It’s Time to Shut Down the ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ Debate Once and for All
Spend even 10 seconds on Facebook or Twitter this week, and you’ll see a huge debate causing controversy and hurt feelings — and it’s not about immigration reform or health care. Since the beginning of December, several radio stations in the US and Canada have decided to stop playing the classic holiday hit “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” due to lyrical content that many modern listeners deem problematic, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
The history of the song is simple enough. First written in 1944 by Frank Loesser as a call-and-response song to sing at parties with his wife, actress Lynn Garland, to signal that it was time for guests to pack it up and head home, the tune has become something of a holiday staple in North America. It features the singing couple playfully arguing over whether the woman (known as “The Mouse” in the song) should head home in a snowstorm or cozy up with her beau, “The Wolf.”
In recent years, two distinct camps have emerged to discuss what this song actually means.
One side argues that the couple’s flirty banter shows both members jokingly making excuses for the woman to justify staying in, and enjoying herself, with her boyfriend. The song, in this context, is read as a woman asserting her sexual agency while poking fun at the sexual double standards implicit in the ways society expects women to behave.
The more insidious interpretation, however, is that the man in the song is practicing a form of intimate partner violence known as sexual coercion. With lyrics like, “what’s in this drink?” and “the answer is no,” sung by the mouse character in the song, many women’s rights advocates say it’s a prime example of the harmful ways women are often expected to protect men’s feelings in order to protect themselves.
Those defending the song have argued that its historical context is key. The trouble is, we don’t have enough information about the context of the song to understand what it was supposed to imply. We can’t know what Loesser’s intent was when he wrote the song, or whether he envisioned that his song was about an empowered woman versus a sexually coercive man.
In truth, it’s pointless to debate which modern hot take is “right,” because we’ll never know what Loesser’s intent was — the composer died in 1969. That doesn’t negate the fact that the song does echo the experiences that many women continue to have with men who don’t understand the meaning of sexual consent. For many women, the song is legitimately triggering, and it’s important to respect victims of assault who may be hurt by its lyrics.
Of course, people are going to like what they want, and may never decide to stop listening to songs like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which is, ultimately, their prerogative. But for every argument in favor of this song (and countless others with questionable lyrics), there will be one against it. Instead of arguing over the “real” meaning of a middling-at-best song during one three-week period of the year, our greater challenge should be to better listen to, and respect, the very real concerns of the people around us.
(Photo via Hulton Archive/Getty Images)