Friday, December 14, 2018


Most of you faithful readers know I am a real fan of the holiday season. I love the jingle-jangle, the ho-ho-ho, the merry and the jolly and first, fat flakes of snow. I love Christmas movies, the cornier the better. And from Thanksgiving Day (which is when we first allow ourselves to crank up the carols at our house) until Epiphany, I love, love, love holiday music.

Wouldn’t you know this year some Grinch would find a way to spoil that aspect of holiday fun?

Now, before I start my response to the controversy over the Christmas classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” let me be clear about where I stand on the underlying assumptions. I fully support the #MeToo movement. And #TimesUp. Words matter, sexual harassment and sexual coercion and date rape are real, and I don’t know many women who have NOT experienced one or the other at some point in their lives. Including #MeToo.

But you will not convince me this song, written by Broadway songwriter Frank Loesser in 1944 and performed by any number of famous male-female duos since then, is about harassment, coercion or a not-so-subtle attempt at date rape. For most of the song’s history, "Baby" has been considered a playful, fun flirtation between two consenting adults, both of whom want to be together for a while longer despite the danger that the weather outside might force them to be snowed in—with consequences to the lady’s reputation. (Thanks to my friend, contemporary romance writer Christine Hughes, for pointing out this interpretation.)

Of course, such an interpretation wouldn’t occur to most Americans under the age of forty, because the societal strictures that would ruin an adult’s reputation for merely spending the night with someone of the opposite sex pretty much don’t exist anymore in Western culture. 

Oh, but they were very much in force in 1944 when the song was written. Just like those societal restrictions were very clearly a threat for the Everly Brothers in their song “Wake Up, Little Suzie” (1957). The implication that the teenaged couple in that song had overslept at the drive-in and actually spent the night together led some radio stations to ban the song.

And for most of us in the early-to-mid Sixties, worry about parental rules and society’s disapproval put a very real damper on our nocturnal activities. It took the Sexual Revolution of the late Sixties and early Seventies to change all of that.

But back to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Let’s take a look at the words, shall we?

I really can't stay, baby it's cold outside
I've got to go 'way, baby it's cold outside
The evening has been, been hoping that you'd drop in
So very nice, I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice

My mother will start to worry, beautiful, what's your hurry?
Father will be pacing the floor, listen to the fireplace roar
So really I'd better scurry, beautiful, please don't hurry
Maybe just a half a drink more, put some records on while I pour

The neighbors might think, baby, it's bad out there
Say, what's in this drink, no cabs to be had out there
I wish I knew how, your eyes are like starlight now
To break this spell, I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell

I ought to say no, no, no, sir - Mind if I move in closer?
At least I'm gonna say that I tried - What's the sense in hurting my pride?
I really can't stay - Baby don't hold out
Ah, but it's cold outside

I've got to get home, oh, baby, you'll freeze out there
Say, lend me your coat, it's up to your knees out there
You've really been grand, thrill when you touch my hair
Why don't you see, how can you do this thing to me?

There's bound to be talk tomorrow, think of my life long sorrow
At least there will be plenty implied, if you caught pneumonia and died
I really can't stay, get over that hold out
Ah, but it's cold outside

Oh, baby, it's cold outside
Oh, baby, it's cold outside

Songwriters: Frank Loesser
© Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

First, to put this song in context, World War II had allowed some loosening of sexual mores. It was wartime, with all that implied, and women working for the war effort at home were more independent. But once the war was over, more traditional values reasserted themselves for the late Forties and Fifties. In the interplay between men and women, men were expected to “push,” women were expected to exert “control.” Because, after all, society’s consequences would fall on her.

We see some of that in the dialogue between this couple (the woman’s lines in black, the man’s in red, both in blue). She has to be aware of the outside world and how she will be viewed in the morning should they be snowed in. He, not so much. It’s clear she wants to be there with him, but she thinks of her mother, her father, her neighbors, the “talk tomorrow.”
A lot has been made of the line “say, what’s in this drink?” but there is no real indication the guy has slipped her a “Mickey Finn” (the Forties equivalent of a roofie). She’s coherent and fully capable of making a decision here. Besides, the line rhymes with "think."

The problem is we’re overlaying a modern interpretation on this song that it doesn’t deserve. I spoke with a young female friend of mine last night and asked her if her mother or her friends would condemn her for spending the night with a male friend, especially if the weather was bad. She laughed and said, “Of course not.” That would be considered to be her business in this day and age. Her choice—and his, presumably.

But in the absence of clear societal rules about behavior between men and women—restrictive though they were in the Forties and Fifties, and often overlooked or disregarded when inconvenient—women today are left to say no in the absence of real societal backup. Which is one reason why #MeToo and #TimesUp asserted themselves as cultural movements.

Movements which might have gone a song too far. Think “Baby, It’s Cold” indicates coercion? Try the lyrics to “Lightning Strikes,” by Lou Christie (1965):

When I see lips beggin' to be kissed
I can't stop
I can't stop myself
(Stop, stop)

(Lou Christie and Twyla Herbert)

But do we really need to police the entire popular music catalog? Better, I think, to just apply a little context.

Cheers, Donna


  1. Amen to that, Donna. So good to hear a little common sense applied to this holiday classic. I think we have enough REAL problems in our society--like predatory Hollywood execs, Olympic officials, and a "hush fund" for members of congress to make payoffs to harassment victims--that we hardly need to trash an innocent and charming little holiday song. I think we really need to take a deep breath and get a little perspective! Thanks for putting things so wonderfully in context with your blog.

    1. Thanks, Laurie. It was so obvious when I talked to my Milennial friend that she had none of this context for the song. She didn't know when the song had been written and was pretty amazed that women of that day and age would have to juggle all those considerations just to have an evening alone with a male friend.


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