Last holiday season controversy erupted over a radio station’s decision to ban “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” And this year, John Legend & Kelly Clarkson’s new version has stirred up opinions on the song once again. What is the controversy all about? And what’s the context for the original song’s lyrics? Read more below about the historical context for the song, and how it comes off in the present.
Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser for him and his wife to sing together at parties, the song’s lyrics are a call and response between a man and a woman discussing whether or not a woman should stay or leave the man’s house on a cold winter night. Frank and his wife Lynn Garland sang it for the first time at the end of their housewarming party to indicate to guests that it was time to leave. They were then invited to lots of parties and asked to be the closing act. The song first appeared publicly in the 1949 film, Neptune’s Daughter, a romantic comedy. It is performed twice in the movie–once in reverse gender roles with the woman wanting a man to stay.
For today’s listeners, in an era of the #MeToo movement, high-profile sexual assault cases, and ongoing dialogue about consent and how often women face sexual harassment, some of the song’s lyrics sound a bit alarming, most notably when the female voice asks “What’s in this drink?” or when her clear “the answer is no” is met with the man’s continued encouragement to stay.
Most women can imagine what that pushiness feels like or can remember a time when their “no” was ignored by a man–from requests as simple (yet still uncomfortable) as a drink at a bar, their phone number, or a dance, to situations much more serious and violent.
In today’s society where efforts are helping to give women more of a voice, the lyrics to the song can sound a bit coercive at best and like ignoring lack of consent or date rape at worst.
However, there are several other lines in the song that demonstrate the woman’s actual desire to stay at the man’s house, especially when the lyrics are read in the historical context in which they were written.
The female voice expresses her desire to stay several times–first when she says, “Maybe just a half a drink more” and later when she says “maybe just a cigarette more” as well as the ending of the song where the male and female voices sing in unison that it’s cold outside. While none of these lines are a clear yes, they can be interpreted as deciding to use that “excuse” for her staying.
But why did she need an excuse? For the same reason that none of her indications that she wants to stay are terribly clear or explicit–Because of societal expectations in that time period (1940s-1950s). Women faced much more scrutiny about their relationships and sexual behavior than they do now (when they still face more scrutiny than their male counterparts). Women with “good reputations” were expected to turn down a man’s advances even if they actually wanted to stay the night, meaning men did not expect or try to get clear consent.
The woman’s lines in the song also speak much more to her concern about what her family and neighbors would think about her staying than they do to her not wanting to stay. She names a number of family members that would be concerned or suspicious if she didn’t return home including her mother, brother, father, sister, and aunt and also wondered what the neighbors would think. (Also, this point is poked fun at in the new John Legend & Kelly Clarkson version where he asks why she still lives at home. In the 1940s, many women would have lived at home until they married.)
“At least I’m going to say that I tried.” This line really speaks to the heart of the issue–“good” girls had to at least say they tried to turn a man down. And she could say that given her many “attempts” to leave.
Today’s conversations about consent are important. Historically, men didn’t wait to get consent since they expected a woman to say no. Women in that time period did not have as much of a voice in their personal relationships because of those societal expectations. This song actually shines a light on why consent is so important–clarity is needed rather than trying to read body language and clues while men and women juggle society’s expectations of them versus their own desires.
I can understand why some are uncomfortable hearing this song in today’s society in which the man’s lines sound coercive and pushy, but with the historical context in mind I hear the song as the woman wanting to stay and ultimately deciding to do so–society’s opinion on her decision be damned. Though I also see the problematic societal standards that put the woman in a position in which a real no could have easily been ignored or misinterpreted.
In recent years, some artists have attempted to address issues with the song heard with a modern ear.
Some reverse the gender roles in the song such as She & Him’s version (the video for which also addresses the “creepy” factor) or a live version performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do those versions change any of the meaning for you?
A songwriting duo changed the lyrics to reflect conversations about consent. And John Legend’s version also makes that effort. Take a listen and let me know if you think this song needs such an update.
Do you think the song should be taken out of radio rotation? Does it sound creepy to you? Does knowing the historical context change your take on it? Let me know in the comments!