It’s that time of year again, when all the new SJ warriors “discover” that Baby, It’s Cold Outside is about date rape. This is, of course, based solely on one innocuous line of the lyrics – “Say, what’s in this drink?” – and further conjecture based on the (usually) male singer’s pushiness.
Allow me to, if I may, offer a different yet equally modern interpretation.
The original lyrics are about a woman who is trying to leave a date’s home and this date trying very hard to convince her to stay, mostly on the grounds that it’s too cold to walk home. Granted, the “wolf” as he’s referred to in the lyrics, won’t take no for an answer and is even annoyingly whiny at points. His arguments, however, register just as little to the woman as hers do to him.
Try though he might, she doesn’t respond to his concerns about the weather or his compliments. Some people like to focus on his more guilt-trippy statements – “How can you do this thing to me?” and “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?” – but that’s a whole two of his thirty lines. And the woman doesn’t spare a thought for his pride anyway.
No, what’s primarily on the her mind are the things that her family, friends, neighbors, and indeed the world at large might think if she stays the night with him. Of the “mouse”‘s thirty-two lines – she gets more because the song is about her – nine are about various people in her life and the conclusions they will leap to if she stays. Eleven of her lines, by contrast, are about how much she’s enjoying herself, how pleasant the evening is or has been, or are excuses to linger. I include the “what’s in this drink?” line in this group. It could just as easily (and is far more likely to) be meant as a request for the recipe out of genuine interest or as a reason to prolong their conversation and justify her staying longer as it could be a declaration of suspicion. Nine of the lines are insistences that she must leave (including the line about borrowing his coat), but the number of lines in which she finds reasons to stay exceeds this.
My theory then is that she worries about her public virtue, a fair concern, but that she wants to stay so she thinks of perfectly plausible and socially viable reasons to do so, as well as what to say when asked about it the next day: “At least, I’m gonna say that I tried.” Could it be the thought of a woman knowing she will not leave this house unfucked and preparing her defense? It’s within the realm of possibility. Is it a reasonable interpretation, given that this song was written by a man for his wife, for them to sing as duet at the close of their annual Christmas party? Doubtful.
The remaining two lines in the count are “I wish I knew how – to break this spell”. It could be interpreted as the beleaguered thought of a woman harassed by a man who just will not let her leave. But given that it’s a love song wherein the guy who’s so very very nice is metaphorically represented by his warm, inviting home and leaving to go to hers which is apparently full of people who would judge her otherwise means stepping out into a blizzard of knee-deep snow? Far more likely that she means that she wishes she could break herself out of this incredibly enticing situation and force herself to brave the winter winds outside.
But she doesn’t. In the final verse, she finally relents, agreeing with the wolf that it is indeed too fucking cold outside to walk home. Especially when she could stay here with this nice guy and his roaring fireplace and seemingly never-ending supply of cigarettes and drinks, whatever may be in them. The opinions of her gossiping family and neighbors be damned!
I think Baby, It’s Cold Outside is far more likely to be a song abut a woman who decides to do what she wants, regardless of what people will think of her. And considering it was written in 1944, it’s a pretty goddamn feminist song when taken that way.
It could certainly also be argued that the meaning behind the lyrics can be altered by the way an individual singer performs them, and there are many covers of this song to choose from if you want to investigate that. I personally like the Dinah Shore/Buddy Clark version.