Breaking down the lyrics of “Baby it’s Cold Outside”

With our love for the holidays comes an equal amount of love for festive songs that aren’t usually approached from a critical perspective, ones which often have the potential to perpetuate problematic notions regarding consent around the holidays. 

Baby It’s Cold Outside — originally written by Frank Loesser, but popularized by singers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, John Legend, Michael Bublé and many others — is among one of the most famous songs that has been perceived and criticized as allegedly preserving the troubling cultural and historical issue about the nature of consent and female autonomy.  

The original Baby It’s Cold Outside was first performed for the 1949 musical romantic comedy Neptune’s Daughter, in a scene featuring a man and a woman, alone together, sharing a drink, before she makes the decision to leave.  

The scene, in which the charming, debonair José O’Rourke (played by Ricardo Montalbán) comes off as particularly romantically-aggressive towards the shy, demure Eve Barrett (played by Esther Williams), gives the distinct implication that he is trying to coerce her into some kind of a romantic engagement, going so far as to give her drinks and put his hand on her arm to restrain her as she attempts to leave.  

It continues, with a series of back-and-forths from each character, one making excuses as to why she needs to leave, and the other trying to convince her to stay with him; a delicate dance begins, where she switches between putting on and taking off her jacket and hat, heading for the door and then back into his arms, letting him get close to her and then pulling away — ultimately ending with bringing her back to the couch which they began the song on. 

When you break down the lyrics of a song like this, there are definitely problematic elements that rise to the surface.  

The most criticized lines include “Say what’s in this drink?”, “I ought to say, no, no, no sir”,  “At least I’m gonna say that I tried”, “what’s the sense in hurtin’ my pride?” and “The answer is no”, paint a particularly clear picture of what appears to be direct allusions to sexual assault and an ignorance of consent. 

Because of this, it begs the question, why include these lines in a song? What is its purpose? What is it trying to accomplish? Are there hidden, more progressive messages under the more overt, problematic ones? And most importantly, if these hidden messages exist, but the majority of people won’t be able to find them, does it even matter? 

Some have argued that, in the historical context in which Baby It’s Cold Outside was originally written — 1944 — the cultural perception of the song was entirely different from how it is seen in the modern age.  

Instead, it has been suggested that the song is a coded discussion of female sexual autonomy, which in the 40s was heavily entrenched and complicated by a male-dominated, often religious, purist, controlling view of women’s bodies.  

Because of this, and due to the fact that the music industry is notoriously male-dominated, to the extent that its production and direction is considered to be an oligopoly, there is an argument that, to create and hide progressive messages in these kinds of media, you would have to be extremely careful in how it was done.  

Another way, then, to read a song like this, is in the feigned excuses, body language — in the film — and tone that the female singer conveys to the male singer.  

What seems at first like control on the part of the man, then, is turned upside down: because of a cultural focus on sexual purity and its connection to what was considered “proper behaviour” for women during the 40s, women had to be very careful not to come off as too sexually eager, or interested, otherwise they would be labelled unvirtuous or whorish. 

Because of the strong connection in this time period between marriage — which was ultimately connected to virtuousness and sexual modest — and financial stability, in which women still did not have a strong sense of financial autonomy, the reliance on cultural perceptions in order to find a partner still had a significant weight on the minds of women. 

Looking at the song that way, then, the female singer seems to be caught with a complicated decision: she cannot seem eager to have some kind of romantic engagement with the male singer, because “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow”, and “The neighbors might think”, but she also wants to have some kind of a non-marriage-related sexual experience. 

Especially as a single woman, having sex outside of the confines of marriage was still, in the 1940s, a very taboo subject. It wouldn’t be until at least the 1970s, and the free love movement, that these kinds of conversations would shift — as would our perception of the song.  

The back-and-forth nature of the conversation then, would give the implication to “others” that the woman hadn’t done anything wrong at all — hiding any discussion of them sleeping together — and that it was simply a matter of circumstances that kept them together — because it’s cold outside, nothing more.  

The reason for this, then, would be to preserve a cultural sense of her sexual modesty and purity, so she would still be perceived in the way that society expected her to, and therefore not have to suffer the consequences.  

In this case, the song becomes quite the opposite of the problematic one it has been criticized as being.  

However, in the modern era, there is still the issue of its reception: if people aren’t seeing that message, or if that message isn’t as relevant anymore, isn’t it still problematic? It might still be a question that hasn’t been answered. Maybe though, if the message in a song takes that much scrutiny to understand, it doesn’t have a place in holiday playlists today.

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