Listening While Feminist: In Defense of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”

Editor’s note: Please enjoy this featured post from our archives. 

I’m a pretty voracious consumer and critic of American popular culture. I’m one of those 3rd wavers who believes that the deconstruction of all aspects of pop culture is an important aspect of feminism or any sort of progressive movement. Mass culture is the stew we all live in; when we learn to look at it critically, we can discuss the messages we’re soaking in every day. Sometimes we’re good at it, sometimes we’re bad at it, sometimes we get bogged down in the wrong details. But asking questions is important.

I’ve noticed over the last several years that some feminists have a strong dislike for the Frank Loesser song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Hattie wrote about one interpretation of the song last week, but with all due respect to my fellow Persephonine, I must heartily disagree with her view of it.

I’ve heard the take on “Baby” as “rapey” a couple of times over the years and the concern about the song usually centers in on one line “say what’s in this drink,” which many contemporary listeners assume is a reference to a date rape drug. But narrowing in on this particular line divorces it from its own internal context, and having only passing familiarity with the song divorces it from its cultural context.  You can (and should) read the lyrics of the song in their entirety here.

The structure of “Baby” is a back and forth conversation between the male and female singers. Every line the woman utters is answered by him, until they come together at the end of the song. When we just look at “Say, what’s in this drink,” we ignore the lines that proceed and follow this, which are what indicates to the listener how we’re supposed to read the context.

The song sets up a story where the woman has dropped by her beau’s house on a cold winter night. They talk in the first verse about how long she’s going to stay. She has “another drink” and stays longer, and then later in the evening it’s implied that she’s going to sleep over.

If we look at the text of the song, the woman gives plenty of indication that she wants to stay the night. At the time period the song was written (1936), “good girls,” especially young, unmarried girls, did not spend the night at a man’s house unsupervised. The tension in the song comes from her own desire to stay and society’s expectations that she’ll go. We see this in the organization of the song — from stopping by for a visit, to deciding to push the line by staying longer, to wanting to spend the entire night, which is really pushing the bounds of acceptability.   Her beau in his repeated refrain “Baby, it’s cold outside” is offering her the excuses she needs to stay without guilt.

Let’s look at the lines. As she’s talking about leaving, she never says she doesn’t want to stay. Her words are all based around other people’s expectations of her — her mother will worry, her father will be pacing the floor, the neighbors will talk, her sister will be suspicious of her excuses and her brother will be furious, and my favorite line that I think is incredibly revealing, — “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious.” Vicious about what? Sex. Unmarried, non-good girl having, sex.

Later in the song, she asks him for a comb (to fix her hair) and mentions that there’s going to be talk tomorrow – this is a song about sex, wanting it, having it, maybe having a long night of it by the fire, but it’s not a song about rape. It’s a song about the desires even good girls have.

So what is he singing while she’s talking about what other people think of her? He’s providing her with a list of cover stories, essential, excuses she can use to explain why she hasn’t or won’t go home. It’s cold out, it’s snowing, the cabs aren’t running, the storm is becoming a blizzard, she might get hurt trying to get home. He’s complimenting her as well, something that many criticisms of the song hone on — she has beautiful eyes, her lips look delicious, her hair looks swell. But this is standard romantic language. They are having an intimate time together and he’s far less constrained by societal expectations, so he can ask her to stay. It’s always assumed that she’ll turn him down. Except that she doesn’t want to. It’s her mother, her father, her aunt, the neighbors that want her to go home in a storm; she’s having a lovely time. (“I ought to say no, no, no sir, well, at least I’m gonna say that I tried.”)

So let’s talk about that drink. I’ve discussed solely looking at the lyrics of the song and its internal universe so far, but I think that the line “say, what’s in this drink” needs to be explained in a broader context to refute the idea that he spiked her drink. “Say, what’s in this drink” is a well-used phrase that was common in movies of the time period and isn’t really used in the same manner any longer. 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. And it’s not just used in these sort of romantic situations. I’ve heard it in many investigation type scenes where the stoolpigeon character is giving up bits of information they’re supposed to be protecting, in screwball comedies where someone is making a fool of themselves, and, yes, in romantic movies where someone is experiencing feelings they are not supposed to have.

