author: elisabeth sahlmueller | contributor
One of my favourite parts about the holiday season is listening to some great holiday music, whether that means new songs like Serena Ryder’s “Christmas Kisses” or old favourites like “Baby it’s Cold Outside.” Unfortunately, some of the lyrics from these holiday songs can be considered offensive, as demonstrated by the long existing controversy over the latter holiday hit. Some individuals believe “Baby It’s Cold” promotes sexual harassment and assault in a light hearted and entertaining way.
In simplistic form, this song is about a woman at her male lover’s home and it’s getting late. The guy keeps trying to persuade her to stay by coming up with excuses, and by the end, his efforts prove successful. In a modern perspective, however, this might appear to be a non-consensual scenario in which the woman is still pressured to stay, no matter how hard she tries to leave. Lines such as “What’s in this drink?” do not improve this perspective. People see this drink reference as a suggestion that the woman is about to become drunk, or possibly be drugged, and then assaulted.
This criticism and perceived offensive nature of the song encouraged CBC Radio, as well as various other Canadian radio stations and media outlets owned by Corus Entertainment, Bell Media and Rogers, to ban the song in early December of last year. However, within a few weeks – due to the large public outcry from people complaining about the removal of the song – radio stations were forced to lift their ban.
The general public were not the only ones upset by this controversy. Both children of Frank Leosser, the writer of the song, have spoken out to Time Magazine in anger about this controversy and know their “father would be mortified about its modern association with sexual assault.” Although his daughter Susan understands how the song could seem offensive, she suggests that people consider “the context in which the song was written.” This song was written in a much earlier time period and, therefore, it is unfair to judge this song based only by a modern perspective, without giving any consideration to the historically relevant context.
“Baby it’s Cold Outside” was written in 1944 by the famous Broadway composer, Frank Leosser, for him and his wife to sing together at parties. In 1949, it gained popularity after being incorporated into the film Neptune’s Daughter. Since then, it has become immensely popular with various artists, including Sheryl Crow with Darius Rucker and Kelly Clarkson with Ronnie Dunn doing their own unique covers. Unfortunately, this increase in popularity has also heightened people’s criticism regarding both its theme and questionable lines.
To some modern listeners, the woman in this song is perceived as a weak female who lacks agency over her own life and is easily persuaded into staying the night. However, this is a severely inaccurate historical portrayal. During the 1940s, it was considered extremely scandalous for an unmarried woman to spend the night at her lover’s home. A woman was expected to maintain her good reputation by protesting against a man’s advances, even if she was interested or wanted them. As a result, this playful back and forth similar to what is demonstrated in the song between the woman and her male lover was a common feature in the relationships of young couples back in that decade.
In the song, the male continuously tries to persuade her to stay because “baby, it’s cold outside,” and that because there are “no cabs to be had out there” she may “freeze. . . [and catch] pneumonia.” In response, the woman gives excuses as to why she can’t stay, by stating how worried her mother, father, sister and brother will be if she does not come home. Although some people may feel that the woman is being coerced into staying the night, this too is not an accurate reflection. As pointed out by the feminist blog for Persephone Magazine in 2010, there is no expression from the female of her displeasure at being with her lover. Instead, her only concern is about how her reputation will be affected if she stays. Early on in the song, it is clear that she has had an enjoyable evening. She states, “this evening has been so very nice.” Additionally, she is reluctant to leave as she delays her departure by having “half a drink more.” However, it is her concern over what others will think that makes her want to leave. Additionally, because the two are singing in unison at the end, we can infer that both are in agreement and the woman does not wish to leave.
Another controversial aspect of the song is its reference to drinking. Despite the negative modern interpretation around this reference, it initially centered around a common joke that had a much different meaning in the 1940s. People often asked, “What’s in this drink?” as an excuse for their actions, or boldness. However, the joke was that often the drink was very weak and sometime didn’t contain any alcohol; therefore, it was a poor excuse. The inclusion of this line in the song, does not imply that the man is trying to get the woman drunk and assault her, but rather it is an excuse the woman is offering for her social boldness.
Unfortunately, because this joke and the historical context of the time is not common knowledge, the song has become judged by our own modern understanding, and unfairly criticized. When this song was written, it had a much different meaning than it does now, and it is wrong to remove this context when interpreting the song.
“Baby it’s Cold Outside” is not about a weak woman being seduced by a man. Instead, it is a song, as Persephone Magazine suggests, about a “battle between [what the woman wants] and [a concern of] her own reputation,” which emphasizes, rather than eliminates, sexual agency.