“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Valentine’s Day

Two pigeons kissing like lovers on Valentine's Day

Baby, It’s Cold

Though usually sung around Christmas time, Frank Loesser’s song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has nothing to do with a holiday. It does mention snow, which we don’t get much of in the Willamette Valley, but February is still winter. So as Valentine’s Day approaches and our minds turn to love, let’s take a look at this jaunty piece that was so popular in its day and has been so criticized now.

Originally used by Loesser and his wife to entertain their friends and business associates, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” tells the story of two characters named Wolf and Mouse. It became popular when, Loesser sold the song to MGM for their 1949 comedy film, Neptune’s Daughter. In that movie, the song was sung twice, once with a man as Wolf and a woman as Mouse, and the second time with the genders reversed. As I talk about the song, I will use “he” for Wolf and “she” for Mouse because that’s how the Loessers sang it.

The Plot

As the song starts, Mouse is at Wolf’s house. She sings that it’s time for her to go. It’s been a nice evening, but her parents will worry, so she’d better “scurry.” But maybe, first, she could have another drink. Then she frets about what the neighbors will think, frowns at her glass and wonders what’s in it. She comments on “the spell” that makes her want to stay, and she decides she “ought to say no, no, no.”

When Wolf, apparently sensing her inner conflict, moves in closer, she decides she’ll say she “tried,” but that renews her resolve, and she repeats that she “really can’t stay.”

For two more verses, Mouse continues in this vein. What will her relatives think? She must leave. But maybe she could stay a bit longer.

Wolf takes advantage of her mixed feelings. He throws out one excuse after another for why she needs to linger. Some commentators have suggested that he’s offering her reasons for staying. [1] It’s cold outside, her hands feel like ice, the fireplace is roaring, there are no cabs to be had, she looks so beautiful, she’ll die of pneumonia if she goes out in this weather, she’s hurting his pride, how unfair that she should “do this thing” to him, and besides, it’s cold outside.

While the melody of Mouse’s lines rise toward the end, emphasizing her uncertainty, Wolf’s often drop, making him seem more confident. Mouse can’t finish her thoughts before he cuts in, but she interrupts him, as well. Neither is listening to the other.

Even so, at the end of each verse, their voices merge to sing Wolf’s refrain, “it’s cold outside” with a unique melody. In their merging, they create something new that contains a bit of each of them.

The Controversy

In the 1940s when the song was written, Loesser’s words seemed flirtatious and fun. Now they seem, at least to some people, to be a prelude to rape. Many authors have weighed in on the merits or lack thereof of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The bloggers Em and Lo, for instance, condemned the piece as the “worst offender” that reinforce “old gender stereotypes,” at least among Christmas songs. [2] Hatti McDoogal wrote a blog for Persephone Magazine. In it, she describes how, when she listened closely to the lyrics of this song she’d enjoyed for many years, she was struck by the predatory nature of Wolf’s attempts to make Mouse stay. [3] As Kathryn Lindsay states in her article about the controversy, commentators have called Loesser’s song “deeply problematic,” “murderous,” and “the holiday date-rape anthem.” [4]

But it’s not as if there wasn’t controversy when the song was written, though it was for different reasons. According to a Time article by Olivia B. Waxman, the song was considered “racy” in its day, and NBC hesitated to play it over the air, though they finally relented. [5] But it’s not as if NBC’s listeners didn’t know about sex. Indeed, as Waxman explains, in the 1940s, about half of all men and women admitted to having sex before marriage.

Uncomplicated Love

Navigating Social Norms

Of course, the consequences for doing so were different for men and women. A man would experience little censure, and might be congratulated by his fellows for getting a woman into bed. If it was known an unmarried woman had been sexual, however, not only would her reputation be ruined, but she could be incarcerated for being “promiscuous.” If she became pregnant out of wedlock, which was not uncommon since contraception was illegal in most states, her entire life could be destroyed. At the same time, as Waxman notes, when Loesser wrote his song, a woman alone with a man was understood to have given consent. If she later tried to claim she had been raped, she would be blamed. And that’s how it was for white women. For a woman of color, being “good” was impossible, and saying “no” was unacceptable.