The song, which is a back and forth, closes with the two voices in harmony. This is important — they’ve come together. They’re happy. They’re in agreement. The music has a wonderfully dramatic upswell and ends on a high note both literally and figuratively. The song ends with the woman doing what she wants to do, not what she’s expected to do, and there’s something very encouraging about that message.

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28 Comments Listening While Feminist: In Defense of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”

  1. Avatar of AndyAndy

    So do you think that “How can you do this thing to me?” is really an acceptable response for a man to give when a woman says “the answer is no”? That it’s perfectly ok for a man to keep pressuring a woman after she says “the answer is no”, if he thinks that she is just providing a cover story, and really doesn’t mean it? What would she have to say for it not to be acceptable for him to keep pressuring her, if “the answer is no” isn’t enough?

  2. Avatar of helen williamshelen williams

    Sorry, just one more observation. As with all things, but especially any media which depicts sexual dynamics, it seems that one’s interptetation and attitude toward a scenario is influenced by one’s experiences. It is interesting to read the comments and vastly opposing interpretations. I would love to see a comparison of viewpoint of commenter to experience of commenter. That being said, my hat goes off to those who have seen this song as a celebration of life and love. Guess I’m a little envious.

    1. Avatar of BurrowBurrow

      So you want to hear a viewpoint of someone who has had horrible experiences? I have severe PTSD from all sorts of gender violence. Yes I have had 1 good relationship (1 relationship ever actually) and that was quite recently, but I have always loved this song. I grew up on 30s/40s music and movies. Until recently I even thought that this song could be taken to be a “date rape” song and to be honest it still flummoxes me how people got that idea. Why? Because I take it IN CONTEXT. Maybe it’s because I grew up seeped in the culture that created this song, but I never saw it differently. I never saw her as being forced – I saw her as, yes, worrying about what everyone else thought, but not being forced. This will continue to be one of my favourite songs. It’s cute and sweet (and screw those gossiping relatives).

  3. Avatar of helen williamshelen williams

    While I enjoyed the analysis and can appreciate all sides to this debate, the song lyric I have found objectionable is, “How can you do this thing to me”. His query and attitude towards the situation encapsulates an issue which seems to be glossed over in discussions of heterosexual dynamics. To me this song is not “rapey” but it is coercive. Whether she wants to stay but feels she shouldn’t, doesn’t want to stay, wants him to talk her into staying,or whatever, the bottom line is at least part of her is trying to go out the door and he isn’t respecting that.
    And the specific aforementioned lyric is illustrative of that wonderful “blue balls” card that some men have played. She came to see him looking and smelling great, he is aroused and if she leaves him unsatisfied, he is going to be in pain and it’s her fault. Right…..

    I was surprised to learn how old this song is. I had always assumed it was from the 50s. But whether it’s the 30s or 50s, the woman is going to bear the brunt of any consequences that might arise if she stays. Even in 2013, there can be consequences to a sexual encounter which will impact the woman more than the man. While playful and complimentary, our man here is discounting her concerns to get what he wants.

    This song is a perfect example of how women have historically been expected to maintain the social moral compass. We have handed the veto power to the most disempowered gender. The readers of this article and my post (if there are any) are obviouslyintelligent so no need to provide more examples. You get the picture.

    I wish this song had been written as an ode to feminism, as the author implies (sort of-my take), but I doubt it. I wish societal attitudes were in-line with those of uppity women, but they aren’t. Not yet. And sometimes, a song is just a song, so for those who like this song….enjoy!

  4. Pingback: i actually love Love, Actually | Hodgepodge & Strawberries

  5. Avatar of SilverwaneSilverwane

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this song and this post- probably because it gets played at least six times every work shift and this post has been up on the most popular list again!

    I’ve also noticed that, depending on the cover of the song that I hear, I have different feelings about it. The “what’s in this drink” line, particularly- depending on its tone it gives a very different feeling!

    But also, what does it mean when we cover an old song? If this was written today- even without the ‘what’s in this drink’ bit, I would be very uncomfortable. And if someone like Robin Thicke decided to sing it, I would be wanting to punch him in his stupid face. (Well, I want to do that anyway. But you get the notion.) Regardless of the meaning it had before in the old versions…what happens when we reappropriate it today?

    Furthermore, even though it was written for a different time, when we hear it today what’s the effect? I think the song isn’t that far off from “rapey” things that are written for today’s audience. So, it could be supporting rape culture now even if we believe it was fine when it was written in its time.

