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.