How to Redeem 'Baby, It's Cold Outside': Fix the Lyrics

Two Atlantic staffers dissect the song's creepy factor.

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Blaine and Kurt on 'Glee' (Fox); Frank Loesser and his wife and musical collaborator Lynn, who performed the song at their housewarming party (AP / Anthony Camerano); She & Him (Merge Records)

Earlier this week, Stephen Deusner at Salon wrote an article pointing out a troubling truth about the beloved holiday carol "Baby, It's Cold Outside": If you listen to the words, it sounds like the song is describing the run-up to a sexual assault. As Deusner writes:

A woman has stopped by to visit a man, and he connives to keep her from leaving. "My answer is no," she states, but he pours on the charm: "It's up to your knees out there." His seductions become increasingly smarmy ("What's the sense of hurting my pride?") and eventually sinister. At one point she exclaims, "Say, what's in this drink?" Is he being generous with the alcohol, or has he slipped her something stronger? At this point, the Wolf and Mouse designations are redundant. It's all too clear that he's a predator and she's prey.

Here, we discuss whether this song can be saved.

Eleanor: So, "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Ashley: Indeed!

Eleanor: I actually don't think i was aware of it growing up. I first heard it a few years ago when James Taylor put out a Christmas album.

Ashley: What were your thoughts initially?

Eleanor: Well that's the thing. Since I'd never heard it as an innocent child and I'd only heard it after years of warnings about the dangers of drinking, sexual predators, date rape, and so on, I couldn't NOT hear those things in the song.

Ashley: Ah. So for you it's kind of always been troubling?

Eleanor: Exactly.

Ashley: Yeah. That's fair. My first encounter with it, i believe, was when i was about 11 or 12 and went to a musical revue at the local high school... It was performed in a really coy, sweet way by a handsome singing high school boy (automatic swoon) and a cute girl in a dress that looked like a snowflake, so i liked it immediately.

And the next time i heard it was in Elf, which i've also got a big soft spot for. I don't think i was even conscious of the message of it until i noticed the lyric "What's in this drink."

Eleanor: Yeah, that line is problematic.

Ashley: And by that point i'd kind of already fallen for it.

Eleanor: Right.

It seems that context is so huge. For instance when Kurt and Blaine sang it in Glee, that also seemed to be more on the sweet side than the creepy side since it removed the male predator/female prey dynamic.

Ashley: Yeah, that's true. What helps there, i think, is that Glee has always done a good job of portraying Kurt and Blaine as people who actually care about each other.

Eleanor: Exactly.

Ashley: What i'm kind of surprised at is that, as widely as this gets performed, that there aren't some alternate lyrics for that line about "what's in this drink." Most of the versions i've heard keep it in there.

We scrub out other stuff from Christmas carols. Like, when i was in a caroling group in high school we scrubbed out a reference to baby Jesus being "white," even though in context it probably just meant "pure." And last year some teacher got in trouble for taking out "gay" from "Deck the Halls."

Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn & Ashley Fetters

Eleanor Barkhorn is a senior associate editor for The Atlantic. Ashley Fetters edits and produces the Entertainment channel.

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