As originally written and understood, the song is filled with sexual tension. Even today, we may experience a disconnect between our longings and our sense of propriety, between our lusts and the voices in our heads that warn us that giving into bodily desires is wrong. Our Puritan culture, our intellectual disembodiment, often makes us uncomfortable with bawdy lusts. The woman in Loesser’s song craves something she knows that, at least according to society, she shouldn’t have. The man, on the other hand, shows little understanding of, or concern for, her predicament. He shows more of a desire to possess than to love. Is he just interested in the conquest, or does he also long for connection? Although it wasn’t socially acceptable to talk much about it, even in 1944, men wanted to be loved.

Complicated Desires

Maybe the song makes us uncomfortable because it speaks to the complicated nature of our sexual desires. On Valentine’s Day, we think of the flowers and hearts and romance. We assume love is true, and if we think infatuation, lust, and loneliness are love, that’s not unusual. Relationships are difficult to navigate and to maintain. We don’t really know what it means to love, nor do we realize it’s not the same as being “in love.” “Baby, It’s Cold Out There” speaks to the difficulty of starting romantic relationships, especially in an age when the longings of our body were discouraged. In such a world, how could we know what we wanted? Expected to be lusty and to seek conquest, even men had trouble recognizing what was in their hearts.

So what is Loesser’s song about? As Amelia McDonnel-Parry asks in her article in Rolling Stone, does it tell the story of a woman who wants to stay the night with a man, but is struggling to reconcile her desire with social propriety? Or is it song about a woman who is afraid to anger a man who doesn’t want to take “no” for an answer? For as long as we have history, woman have appeased men in order to survive. What is Mouse really doing?

And what is Wolf doing? His persistence is a bit over the top, but exaggeration is part of humor. To some, his words seem frightening because they’re understood in the context of rape, such as shown in this version of the song posted by Funny or Die in which a man attempts to tie up his female guest, though she hits him over the head with a fireplace shovel and knocks him out. But is the original really so creepy?

Taking Words Out of Context

Granted, the Funny or Die version is more parody than honest interpretation. Even so, our modern analyses sometimes seem like knee-jerk reactions. In a blog about the piece, Em and Lo assert that when Wolf comments that Mouse’s hands are “like ice,” he’s insinuating that she’s frigid. When we look at the entire song, though, it seems clear that they;re part of the theme of cold that runs through the song than a statement about Mouse’s libido.

Additionally, when Em and Lo make the assumption that because Mouse lives at home it means she’s underage, they’re ignoring the cultural mores of the time. A remake of the song by John Legend, that includes some sweet moments, does the same thing. Throughout the song, he responds to her excuses with respectful politeness, making it easy for her to say “no,” yet when she says her father “will be pacing the floor,” he asks, “What are you still living at home for?”

Is this a misguided attempt to address the assumption that she is underage? Why else would this man, who insists that it’s “your body and your choice,” make a comment that could be construed as rude?

On the other hand, this song, along with another revised version of the song by Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski, provide an important message: even a wimpy “no” means “no,” and a man is obliged to accept that. As the mother of young men, I think this is an important message. I never want my sons to take advantage of a woman. Or anyone.

Even so, while cute and catchy, these songs lack the conflict inherent in good art. They belie the confusion and messiness of the human condition. To learn what we really want takes experimentation, mistakes, and misread signals. Most young men get it wrong sometimes, as do most young women. Consent is essential. And it’s not simple. In Loesser’s lyrics lie a truth about who we are as human beings that is lacking in sanitized versions.

Men Can Be Victimized, Too

These are not the only reinterpretations singers have made of Loesser’s song. Glee produced a version with two men. A few modern singers have reversed the roles so that Wolf is a woman and Mouse a man. My favorite of these is the one performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I appreciate the way Gordon-Levitt reveals Mouses’s mixed emotions through his body language, making the power dynamics in the song seem benign.

