It’s Cold Outside

At least one of the people in this song is terrible.

Alex Gabriel
Dec 22, 2016 · 3 min read
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Image for post
YouTube’s thumbnail doesn’t sell the not-rapey angle.

Supermarkets this time of year make me want to crucify Jesus all over again. Today the vegetable aisle treated me to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, a song released in summer 1949 that makes no reference to Christmas but is somehow considered seasonal. The first version of it I heard was Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews in the 1990s, and I’ve found it annoying ever since. Partly it’s just the tune, partly it’s that I’d hate the characters if we met through a friend, but yes, much of it is the rapiness. I’m not sure whether anything could sell me on a song where a man refuses to let a woman leave, but the fact Frank Loesser’s sheet music labelled the vocal parts ‘Wolf’ and ‘Mouse’ only makes it creepier.

I discovered on getting home that a couple of Minnesotan songwriters had recorded a fixed version. It’s probably my favourite take on it musically as well as politically, and some of the proceeds are going to sexual violence charities. It’s getting mass downvoted on YouTube, which is reason enough to support almost anything, but I also find aspects of it surprisingly sweet. The song ends with the characters saying goodbye, promising to text and looking forward to their next date, and it’s all oddly heartwarming.

According to the Internet, liberals have just misunderstood a coy, flirtatious cat-and-mouse game from a different time. According to NPR’s coverage:

When that song first came out in the 1940s, it was actually seen as empowering for women. … In the 1940s, it could be seen as scandalous for an unmarried woman to be alone, drinking with a man — much less staying the night. So it’s not that the woman in the song doesn’t want to stay — it’s that she doesn’t want to be judged for it.

I call bullshit on this.

For one thing, the man in this song doesn’t know the woman’s reasons for saying she has to leave. For another, someone’s reasons for not wanting to stay don’t affect whether we should let them leave, and someone saying they need to go because they’ll be socially shamed for staying doesn’t make stopping them acceptable. (Arguably, it makes it worse.) And if there was a time when saying ‘I want to go’ was the way women asked for sex, that time came to an end for a reason. That flirtatious cat-and-mouse game sounds exactly like how rapists describe committing rape.

But it’s also bullshit on a far more banal level. Suppose the woman in this song really is hinting that she wants to stay but feels she can’t: I still think it’s awful. Consent culture isn’t just letting someone else say no. Consent culture is not-saying-the-opposite-of-what-you-want. If you’re someone whose way of signalling you want to stay over is by going on and on about how you need to leave, it’s possible you’re a nightmare to be around. We’re not going to be friends, and I’ll probably get annoyed with you.

The best parody of the song I’ve seen is by the British cabaret act Frisky and Mannish. I won’t say any more, but it nails this angle pretty well.

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