Christmas is a time for tradition. So it’s presumably in that spirit that every year there’s a crop of articles by writers who affect astonishment that they’ve just listened to the song Baby, It’s Cold Outside and discovered it’s about an innocent woman who is drugged and molested by a predatory male.
Obviously, any discussion of this is going to touch on subjects like rape and other forms of sexual assault. It’s not my intention to trigger or trivialise. But don’t worry, my argument is not going to be that society’s attitudes have changed since the song was written, so we should cut it some slack because it’s all meant to be a bit of fun.
It’s almost unfair to pick one article out from the line, but this from the Salon’s nearest, so let’s quote from that. It starts:
‘Famously, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, written by Frank Loesser in 1944, tells the story of a man and woman indoors on a snowy night; the woman repeatedly tries to depart for home and is repeatedly told that it’s too cold for her to travel. The woman, famously, asks, “What’s in this drink?” In the original score, the male part was denoted as the “wolf” and the female as the “mouse,” a predatory view of sex whereby the man must not woo but win that suffuses the entire song.’
Every single thing after ‘1944’ in that statement is wrong.
It sounds persuasive. Let’s see how it pans out when it’s performed. Here’s the first time the song appeared in a movie, 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter. The singers are Ricardo Montalban (KHAAAAAANNN!) and Esther Williams.
Watching that, the reading that this is a song about a lascivious male after an innocent girl does seem allowable. ‘The answer is no’ but the man refuses to take it as a final answer. Perhaps there’s even a racial angle, and it’s about an all-American gal falling for the charms of the Latin Lover. And that’s before we get to the line about the drink.
It’s a catchy song, but problematic. So, modern versions tend to be revisionist. Tellingly, many just achieve that by having the woman seducing and the man trying to get away. Here’s John Travolta and Oliver Newton John’s version. Here’s Lady Gaga having her wicked way with Joseph Gordon Levitt.
Perhaps the most familiar version to UK audiences is the 1999 version sung by Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews. The video – which nowadays does look a bit like it’s set during Doctor Who’s Time War – starts with Tom Jones rakishly leching over Cerys, who’s wearing virginal white. The song flips around halfway through and Cerys is suddenly dressed as a naughty witch. It’s not cold outside, they’re surrounded by fire.
Here, by the way, is the exact moment Tom Jones sings ‘ooh, your lips are delicious’.
Yes, fifty years on, sexual etiquette had changed.
But even if the be all and end all of Baby It’s Cold Outside had been one performance in one 1949 movie, it’s not hard to detect some cracks in the argument that it’s about some innocent dove being ruthlessly preyed upon by a hawk.
Yes, there’s some very mild physical coercion – Montalban’s character (Jose) briefly has his arm round Williams’ (Eve) on a sofa, and touches her arm at one point, at the beginning he’s sabotaging her attempts to put on her hat and coat. We all have different boundaries for physical contact like that, but I don’t think anyone could make much of a case that the body language of the scene matches the names ‘wolf’ and ‘mouse’. Even when he’s leaning in, Jose leaves a fair amount of space between them. Great care seems to have been taken with the choreography to establish that Eve can effortlessly get away from Jose. There’s just no case to be made that she’s been slipped a Mickey Finn – she only sniffs the drink, she gives no sign of being drunk or drugged (and just before the song starts, we see him pouring them both a drink from the same bottle). He’s just not that physically imposing.
More to the point, there are some pretty hefty clues that there’s something else going on. Listen to the lyrics, and Eve is not being talked into staying. The objections she’s raising are not her own, they’re other people’s. ‘My mother will start to worry … My sister will be suspicious … My brother will be there at the door’. Note the tense. Not ‘would’, ‘will’. Note the ‘At least I’m going to say that I tried’. She’s decided to stay, but knows the tricky bit, the actual point of negotiation, is going to be when she gets home late. Tonight is not the issue, it’s tomorrow. And even there, the consequences clearly aren’t all that serious – ‘There’s bound to be talk tomorrow / At least there will be plenty implied’. She is not facing a life of ruination or honour killing, the consequence will be awkward looks from a maiden aunt and the neighbours.
