Two Atlantic staffers dissect the song's creepy factor.
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."
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?
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.
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.
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."
(Looking up the lyrics now to see what other lines could stand to be changed.)
Ashley: "The answer is no" is kind of hard to get around.
Eleanor: Yeah. It also seems that the song could stand to have a little more input from her on what she enjoyed about the evening, a little more evidence that she really is saying, "talk me into staying" rather than "no, really, i want to leave immediately."
Ashley: She says he's "really been grand," but i feel like a straight-up "the answer is no" kind of trumps that. I think there's a line between allowing a seduction to happen and actually not giving consent, and this song crosses it.
Eleanor: Agreed. But I feel hopeful about the whole rewrite the lyrics plan! This song can be redeemed!
Ashley: Agreed, i think it could be cute and sexy with a couple of tweaks.
Eleanor: As the Salon article points out, it is one of the few holiday duets that really feels like a conversation. They interrupt each other, have a back-and-forth. It's rare to hear flirtation played out in song.
Ashley: It's just better when the flirtation is, you know, going both ways.
Ashley: So we'd get rid of "what's in this drink."
Eleanor: It's really the worst line ever. I think something more like, "Oooh, this drink is tasty," or, "Champagne cocktails are my favorite." Or even moving away from alcohol altogether: "one more song," "one more cookie," etc.
Ashley: Totally. And there are all sorts of cute comments about the weather outside, it'd be easy to dream up another one. I also love the thing about how there aren't any cabs.
Eleanor: And then making the reasons for wanting to leave seem less anachronistic. Worrying about her parents being worried makes the singer sound like she's still in high school (which adds to the creepiness). "My roommates are having a party" or "I told my friend i'd meet her at this bar" or whatever reasons people use today to leave.
Ashley: And then give her some sort of agency by making it clear that she herself has decided to throw those reasons out and stay...if that's the case. Some inkling that like "maybe my roommates who are throwing that party won't miss me that much."
Eleanor: Or, "Ugh, that bar is so far away. It would be so much more pleasant to stay here."
Ashley: Or even, "Yeah it really is that cold outside isn't it?" Some signal that she's not actively trying to escape.
Eleanor: Ok, then, it's settled. The song is not creepy in concept but in execution. Solution: write better lyrics.
Ashley: To replace the creepy ones.
Eleanor: Keep the cute ones, like about the taxis and putting on records.
Ashley: Play up the fun, playful, consensual seduction, take out the predatory.
Got ideas on how to de-creepify the lyrics to "Baby, It's Cold Outside"? Let us know in the comments.