Who doesn’t love a festive holiday tradition? The Christmas tree has been trimmed, stockings have been hung, the elf is sitting on his shelf and, once again, people are debating whether “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a song about rape. Every December, the Internet serves up a fresh batch of hot takes about Frank Loesser’s 1944 jazz standard, a classic recipe for clickbait controversy that’s guaranteed to draw a crowd. Dozens of articles are published each year.
Every so often an exceptionally fiery opinion — like that the song played a “pivotal role in the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism” — surfaces, but the vast majority recycle the same handful of points and counterpoints, with the occasional timely news peg (like the #MeToo movement) thrown in to bring the debate up to date. Some radio stations have even opted to ban the song over the controversy, a decision which, in turn, fuels the fight even further. Here’s a look back at when and how the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” rape debate became an even bigger holiday tradition.
Composed in 1944, Loesser originally wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a playful call-and-response duet for him and his wife to perform at their housewarming party while their guests were preparing to bid them goodnight. In 1948, the song was recorded for the musical Neptune’s Daughter; in the score, the male and female parts are labeled “the Wolf” and “the Mouse,” respectively. The premise is that the Wolf and the Mouse have gone on a date, and after having a nightcap back at his house, she’s making her excuses to leave, while he’s urging her to stay.
“I really can’t stay,” the Mouse sings. “But, baby, it’s cold outside,” he replies. Every excuse the Mouse offers to say goodnight — “my mother will worry,” “my father will be pacing the floor” — the Wolf counters. “I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice,” he sings, and then later, “Listen to the fireplace roar.” At times, the Mouse doesn’t resist his temptations, agreeing to “just half a drink more,” but for every inch she gives, he takes two. Does she want to stay, but is playing hard to get? Or is she succumbing to his unrelenting persistence against her true desires, an experience many women can relate to?
For most of the duet’s history, the only controversy was whether it was fair to call it a Christmas song, considering the lyrics don’t have anything to do with the holidays at all. A search of the New York Public Library’s archives (which, in fairness, is incomplete) reveals that the phrase “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” most commonly appears in headlines about freezing temperatures and winter fashions, and not articles parsing its lyrical content.
While it’s impossible to say for certain when listeners first noticed that the back and forth sounded kind of creepy, the earliest known article on the subject was published in 2004 by Canada’s National Post.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside has a lovely melody but it’s an ode to statutory rape,” read the December 20th, 2004 story, written by Rob McKenzie and Joe Bodolai for their regular humor column, “Post Mortem.” “In sum, the man gets the girl drunk amid her protestations so he can take advantage of her.”
According to the National Post, the article was meant to be a “tongue-in-cheek,” “throwaway joke” poking fun at political correctness, ending with a demand that “all radio stations and malls … please stop playing this song.” The article’s points are, ironically, the same as those being argued in earnest now, though the shift didn’t happen overnight. In a 2005 post on his personal blog, freelance writer Drew Mackie wrote that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was about the “warm embrace of semi-consensual” date rape, but like the two National Post writers, his tone is more joking than sincere.
A 2006 Livejournal entry written by a guy named Brad Hicks — who “achieved limited notoriety” for operating an early Internet bulletin board — waxes on for seven paragraphs (not including the quoted lyrics) about how the song’s “amusingly rendered seduction” used to be a “prosecutable crime” in some states.
“How certain can she be that a guy who hasn’t taken ‘no’ for an answer will draw the line at verbal persuasion? … The song title, and repeated line, suggests that she’s in substantial danger if she says no,” Hicks wrote, though he ultimately concluded that he still liked the song as a “very sexy” domination-submission fantasy.
The “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” controversy really took off in 2007, thanks to the emergence of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, which revolutionized content distribution on a mass scale. In December of that year, the popular humor website Funny or Die released a parody video that went viral for it’s “dark reimagining” of the song’s lyrics, including a scene where the creepy dude drags his terrified-looking date back to his bedroom.
The popularity of the video led to more serious analysis of the song’s lyrical content by feminist writers. Most of these earnest parsings concluded that the song was basically a celebration of boundary-crossing sexual coercion, but there was the occasional unexpected counterpoint. In a Persephone Magazine article from 2010, blogger Slay Belle argues that the song is actually about “the desires even good girls have” and the Mouse’s internal struggle over whether she should “push the bounds of acceptability” and stay the night.
“Her beau in his repeated refrain … is offering her the excuses she needs to stay without guilt,” Slay Belle writes.
One frequently quoted article, written in 2016 by a former teacher and jazz enthusiast, parsed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the context of the time it was written. While the line “What’s in this drink?” was interpreted by some as the Wolf plying the Mouse with alcohol in order to take advantage of her, the blogger wrote that it “was a stock joke at the time” and “the punchline was invariably that there’s actually pretty much nothing in the drink, not even a significant amount of alcohol.”
These few original perspectives have advanced the debate over the rapiness of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” but they are just a tiny fraction of the articles that appear every year. In more recent years, the controversy has expanded well beyond the blogosphere and gone mainstream, with traditional news outlets like the Wall Street Journal weighing in as if this is a brand new controversy to emerge out of the post-Trump era. Clearly, they are wrong — but 14 years later, it stands to wonder if this controversy is as persistent as its male paramour, and never ever going to give up.
[Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published December 2018]