    I guess, in the end, while I appreciate the argument and understand the context of the time, I don’t agree- with a mind to the modern POV looking back on it. It just fits the whole “women don’t mean no when they say no” mindset too well. Even if both parties are on board with the not meaning no bit, it still skeeves me out because of all the times that they aren’t. I’m still going to be kind of grossed out by this song. Just not in quite the same way that I would be if I didn’t know this historical context!

  6. Avatar of HamsterpantsHamsterpants

    THANK YOU FOR THIS. Seriously, the song was written before most of our parents were born, to look at it through the lens of the 21st century doesn’t make a lot of sense.
    (Also, HI! )

  7. Avatar of ellen herbertellen herbert

    Love your analysis. Who says there’s no room for truth on the Internet?

    We people of the 21st century have a bad habit of adding a layer of our own social consiousness onto works produced before “our great time of enlightenment.”

    I love this song, never thought why, except that its about a woman who wants what she wants and is going to have it no matter what her vicious aunt or the neighbors think! What’s more feminist than that?

     

  8. Avatar of SrynersonSrynerson

    I’m a rather annoyed (to the point of registering for this site for no other reason than to comment on this article) by the author’s suggestion that people who find this song creepy are merely taking the “What’s in this drink” line out of context.  First, there many times in the song where the female character talks about leaving, she even specifically says late in the song, “The answer is no,” but she is bullied or intimidated by the male character into staying.  Second, I find it very bizarre that defenders of this song somehow think that saying the “What’s in this drink” line isn’t a reference to date rape drugs but rather to regular alcohol somehow makes it OK.  I’m pretty sure that incapacitating a woman with plain alcohol to take advantage of her sexually is just as much date rape as incapacitating her with drug-laced alcohol.  Finally, while I agree the intent of the songwriter presumably wasn’t to portray date rape, that doesn’t change the creepy, date rape nature of the lyrics.  (An excellent example of this in another context is the deleted scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Raoul  Duke meeting the old man and his granddaughter at a roadside cafe — Terry Gilliam says that the scene was supposed to be sweet, but that test audiences found it disturbing and thought that the old man was going to be revealed to be a child molester, so it got cut.  Having watched it, I agree with the test audiences — it comes across as a menacing scene even when you know the director’s intent.)  I’ll further add that I’m not someone who self-identifies as a feminist, nor am I someone who indulges in political correctness, nor is my reaction to it the result of radical feminist sex education or something like that.  This is a song that I found disturbing even as a kid before I had any understanding of the concept of “date rape.”  If author likes the song she is free to like the song, the same way people can be free to like misogynistic gangsta rap, but don’t patronize those of us who hate the song by suggesting we just haven’t paid attention to the rest of the lyrics.

  9. Pingback: Baby It’s (really) Cold Outside « Hinges of History

  10. Avatar of PatriciaPatricia

    I think people read too much into a lot of the old fairy tales and songs.  Sometimes a song is just a song with no hidden meaning, just as a story is a story meant for young children who wouldn’t think the way adults think.  This song was written when men weren’t putting rape date drugs in women’s drinks.  It’s a song about a man and woman who care about each other and want to be together, but as usual as people do, she is worrying about what others will say.  Why not just enjoy the song for the way it was meant, and don’t make more out of it then what it is.  Just enjoy. Dean Martin can sing this to me anytime!

    I must admit though the writer is very good.  Her thoughts are well written and well explained.  Nice job.  Maybe you should be a writer for a magazine or newspaper.

  11. Avatar of MorettaMoretta

    I totally agree. I always heard this song as playful and sophisticated. She’s putting up the objections society expects, and he’s batting them away with silly justifications. Both of them know how it’s going to end up. The banter is part of the flirtation. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the most popular version of this song features a very female singer whose voice is very arch, and a male singer whose voice is as smooth as a glass of (insert some smooth liquor — I’m not a drinker).

  12. Avatar of BobellaBobella

    Loved this post Slay Belle! I’m in the “She & Him version creeped me out” camp, and this has definitely given me something to think about. The context of “say what’s in this drink” is especially interesting.

