End the War on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’! It’s Feminist — Really

Commentary: Canada's CBC is the latest radio outlet to ban "Baby" as offensive. Who to believe — radio programmers, or actual feminists?

Photo by Mgm/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

There is one group, and one group only, that should be crusading against the performance of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in public: vicious maiden aunts. These treacherous protectors of niece-ly chastity have no coalition in 2018, so far as we’ve heard. (Speak up and say your piece if you’re out there, Auntie Lame Society.). So the campaign against Frank Loesser’s 1940s classic has been left to others — not so much feminists, as rumored, since most who’ve thought much about the song in context at all know that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was actually a witty, ahead-of-its-time avowal of women owning their own sexual agency.

No, the would-be ban is being led by that most deeply progressive group of all: adult-contemporary radio programmers. A handful of them, at least, have decided it’s time to go out for a nice holiday troll by declaring “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” dead to them… followed by the inevitable online poll that will lead to a reversal and reinstatement. We can only hope some of them will stick to their guns and maintain the boycott: It’s been far too long since radio pulled any Beatles- or Dixie Chicks-smashing stunts; what could be more heartwarming for the holidays than a nice community bonfire with AC listeners burning their Michael Bublé/Idina Menzel duets?

Say what you will about merry-Christmas-versus-happy-holidays, people, but it’s time to end the war on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Mind you, there may be a few compelling arguments to ban this perennial. One is that no one has actually recorded a good version of it since 1961 or so; that’s when Ray Charles and Betty Carter committed their rendition to wax. The definitive version is really the 1949 recording by Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting. These legends of song skillfully and melodically wrung such laughs out of the song’s doth-protest-too-much dance of foreplay that it was surely clear even to a 1940s listener that these two characters were about to have a long night of fireplace-hot and — yes! — deeply consensual sex.

Those of us who appreciate the brilliance of Loesser’s songcraft can only feel nostalgic for the days when the song was a relative obscurity, brought out only by the savvy for special occasions. It may be hard for anyone under 35 to imagine a time when “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” wasn’t ubiquitous almost to the point of torture… that is, a time before “Elf.” If you look at a list of covers of the song, it was the hypersexual bee’s knees from its Oscar-winning genesis in 1949 through the early ‘60s, then virtually disappeared off singers’ radar until it was rediscovered in the 1990s; the song really took off with modern audiences in 2003 when Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell had a bathroom meet-cute over it. And then came the awful deluge of modern performers who have no business going near a Frank Loesser lyric… or sex. As soon as I heard Jessica Simpson’s and Nick Lachey’s witless and passionless take on it in 2004, I felt sure that both the song and their marriage were over. I was right on one out of two counts.

Another reason for barring it from the airwaves, at least for the month of December: It’s not actually a Christmas song. We all know that, right? It’s in the same category as “Winter Weather” and other songs that center around, you know, winter weather without ever invoking a holiday — shoehorned into the genre by virtue of mentioning a nip in the air by all those AC stations needing to fill five weeks of all-Xmas airtime when they flip the day after Thanksgiving. (Fickle bastards.) Never mind that in most climes, the weather turns colder after New Year’s; playing “Let It Snow” when it’s actually more likely to snow is as forbidden as wearing white after Labor Day, and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has already been put aside with unsold seasonal baked goods just when the nation’s frigid, lusty courters need it most.

But it would be sad if “Baby” got put in a cultural corner for the rest of time, not because of overfamiliarity or the surfeit of awful contemporary recordings of the tune but because it’s “rapey.” It’s not. This is really the ultimate pre-Walk of Shame anthem, with no actual shame involved on either duet partner’s part. The song is deeply filthy, of course, by 1949 standards, and even today it should never become a school holiday chorale staple — which is why the video for the Bublé/Menzel version in 2014, which featured kids lip-synching the lyrics, is one of the creepiest things of all time. But, returning the tune to the adult company where it belongs, it should be and generally is understood that this is a dialogue between who both very much want to get it on… but only one of whom, in the song’s period setting, has the freedom to explicitly say so.

This is where the feminism comes in. Loesser was, among his many gifts, a savvy chronicler of sexual and gender mores. (See also his satirical take on the same in the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”) Yes, he wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a goof for himself and his wife to sing at parties. (Shocking fact: it was written for that purpose years before it made its debut in the film “Neptune’s Daughter” and won the best original song Oscar as a result. Please, no one tell the Academy.) Ennobling and enabling a liberated view of women’s sexuality was probably not the foremost thing on his mind in the mid-‘40s; rhyming “waves upon a tropical shore” with “my brother will be there at the door” was. But he wrote a feminist-leaning anthem that holds up pretty well as a sex-positive period piece in 2018 anyway.

