Despite all of the attention paid to and controversy surrounding “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” each Christmas season, it seems that the song is still not at all understood. Far from the ode to date rape that modern critics presume it to be, a closer reading of the lyrics and context in which they were written and originally sung reveals the tune to actually be a feminist anthem about empowerment, choice, and true love.
Its author, Frank Loesser, was a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote the music and lyrics to the legendary plays Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in the 1950s and 1960s, but in 1944, he was in the U.S. Army Air Force.
Already an accomplished songwriter when the United States entered World War II, he continued writing songs after he enlisted, including “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” which became a massive patriotic hit in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He also began work on a song that he intended to perform as a duet with his wife, singer Lynn Garland, when the war was over. He obviously missed her a great deal and thought back to when the two of them were courting. His song developed into a back-and-forth about young love and what is often not-so-hidden desire.
After his discharge, Frank and Lynn held a big party for his first Christmas back home. In Hollywood in the 1940s, hosts with any sort of musical talent at all were generally expected to perform for their guests, and the couple decided that Frank’s duet would be perfect, and at that party they performed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the very first time.
Their guests loved the party and especially the song. The Loessers had expected it to simply be a fun little duet that would politely signal that the party was over, but suddenly they had invitations to perform it at every party in town.
As Lynn said years later, it was their “ticket to caviar and truffles.” It was huge on the party circuit, but Lynn considered it her and Frank’s song—an intensely personal expression of their love for each other. She was mortified and furious, then, when he sold the rights to it to MGM Studios in 1949 for use in the film “Neptune’s Daughter.”
In the film, Ricardo Maltaban and Esther Williams sing the duet when Williams’ character initially wants to stay after realizing she’s falling in love with him (despite her best efforts not to), but recognize what people will think of her if she does.
In other words, she isn’t forced to stay or stays only because of Maltaban’s character’s badgering, it’s because she wants to. Later in the film, the song is sung again—only this time by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett.
And this time she is pursuing him. The entire scene is a long gag about how desperately she wants him, but since he’s pretending to be someone else, he’s trying to get away.
Garrett’s character, like Williams’, was thus asserting her independence, her sexuality, and her freedom to choose whom she wanted to love.
The movie was a success, but “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was a smash hit, and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. When Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting recorded a version later that year, it became an even bigger hit on the radio, especially at Christmastime because of its winter theme.
For decades, the song was a Christmas staple without a hint of controversy surrounding its supposedly dark undertones because, quite simply, audiences didn’t hear any. The line “Say, what’s in this drink?” harkened back to a relatively common comedy bit in which a woman pretends to be drunk to excuse her outlandish behavior that might violate societal norms of the time.
In fact, it is this supposed violation of societal norms that regarding sexuality in the 1940s and 50s that underpins the song. The woman is not desperately trying to get away from a predatory man; she wants to stay with him but is thinking out loud about what various people in her life will say about her if she does.
“My mother will start to worry,” she laments. “My father will be pacing the floor.”
In the very next line, though, she lets on that she really wants to stay in spite of what people might think of her.
“So really I'd better scurry,” she states before quickly adding, “Well maybe just a half a drink more.”
He of course is thrilled by this, answering with “Put some records on while I pour.”
That the next line is “Say what’s in this drink?” is the tell that he didn’t spike her drink; he merely poured the drink that she asked for, but she is pretending that she is too drunk to be responsible for what she does next—just as in broad comedies of the time.
The punchline to that joke was invariably that there was nothing in the drink. The audience knows it and knows that the person who just uttered the line is doing, well, exactly what the woman in the song is doing: rather poorly trying to justify their actions.
And her intentions couldn’t be clearer: She wants to stay, and makes this rather obvious when she says, “I ought to say ‘No, no, no.’ At least I’m going to say that I tried.”
She knows what society expects of her, and she knows what she has to say in response to anyone who questions the choice she is about to make.
And it is her choice. It’s always her choice. The man’s lyrics throughout the song make that clear as he gets more and more desperate to convince her to stay.
“No cabs to be had out there,” he says, adding that he’s “never seen such a blizzard before” and that it’s up to her “knees out there.”
By the end of the song, he resorts to a Hail Mary pass by appealing to her guilt.
“Think of my lifelong sorry if you got pneumonia and died,” he finally pleads. She is rather obviously loving playing hard-to-get, and flirtatiously rebuffs his advances while making it clear that she really wants to stay even if she knows others will judge her for it.
“My sister will be suspicious, my brother will be there at the door,” she sings. “My maiden aunt's mind is vicious. Well, maybe just a cigarette more.”
She clearly wants to stay and is putting off leaving for as long as she can, but knows that if she stays “there's bound to be talk tomorrow. At least there will be plenty implied.”
She’s not scared of him; she’s scared of what polite society in the 1940s will think of an unmarried couple spending the night together. They’re obviously madly in love, but premarital sex was simply impermissible under strict cultural norms of the time.
But she wanted to stand up to them. She wanted to break them. She wanted to choose for herself what was acceptable to her. It was, after all, her body, her choice.
That’s why in the end, it is left open as to whether she does in fact stay; because doing so would have offended listeners—not because she was drugged and overpowered, but because she chose to do something that society told her she couldn’t as an upstanding woman of virtue.
The implication, though, is that she just might stay after all. As the song reaches its crescendo, he sings to her, “Get over that old out”—meaning “Get over that old way of thinking”—and as he does, she joins him in singing “Baby it’s cold outside,” seemingly agreeing with him that’s it’s just too cold outside for her to leave and, despite the even colder reception she might get when she finally does get home, it’s a risk she’s willing to take and a choice she’s willing to make.