In recent years, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—a duet between a woman seemingly trying to head home after a date and a man who does not want her to leave—has come under fire over whether it’s an anthem to date rape or a standard of its time.
It’s led to radio stations flirting with bans, conservative talk show hosts whining about #MeToo run amok, and the daughter of the songwriter lamenting a world in which Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby ruined nice things for the rest of us.
Last year, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson even performed a cheeky rewrite—but that isn’t quite enough. By concentrating mostly on the male singer’s lyrics, we miss more than half of the problem. The song is really about a grown woman who feels like she does not have the ability to say yes to sex she clearly wants.
The song first became popular in the 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter, starring Esther Williams and a pre-Fantasy Island Ricardo Montalban. Their scene certainly looks like it’s showing a man pressuring his date to stay put and put out (though it’s followed by a slapstick reprise with different actors and the gender roles reversed.) As she says she must go, he removes her coat, holds her tightly by the upper arm, and pulls her closer. At one point she nears the door and sings “the answer is no,” only to be gently moved back. When she says, “I ought to say, no, no, no,” he replies, “what’s the sense of hurting my pride?” And then there’s the famous “what’s in this drink?” line that, in today’s world, conjures images of predators and roofies.
The significant subtext in this scene comes from our heroine, who wants to stay but does not feel empowered to admit that to her date or herself. She suggests half a drink and one more cigarette, and she allows herself to be danced back to the couch while fearing the reactions of her mother, father, sister, brother, and vicious maiden aunt: “But don’t you see, there’s bound to be talk tomorrow, at least there will be plenty implied.”
She’s not wrong. As historians have pointed out, premarital sex was not uncommon at the time of the movie’s release, but it was still taboo. In a 1948 survey, Alfred Kinsey found that 60 percent of college-educated men and 80 percent of college-educated women thought premarital sex was wrong. Of course, the penalties for violating this standard were greater for women, as about half of men said they wanted to marry a virgin.
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The dance these characters perform is the embodiment of this double-standard and one of the cornerstones of rape culture. She wants to stay for sex but knows that good girls don’t, which makes her embarrassed by her own desires. When she asks what’s in this drink, she’s not referencing date-rape drugs but pointing to the alcohol as an excuse/explanation for feeling hot and bothered. She has been taught by society and that maiden aunt of hers that her job is to say no and that she will be punished if she doesn’t. Her date also believes that good girls don’t want sex (and likely wants to marry a virgin), but he still sees his job as trying to get her to give in tonight.
We’ve made a lot of progress in the last half-century, but we still live in a world in which many women do not fully own their sexuality. We still set women up as the gatekeepers of sexual behavior in male-female relationships. We still see alcohol used as an explanation or excuse for sexual brazenness. And we still slut-shame women far more than men.
In the rewrite, Legend is more respectful of his partner’s stated wishes. He calls her a car right away (“Your driver, his name is Murray”). He even picks up on some of her concerns about public perception: “I think they should rejoice. It’s your body and your choice.”
This is great, and his ribbing of her for still living at home and smoking is pretty funny stuff. But she still doesn’t have sexual agency. I’m not suggesting that this song needs to be the second coming of “WAP,” but a truly modernized version would start with our heroine acknowledging that she’d really like to stay, snuggle up in front of the roaring fire, and have some (hopefully) great sex.
And, while we’re updating Christmas classics—Rudolph ought to tell the other reindeers to sod off. They didn’t like him until he was famous.