"Baby, It’s Cold Outside": Problematic or Classic?
Whether it’s sung by Dean Martin and Marilyn Maxwell or Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has long been a holiday classic, but with more and more radio stations removing it from their holiday lineup, Christmas carol aficionados have arrived in full force to condemn and defend it in equal measure. In this issue of The Light, I’ve taken a deep dive into the song’s origins, exploring an age-old question: is this song an ode to 40s misogyny or a feminist anthem?
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was never meant to be recorded. It was instead performed by Frank Loesser, an American songwriter most known today for Guys and Dolls, with his wife Lynn Garland at Christmas parties. The circuit of upper-class New York City soirees often hosted artists and musicians, and guests were expected to entertain. “Baby” was performed as a goodbye song, with Loesser and Garland sitting side by side at a piano as they flirted and stalled, eventually culminating in a reluctant decision to leave together (“Ah, but it’s cold outside”). First performed in 1944, the song was an instant delight that earned the couple spots on prestigious guest lists around the city.
The text of the song features two vocal parts: the “Wolf” (traditionally sung by a man) and the “Mouse” (traditionally sung by a woman). I know. Yikes. But hear me out: although these gender roles have been associated with the song for years, they weren’t always so black-and-white. When the song was performed in Neptune’s Daughter, the 1949 film that made it famous, it is initially sung in a manner that is familiar to contemporary audiences.
Esther Williams, the picture of prim and proper 40s femininity, waltzes around Ricardo Montalban’s living room, making a show of donning her fur capelet only to request “half a drink more.” The cycle repeats itself for a few verses before the couple find themselves in each other’s arms. It’s beautiful, it’s classic, it’s exactly what we might picture… but it won’t last for long.
We linger for just a moment on Williams and Montalban before transitioning into a nearly identical living room, upon which we’re treated to an immediate reprise of the song in its entirety.
Here’s the catch: it’s sung by the secondary couple, who serve as comic relief, and the roles are switched. The lack of consent is apparent, but it’s played for laughs because it’s the 40s, so it’s funny if a woman is dominant over a man. It’s high-energy nearly to the point of garishness. The choreography is primarily slapstick. It’s completely wild.
Luci, you ask, why would Neptune’s Daughter director Edward Buzzell make such an erratic choice? I don’t know. It’s completely perplexing. Regardless, though, this gender-swapped version, which is more similar in tone to Loesser’s initial Christmas party performances, would’ve been consumed by the American public not just alongside but directly after the traditional one…. yet it’s largely been forgotten. Even in 1949, this scene wasn’t considered controversial - Loesser would go on to win a 1950 Academy Award for the double-duet, a testament to its popularity among audiences. Something about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” resonated with the American public, but what was it?
Let’s back it up a little bit. In 1944, as Frank Loesser and Lynn Garland entertained party guests in New York, American soldiers across the Atlantic were fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. World War II was nearing an end, though the emotional toll had been great for those left behind. Families grieved the loss of the children overseas while many young women prayed for their husbands to return home. Why husbands, you ask, and not boyfriends? Well, there’s an easy answer for that: war tends to freak everybody out. Fearing that they might be separated, desperate young couples either tied the knot or chose to consummate their relationship outside of the courthouse. Fun fact: this is where all the baby boomers came from!
Unfortunately for just about everyone, this created a pretty toxic culture around romance: married or not, no one wanted their daughter to get pregnant if her man was going to be off fighting Nazis, so there was a lot of shame around any kind of intimacy, especially for women. If a man were to flirt with her, she was expected to reject him - regardless of what her true feelings were.
Anyway, this takes us back to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Remember when this article was about a showtune? Me neither. Click here for the lyrics if you’d like to revisit the text of the song.
Although many interpret “Wolf” as a dominating force, it’s essential to consider “Mouse’s” motivations too. Keeping in mind the song’s historical context, note that the majority of her excuses center around others (“My sister will be suspicious” and “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious”), before she sums it up in the song’s finale: “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow / At least there will be plenty implied.”
In fact, every retort Mouse has in response to Wolf’s request that she stay longer revolves entirely around what she believes she should do (“My mother will start to worry / My father will be pacing the floor / So, really, I’d better scurry”). The song softens somewhat as she wishes she “knew how / To break this spell,” originally choreographed in Neptune’s Daughter with Williams (Mouse) leaning into Montalban’s (Wolf’s) embrace, nearly kissing him before turning away. From the first verse, she admits that “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.” From the offset, Mouse has made her decision; the rest of the song is about flirtation and subtext. Rather than a list of Mouse’s regrets, the song begins with her misgivings before turning them on their head - the second half of the duet is a tongue-in-cheek flirtation, with a tense dance between the two partners. Wolf follows Mouse’s lead; he gives her the attention she craves. It’s notable that every action that Mouse makes is her decision. She requests another drink, another cigarette - all without Wolf even making the offer.
About that drink! Google the song’s title alongside the lyric “What’s in this drink” and you’ll get covers with rewritten, “family-friendly” lyrics (notably John Legend and Megan Trainor’s version), parodies from the likes of SNL and Funny or Die, and #MeToo-era thinkpieces. This is the main line that the song’s critics use to perpetuate the narrative of Mouse as helpless in her situation, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Firstly, rohypnol and GHB, two of the most common sedatives found in spiked drinks, wouldn’t even be tested by scientists until the early 1960s. Secondly, our understanding of the lyric has shifted. For Persephone Magazine in 2010, anonymous author “Slay Belle” puts the expression into historical context: “The phrase generally referred to someone saying or doing something they thought they wouldn’t in normal circumstances; it’s a nod to the idea that alcohol is ‘making’ them do something unusual. But the joke is almost always that there is nothing in the drink. The drink is the excuse. The drink is the shield someone gets to hold up in front of them to protect from criticism.”
In a culture of repression, Mouse seeks out excuses to stay, emphasized as she and Wolf sing the lyric “Baby, it’s cold outside” in unison, once halfway through the song and finally at the end. She stalls and flirts, hinting at what she can’t say outright, and she eventually allows herself to forget her misgivings and enjoy the warmth of her partner’s arms. It’s a twist on the expectations for women of the era, and it’s more clever than your typical Christmas tune.
To be fair, performance is everything. Inflection and choreography can twist the song in another direction; it’s why the parody versions work. Does the song end with Mouse choosing love over duty, sharing gripping chemistry with her partner as they celebrate their romance in perfect, consensual harmony? Yes, and it’s beautiful. Does the line “your lips look delicious” raise a veritable ocean of red flags? Yes, and I hate that lyric as much as you do.
At the end of the day, all I can do is offer another perspective. You’re the audience and it’s up to you to decide for yourself. But that being said, there’s one thing that I am absolutely correct about: a list of my absolute favorite people who have inexplicably performed this song, despite it not fitting their energy at all!
CeeLo Green (twice!)
Willie Nelson (also twice!)
Lady Gaga and Joseph-Gordan Levitt, with Muppets
Miss Piggy, also with Muppets
And my favorite: Jimmy Buffett, as “Mouse” (a king amongst men)
This holiday season, watch out for pneumonia and gossipy maiden aunts! Thanks for reading.