But if the innuendos of the original song concern us, should we not be worried about the dignity of a male Mouse? We don’t worry much about men being raped, but it happens. When he reviewed the research, Conor Friedersdorf discovered that sexual violence against men and boys is far more common than we thought.

Starting in 2010, the CDC began tracking the gender of victims of sexual violence. The results are striking. As we might expect, men perpetrate by far the majority of forced penetrations of other males, but almost two-thirds of men who were “forced to penetrate,” a new category of sexual violence identified by the Center for Disease Control, were victimized by women. [6] As a woman, I appreciated seeing Lady Gaga claim her power, but is this version any more benign?

Individual Interpretations

We will probably answer this question differently, you and I. That’s because all of us have unique perspectives informed by our gender, race, age, lifestyle, cultural background, and life history. This is true when we interpret art. It’s also true when we interpret scripture.

As I read articles about the song and listened to adaptations, I couldn’t help but make that comparison. When reading scripture, some people take the words literally. Others do not. All of us understand the ancient Bible from the perspective of our modern culture and individual worldview. We do the same with songs, movies, stories, all art.

We also reinvent. Just as midrash reinterprets scripture and creates new meaning from old, different versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Out There” give us new insights into an old song. And why not? Art is meant to be played with.

Before we create something new from something old, though, it helps to understand the original.

Understanding Text

To help us make sense out of “Baby, It’s Cold Out There,” we can adopt a method from biblical scholarship. In her article, “Women’s Spirituality and Feminist Interpretation,” author Yolanda Dreyer outlines three ways to interpret scripture. First we must understand “what lies behind the text.” [7] This means analyzing a piece’s history and the context in which it was written. What did it mean at the time it was created?

We did that with Loesser’s song and found that, viewed through the lens of his compatriots, it was a harmless depiction of a couple embedded in, and constricted by, the social standards of their day. As a man, Loesser doubtless failed to understand some of the nuances in his words that women might recognize or that many of us might notice today, yet I suspect his goal was to compose a light-hearted piece that would create a romantic glow in his listeners and make them laugh.

Making Connections

In biblical scholarship, one looks next at the connections between the parts of the text, the meaning that is “in” the piece itself. This includes looking at the way a particular sentence or story is framed by other words and stories in the same piece.

For instance, when Loesser wrote “I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice,” he didn’t mean that Mouse was frigid. Nothing else in the song indicates that. However, there are other references to being cold, and there are attempts by Wolf to warm her up. Throughout the song, Loesser contrasts images of cold with those of warmth: snow and storm with fire and tropical shore. Why should his use of icy hands be any different?

Getting “In Front of the Text”

The final form of interpretation is more personal. It involves putting ourselves “in front of the text.” [8] We enter into a relationship with the words, putting ourselves into them and exploring their meaning for us. We also look for where our cultural presumptions and our personal experiences turn the text into something it was never meant to be. By standing “in front of the text,” we contribute to its meaning. That doesn’t mean we invent something entirely different.

That’s the problem with some of the critiques of Loesser’s song. They forget that our cultural assumptions are not those of the composer, and they ignore their own entrenched assumptions and worldview.

At the same time, the new renditions of Loesser’s song, while they may or may not be appropriate interpretations of the original, have an integrity of their own. They make sense of our world in their own way. Some of them offer valuable insights. Others provide a new way of understanding something old. Midrash always risks being more about us than about the text, but hopefully it has value regardless. This is one way we get “in front” of a text.

The Messiness of Life and Art

By using these three strategies, we can interpret not just scripture, but also art. Even thou such interpretation can messy because life is messy, and art is a reflection of that messy life, it’s important to persevere if we are to understand ourselves. Unfortunately, we don’t all know what we want, and we don’t always express ourselves clearly, nor do we consistently honor one another’s wants and needs, and our art reflects this.