And what’s Jose’s counterargument? Just to repeat that it’s cold outside. Here’s the thing: it’s not cold outside. The movie’s a typical Esther Williams one – sunny and warm. It’s a lovely evening. Jose’s claim is as preposterous as saying she’ll be eaten by velociraptors. When Eve says ‘There’s bound to be talk tomorrow’, he counters with ‘Think of my life long sorrow’. Again, it’s not a claim to be taken seriously. It’s not coercive – tellingly, he’s expressing what he thinks, not trying to tell her what she ought to think. He’s not doing anything, then, either physically or in terms of what he’s arguing, that compel her to stay. His arguments are all completely rubbish. Eve quickly decides to stay, and the decision is hers. She doesn’t respond to any of his points, she’s arguing with herself. To quote Doctor Who, she’s had a little trouble with her conscience, but fortunately, she won.
All that said, it’s still possible to read this is a song as fundamentally being about a man exerting subtle forms of pressure on an initially unwilling woman. She does say ‘no’, then stay. It does leave the taste that women just say ‘no’ as part of a game, and they really mean ‘yes’ and men should keep going. Not cool.
… but at this point we really do need to ask the court to examine Exhibit B. What very few people criticising the song note is that there’s a reprise of Baby It’s Cold Outside later in the same movie. This time with Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. Note that, once again, it’s not set during a blizzard.
The first movie to feature Baby It’s Cold Outside also made the ‘radical revisionist’ move of reversing the roles. The key point is that the song doesn’t specify that the ‘wolf’ is male and that the ‘mouse’ is female. The ‘wolf’ was, in fact, a woman in one of the two 1949 performances. There’s some meaty gender stuff in the reprise – a spot of crossdressing, and Garrett is far more physically assertive than Montalban. It’s also played more broadly and for laughs … and far less chastely. Compare and contrast the way the versions end.
Skelton makes far more of an effort to get away, and Garrett’s far more physically coercive. There are places where I think he seems at least a little drunk. Even so, I doubt there’s anyone that would watch this and think they’re watching a prelude to a rape. Or, for that matter, some sort of world turned upside down parody of ‘normal’ sexual politics. It is not, then, even as originally presented, a song that’s about a man breaking down a woman’s resistance. Leaving aside the fact that a woman could be the ‘wolf’ and a man the ‘mouse’ right from the outset, the conceit of the song depends on the mouse having the ability to leave, and consenting not to. It’s structured as a duet, but it’s not actually a dialogue: the singers are often at cross purposes or coming up with non sequiturs. The power relationship in the song is that the ‘wolf’ is not in a position to force the issue, and offers little to no pressure. The premise that the original is restrictive in its gender politics as a function of it being from a less enlightened time just doesn’t actually work.
Sure, a lot of this is down to nuances in the performance. It’s possible to imagine a rendition of the song where the man is a violent sex offender and the woman’s a hapless victim, or staging it in a way in which the man’s physically intimidating and the woman’s clearly unable to exercise judgement due to intoxication. The thing is that while – as that Salon article notes – there have been some creepy pair-ups over the years, I can’t actually find a version where it is played that way.
I’d argue that there aren’t many duets which would survive with that staging. Dead Ringer for Love, as originally performed by Meat Loaf and Cher is pretty much the definition of a symmetrical power relationship in the subgenre of songs about men and women concluding one of them’s not going to be sleeping in their own bed that night. In that form, it’s a funny, raunchy song. Cher informs Meat Loaf that he’s pulled with the lines ‘I’m looking for anonymous and fleeting satisfaction / And I want to tell my Daddy that I’ll be missing in action’. She’s been drinking, she says so. If we dig into the lyrics there, there’s something really interesting and perhaps even a little sad about this woman and her issues. It would feel very different if Meat Loaf was opposite a woman singing exactly the same words but playing them as meek and passive. Well, yes. He’s not.
I did get it into my head at one point that Bing Crosby and David Bowie had sung Baby, It’s Cold Outside as a duet, and might launch a Kickstarter campaign in the New Year to invent either time travel or cloning to make that happen. As I searched for that, I learned Bing Crosby had sung it a couple of times as the ‘wolf’ with another man as the ‘mouse’.
Ultimately, Baby, It’s Cold Outside is simply not a relic of an era where men drugging women on dates and threatening them was just a bit of harmless fun. It’s something far stranger and more interesting, and it deserves a great deal more credit.