  13. Avatar of jen*jen*

    My favorite version of this song is by Al Hirt and Ann-Margret and I really do love it.  Contextually, I never thought of it as “date-rape-y”, although it’s certainly a little bit about convincing her to stay.  I suppose the interpretation of “what’s in this drink” could go either way, depending on how it’s performed…(imagining an extremely slurred version after that particular line creeps me all the way out)

    But your point that the song ends in harmony is very strong.  This thing is mutual.  And happy.  Were the song really about removing conscious consent, it would make sense for the last line to be sung only by the “male” voice.  Which would be SOOO creepy.  Like – unlistenable.

  14. Avatar of pdxpogopdxpogo

    I’m not sure how any thinking person aware of when the song was written could interpret it any differently. Very good analysis thank you for this service. Happy holidays to you and yours.

  15. Avatar of BelfryBatsBelfryBats

    Perhaps some of the modern discomfort with this song isn’t with the original song, but with the versions that have been recorded since. For example the Zooey Deschanel/Leon Redbone version of the song is the one I found to be a little… creepy. His mature raspy vocals contrasted with her light youthful sound suggest a more sinister interpretation of the song. I previously had no issue with the song but it sort of sounds like she’s trying to escape an elderly relative because of the age difference and perhaps even her interpretation of the line ‘what’s in this drink’. I still have no issue with older versions of the song.

    1. Avatar of [E] Slay Belle[E] Slay Belle

      Did you find us from the link in the Bitch blog post? I just saw it and haven’t yet heard the Deschanel version of the song (well, the one not in Elf), but I’m going to give it a listen. Someone told me last night that they have always identified the song with the Dean Martin version in which he comes across like a bit of a creeper.

      It’s been about a year since I wrote this post originally and I didn’t, at the time, want to deal the problems of reinterpretation — it is entirely possible to tweak, bring out, emphasis or change a song totally upon how its performed (Tori Amos does this to amazing affect on Strange Little Girls), but the primary complaints people seemed to level centered around how rape-y the line about the drink is. Its sort of problematic to point to the lyrics as the issue while ignoring the rest of them. At least, in my opinion.

      Thank you so much for your comment. It certainly gives me something to think about.

      1. Avatar of BelfryBatsBelfryBats

        Thanks for your reply, I found this article through twitter.

        Like I said, at a textual level there isn’t necessarily any issue, except as it moves through time and shifts in singer/listener interpretations. Reinterpretation is tricky to handle since that one troublesome line can become menacing by a change in emphasis. Another example of this is Toxic. Sung by Britney Spears it is a totally different song from the same song covered by Yael Naim http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETh0Kfxk2BY

    2. Avatar of dustdevildustdevil

      Coming to this a few years later, I want to chime in agreement that it does feel really different depending on the singers. I’m more familiar with the Ella Fitzgerald-Louis Jordan and Pearl Bailey-Hot Lips versions. I re-listened to both versions, and in the Pearl Bailey version, there’s an additional spoken segment at the end, where she looks outside, she’s another woman around, and says basically “oh, you’re really trying to get me to go, but now, I’m gonna stay,” which definitely reinforces this interpretation of the song.

  16. Avatar of MichaelDaleMichaelDale

    The song has never been gender-specific.  It was introduced in the film Neptune’s Daughter, performed once by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams and then, with the gender parts switched, by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton.  It was written with no assigned male role and no assigned female role.

    1. Avatar of [E] Slay Belle[E] Slay Belle

      It premiered in Neptune’s Daughter, but it wasn’t written for it — it was originally a party song that Loesser wrote for he and his wife to sing together. She, by all accounts, was incredibly steamed at him when he sold it for inclusion in the movie. (The story is related in the biography about Loesser that came out last year and retold in the Fresh Air interview about it.)

      The lyrics do read themselves to a particular male-female interpretation, as men of the time would not be concerned (most likely) about what their maiden aunt might think of where they spent the night. But thank you for your comment — I had forgotten about the role reversal within the movie.

      1. Avatar of MichaelDaleMichaelDale

        The lyrics read themselves to a particular male-female interpretation only if you choose to limit the way you interpret them.  I have no trouble imagining a character played by Red Skelton or Ray Bolger or Bob Hope being concerned about his maiden aunt.

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  18. Jianna Prefect

    I love this. I’ve been having that problem with this song and I was about 3/4 of the way to thinking about it in these terms, but this got me all the way through to being able to love it again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch Elf so I can hear Zooey Deschanel sing it and watch Will Ferrell smack himself into wall of lockers.

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