Taken maybe a smidgeon more seriously than its creator intended, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the story of a woman doing battle — not with a guy who won’t take no for an answer, but with the expectations of a society that won’t take yes for an answer. The most critical word in the whole piece is “ought,” as in, “I ought to say no, no, no sir.” She isn’t trying to fend off advances — she is mouthing excuses so she can “at least… say that I tried.” He won’t face judgment sneaking home, whereas she can tick off at least three family members who’ll notice when she sneaks in after hours. It’s not just the kinfolk but a nation of suspicious minds there at the door, waiting to sniff the cigarettes, booze and boys on her breath. At least two out of three of which she is explicitly the one asking for, by the way: “maybe just a cigarette more,” she requests, along with “maybe just half a drink more.” She is not being plied with alcohol — she is plying herself, with intoxicating stalling tactics she hopes will make the “spell” of romance and sexual chemistry finally out-loom the specter of the family scowling behind the porch light.

The fellow in the song makes some pretty funny arguments, including the threat of pneumonia, a rationale maybe even the vicious aunt would find acceptable for a couch sleepover. But he’s really the secondary character in the song. It’s not about acceding to a dangerous wolf. It’s about her succumbing to her own she-wolf. Which, at the very end, she does,  taking part in the closing bit of harmony and agreeing: As a matter of fact, dude, I will catch my death of cold out there.

The song has been ripe for role-reversal covers over the years… starting with its point of origin. In the 1949 film “Neptune’s Daughter,” where it was introduced, it’s first sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban — but then by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton (pictured above) with Garrett singing the “male” part. Decades later, Miss Piggy took the would-be aggressor’s role in a duet with Rudolf Nureyev in a steam room. “Saturday Night Live” did a terrific spoof in 2013 with Jimmy Kimmel and Cecily Strong, adding post-coital verses where he’s trying to leave and she won’t let him. (“Are we still on for next weekend / You said you’d take me antiquin'” is a rhyme Loesser might approve of.) Unfortunately, by 2015, “SNL” was using it to satirize Bill Cosby, with an admittedly funny sketch in which Cos answers the question “Say, what’s in this drink?” with: “Oh, it’s like a vitamin for when you’re bummed out about your career or it’s to make you smile and help you reach your goals.”

In the post-Cos, #MeToo era, it make sense to let women have the final word on “problematic material,” when the problem is whether it’s coercion or free will being celebrated. We could trust the judgment of some of the strong, not particularly acquiescent female singer/songwriters who’ve recorded it in the last decade, like Sara Bareilles, Norah Jones, Sia, Sharon Van Etten, Christina Aguilera, Sheryl Crow, Kelly Clarkson, Kelly Willis and Meghan Trainor. (Okay, maybe a few of the contemporary versions haven’t been completely terrible.) A terrific, much-quoted “Listening While Feminist” essay in the Persephone website did a nice job of explaining why it’s “a song about the desires even good girls have.”

Maybe all these female champions of Loesser’s song would rethink their support in light of recent sensitivities? Maybe not. I look to one of my favorite comics, Jen Kirkman, who has less public patience for even slightly patronizing, let alone predatory, men than any performer I can think of. In a thread in her Twitter feed, Kirkman wrote, “I’m so tired of this. The song seems odd now not cuz it’s about coercing sex but about a woman who knows her reputation is ruined if she stays… The song has a lot to teach us about how society views women’s sexuality. But the lesson of this song is NOT that it’s about forcing a woman into sex. If you want to be outraged, be outraged about what the song is actually about — the double standard in regards to sex that women face and how nothing much has changed. And then enjoy the song. It’s a delight.”

(And, additionally from Kirkman: “They didn’t have roofies back then… It’s sad because it’s the insistence of younger people to read everything with a modern bent instead of learning about the past. And not in a ‘rape was fine then’ way but in a ‘no it was never about that’ (way). it should be treated as a thing to translate like Shakespeare, almost.”

But who are you going to believe — an actual dyed-in-the-wool, talking-about-this-stuff-everyday feminist, or (nearly all-male) program directors and DJs? “The world we live in is extra sensitive now, and people get easily offended, but in a world where #MeToo has finally given women the voice they deserve, the song has no place,” said a DJ on Cleveland’s WDOK, the first of several stations to announce a ban on the song. Anti-“Baby” fever has crept across the border, too, with Canada’s CBC Radio network announcing Tuesday they had consigned the song to Siberia, as it were. “Song lyrics are always open to interpretation, and we fully acknowledge there are two camps regarding this issue,” said CBC public affairs head Chuck Thompson in announcing the takedown, trying to emphasize Canadian-style fairness even in declaring an American-style ban.

“There are so many wonderful songs that celebrate the holiday season,” added CBC spokesperson Caitlin Decarie, sounding less like a champion of women than someone who wants to take the sex, as opposed to the X, out of Xmas. No doubt we’ll be battling over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for years to come, but when in doubt, let’s err on the side of actual reading and listening comprehension. And hilarious rhyme schemes. And, most of all, art that catches women in the act of realizing exactly what they want.