If we understood one another and respected each other, if we lived in peace and harmony, we wouldn’t need art. Great paintings and sculpture would interest us less, because they’d have little to say. We wouldn’t need to see the depth of our pain and loneliness revealed by lyric, brush, or phrase. Without tension in life and art, little would interest us. Nor would we have much to laugh about or share. There’d be little room for the lighthearted fun that rises out of our shared human experience. Life would be peaceful, maybe, but art would languish, we’d get bored, and people would stop smiling.

Our Need for Art Will Never End

Of course, there’s no danger of that. No matter what utopian plans we devise, our complex natures and bruised egos provide plenty of fodder for creative artists. Do we really think we can create a world in which everyone is equal and everything is fair by sanitizing art? If so, who gets to choose the approved version? This is a tactic of despots.

Like everything else, art reflects the values of the culture in which it was created. Great art tends to rise above simplistic renderings of right and wrong, asking offensive questions and denigrating beloved mores, but even the best artist is a product of her upbringing and may fail to see how she is embedded in whiteness or patriarchy or puritanical Christianity or whatever is the norm for her world. When we write songs or produce art of any kind, we make statements. In so doing, we take the risk that we may offend.

At the same time, art is powerful and should be created with care. Myths Because art uses metaphor, it speaks to our subconscious. That’s why propaganda can be so insidious.

On Love and Life

So what does this have to do with Valentine’s Day, that time when we give candy, flowers, and sentimental cards to our sweethearts, our friends, and our mothers?

Valentine’s Day is a lighthearted celebration of romance, which is ultimately what “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is. Loesser’s words, along with the melody and his interpretation, honor the romantic notion of relationship. Like Valentine’s Day, it affirms lighthearted affection and play.

We need times when we relax and have fun. Instead of taking ourselves seriously all the time, we need to make simple declarations of affection, to stop complicating our day with conflicting emotions. Sometimes it’s nice to believe that lovers love one another, friends care about one another, parents love their children, and children love their parents. Maybe on another day, this love will be more nuanced, but on Valentine’s Day, we can enjoy a pure, romantic glow.

That’s the kind of glow that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” offers. Yes, there are complicated, even dark, undertones within it, and yes, the cultural assumptions of Loesser’s day impact our lives even now. It’s important to name the inequalities that harm so many of us in this world. If we do, we have a chance to change them. But sometimes, it’s also important to relax, to stop taking ourselves so seriously, and enjoy a little romance.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. For instance, [Lauder, Christie, “Listening While Feminist: In Defense of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’” Persephone Magazine, 2010, http://persephonemagazine.com/2010/12/listening-while-feminist-in-defense-of-baby-its-cold-outside/, accessed 2/8/20.
  2. Em and Lo, “A Line-by-Line Take Down of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’” Huffpost, December 19, 2014, updated December 6, 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-linebyline-take-down-of_b_6334026, accessed 2/8/20.
  3. McDoogal, Hatti,“Finding Rape Culture in Surprising Places: Holiday Edition?,” Persephone Magazine, 2010, http://persephonemagazine.com/2010/12/finding-rape-culture-in-surprising-places-holiday-edition/#respond, accessed 2/8/20.
  4. Lindsay, Kathryn, “The First Writers to Call Out ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ Didn’t Meant For This to Happen,” Refinery 29, December 12, 2019, https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/12/8785310/baby-its-cold-outside-original-lyrics-rape-writer, accessed 2/8/20.
  5. Waxman, Olivia B., “’Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ Was Controversial From the Beginning. Here’s What to Know About Consent in the 1940s,” Time, December 5, 2019, https://time.com/5739183/baby-its-cold-outside-consent/, accessed 2/8/20.
  6. Friedersdorf, Conor, “The Understudied Female Sexual Predator,” The Atlantic, November 29, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/the-understudied-female-sexual-predator/503492/ , accessed 2/8/2020.
  7. Dreyer, Yoland, “Women’s Spirituality and Feminist Interpretation: A Hermeneutic of Suspicion Applied to ‘Patriarchal Marriage,’” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, 67(3), 5 pages, doi:https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v67i3.1104, accessed 1/8/20.
  8. Ibid.

Photo by KS KYUNG on Unsplash

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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