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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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[E] Slay Belle

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35 thoughts on “Listening While Feminist: In Defense of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside””

  1. First of all, I love this song, particularly the version sung by characters of Kurt and Blaine for the second season of Glee. If you haven’t heard it, it can be found on YouTube and it is cheery, flirtatious, and delightful.

    I understood completely what was meant by “Say, what’s in this drink?” but what actually gave me pause was the following, “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?” This is typically sung by cisgender males and females, and as a line meant to persuade, it raises some issues. The value he placed on his wounded pride should she not stay over was where the song raised red flags to me. He begins the song by offering her potential excuses – blizzard, no cabs, pneumonia – then makes it about himself. Why should she be concerned about hurting his pride if she doesn’t stay over? That’s when he goes from “partner in crime” to using coercion. The idea that his pride could be on par with the scandal she faces if she stays over is repugnant. Honestly, the coercion from him is as off-putting as the idea that she should face scandal at all, but I’m a product of my time just as this song is a product of 1944’s mores and culture.

    1. Hi Zanna, thanks for the comment! I believe that the ‘what’s the sense of hurting my pride’ line needs to be appreciated within the context of their (apparent) relationship, some of which is gleaned through the actual song and some of which is understood through by whom the song was written, who it was for, and how it was originally performed. I know that second half isn’t readily obvious upon listening.

      This isn’t a situation that is between two individuals on a first date. They clearly have some sort of established relationship, because she’s at his house, they’ve been fooling around (“lend me a comb”) and he’s familiar with her family. Established couples tend to have more understanding between them as to what they find acceptable, where their limits are, etc. I don’t think the ‘pride’ line is meant to be taken seriously, but entirely tongue in cheek.

      That’s not to say we don’t live in a society with a history of prioritizing male desire over female agency — we do, and part of the weight of that is that ‘hurting a guy’s pride’ or embarrassing him with rejection remains a burden that women are supposed to shoulder (see any conversation about street harassment, women being expected to entertain male overtures, etc). But two points still stand — as you mention, this song is a product of it’s time. That means that we can make the argument that the song has implications in a modern context that it wouldn’t have in the 40s, but that does not mean the song is *about* date rape. And secondly, that if we were supposed to understand that the woman is not consenting to stay the night or was being tricked into it, it wouldn’t end in a harmony.

      1. I am curious. Why would you continue to push the agenda of this being only a male aggressor song? I saw in the earlier comments that you were reminded that in the movie that made this song popular and famous it was sung two different times with both a male and a female being the aggressor. Your continued gender bias is telling and calls any journalistic integrity that you may have into question.

        1. Because, Dennis, prior to the song being sold, it was preformed by the author and his wife, with the ‘wolf’ part being assigned to the male voice and the ‘mouse’ to the female. Over the years it has been performed with two male singers, with women singing the wolf verse, in versions that played up a comedy or a dramatic angle. This article isn’t about the various ways it can be performed but in rebutting specific critique of the song. Your comment betrays your own bias.

          1. Just because Frank Loesser and Lynn Garland chose to sing the song with him as the wolf and her as the mouse, I don’t think it’s fair to assume the wolf is meant to be a male part and the mouse is meant to be female. There is no indication in the published music of any gender assignment. I think it’s fine for people to interpret art as it strikes them, as long as they don’t assume the artist’s intention based on their interpretations. If you have any documentation of Frank Loesser saying that the wolf is meant to be male and the mouse is meant to be female, then I’ll retract my objections. I understand that you’re saying the article isn’t about the various ways the song can be performed, but by using gender-based pronouns to describe the characters you bring up the issue.

        2. A) Thankfully, I’m not a journalist, B) as noted at the beginning of my comment, my favorite version was sung by two men, C) also as noted, it’s just a product of it’s era (1944) being examined in a 2014 feminist context. Her “excuses” are not really about her wants and desires (because she clearly wants to stay), but societal pressures imposed upon her (father will be pacing the floor, maiden aunt’s mind is vicious…), which is really sad, don’t you think? She should be able to stay as late as she likes. My only real point of examination was the bit about his pride and as Slay Belle pointed out, that’s also assumed to be in the context of a long-standing relationship.

          That’s it, that’s all, and I find your attack unwarranted given this and my earlier comment. And Dennis, if you’re going to make assumptions about someone’s motivations, at least make them plausible.

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