Anthony Camerano)

It’s that most wonderful time of the year. City storefronts are aglow with snowflakes and fairy lights, stockings have been hung by chimneys with care, and on the Internet debates over the holiday hit, Baby It’s Cold Outside, rage on.

In the past four years, this last seems to have morphed into a holiday tradition in its own right. In true Christmas spirit, The Daily Beast didn’t even wait until Thanksgiving to publish a listicle covering “Everyone’s Favorite Date-Rape Holiday Classic.”

Meanwhile, Urban Dictionary now lists the song under the heading “Christmas Date Rape Song.” Recently, it was given a “feminist makeover” in the clever, if not quite as catchy, YouTube video “Baby, It’s Consent Inside.”

Is all this controversy over a catchy classic really warranted?

Upon first listen, maybe. The tune was penned in the 1940s by Frank Loesser — writer of Guys and Dolls — to be performed as a duet with his wife at Los Angeles parties. Its predatory nature is apparent from the original notes, which label the male’s part as “wolf” and the female’s as “mouse.”

And try reading the lyrics with a moderately critical eye. She doesn’t want to stay. He tries to convince her. “It’s cold outside,” he croons over her protestations, “gosh your lips look delicious.” Over the course of their back and forth, she infamously wonders what’s in the drink he handed her. Oy.

However, the story behind the tune isn’t quite so uncomplicated. As feminist blog Persephone Magazine noted in 2010, the song’s historical context matters. At the time they were written, an unmarried woman staying the night at her beau’s was cause for scandal. It’s this fear we see reflected in the lyrics, more than any aversion on the part of the woman to staying the night.

She never expresses any personal distaste at the idea,e rather pointing out that her “sister will be suspicious,” her “maiden aunt’s mind is vicious.” Really, then, we are hearing a battle between his entreaties and her reputation.

In this light, the song could be read as an advocacy for women’s sexual liberation rather than a tune about date rape.

The song became popular in 1949, even winning an Academy Award after it was featured in the film Neptune’s Daughter. In the movie, it was performed twice, and neither performance is overtly problematic.

The first is by the movie’s lead romantic pairing, Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban, and features the couple dueling verbally and choreographically as he tries to get her to stay and she attempts to leave. While elements of their performance reflect the deeper feminist anxieties within the song — for example, at one point Montalban’s character removes her hat and shawl after she has put them on — throughout, Williams’ character retains her equal footing, sternly maintaining her conviction that she should be off and never really ceding her verbal or physical control.

This moment is followed by the second performance, a comedic inversion, where we find Betty Garrat playing the “wolf” and imploring Red Skelton’s character to stay. This reflects a much more forceful struggle, even as it subverts traditional gender roles with his character dressing up in her clothes and picking up her purse in a hasty attempt to leave.

Newer versions of the song similarly manipulate gender roles in order to challenge its masculine message. There was the famous Muppet rendition that had Miss Piggy aggressively imploring ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev to stay with her in a steam room, and when the song was featured on the hit TV show Glee, the duet was performed by two male love interests.

But despite these variations, the most enduring recordings seem to be the most traditional. In fact, three standard covers of the song were released this year alone, all garnering plenty of airtime and iTunes sales. One featured Seth MacFarlane and Sara Bareilles, one Darius Rucker and Sheryl Crow, and last week, the version by Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé reached Billboard’s top spot.

Inevitably, this holiday season, when you hear the song in stores, on the radio, and while watching TV, it is likely to be one of these versions. And while the song has progressive origins, in a year of renewed outrage over sexual violence, a song where a man sings, “Baby it’s cold outside,” and a woman responds, “the answer is no” deserves increased scrutiny and criticism.

It’s a haunting echo of what we teach young people about the meaning behind the word “no.” And just as the song may have been a progressive and even subversive message about woman’s sexuality in its own time, in our time, when we hear that “the answer is no,” it means no. Granted, when we look at its now 70-year-old origins,  its title as the “date-rape” holiday classic seems both unwarranted and misleading, but as languages evolve, so too do words take on new meanings. Today, the song’s subtext finds itself at odds with basic notions of consent. So, even though it’s catchy and, when preformed well, can be down right adorable, maybe it’s time for us to take “Baby It’s Cold Outside” off the Christmas playlist.