Once a piece of art is released into the world, people are free to debate its meaning and merits until the end of time. This is especially true if the work in question is a holiday song that pops back into the public consciousness each December. If the song is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—a ’40s-era American standard that some modern listeners hear as a misogynistic depiction of sexual misconduct—it’s cause for an annual barrage of controversies, radio bans, and think pieces.
In recent years, arguing about the intention behind “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has become nearly as popular as listening to the song itself. And actually, the two activities are connected. In December 2018, as debates about the lyrics in the context of the #MeToo movement reached a crescendo, the song cracked the Top 10 on Billboard’s Digital Song Sales chart for the first time ever.
Some Enchanted Evening
For a song that provokes such strong feelings, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” began fairly innocently. Broadway legend Frank Loesser wrote the ditty in 1944 and performed it with his wife, Lynn Garland, at a housewarming party in New York City that same year. It was meant to amuse guests and send them on their way at the end of night, and by all accounts, people loved it.
“We had to do it over and over again, and we became instant parlor room stars,” Garland remembered. “We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of ‘Baby.’”
What were people responding to? On its face, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a light and flirty song about a romantic evening shared by a man and a woman. Or, as the original sheet music puts it, a “wolf” and a “mouse.” The man would like the woman to spend the night, and every time the woman makes an excuse and heads for the door, he’s ready with a reason why she should stay.
“The neighbors might think …” the woman sings. “Baby, it's bad out there,” the man shoots back. “Say what’s in this drink?” she asks. “No cabs to be had out there,” he counters.
"Baby" Goes to Hollywood
In 1948, much to Garland’s chagrin, Loesser sold “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to MGM. The following year, the song appeared in the film Neptune’s Daughter, where it serves as the soundtrack to a pair of comedic scenes involving two couples. In the first, Ricardo Montalbán pursues Esther Williams, reinforcing the song’s traditional gender dynamics. In the second, Betty Garrett pushes hard for a sleepover with Red Skelton, flipping the whole thing on its head. Again, audiences ate it up, and in 1950 “Baby, It's Cold Outside” won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
The year the film came out, numerous well-known duos recorded the song, including Doris Day and Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark, and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan. The song was quickly entering the cultural firmament—but not without controversy.
As a June 1949 story in TIME magazine revealed, NBC radio initially deemed the lyrics “too racy” and banned the song. The article doesn’t specify exactly what NBC found objectionable, but it was likely the suggestion of sex, not a perceived lack of female consent.
Turn-of-the-Century Turning Point
Over the next 50 years, virtually every entertainer with the temperament to record Christmas music took a turn with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., Ann-Margret, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Vanessa Williams, and Tom Jones all got into the wolf-and-mouse game. As Rolling Stone noted in 2020, the song passed through the decades without raising many eyebrows. A search of the New York Public Library’s archives turns up little to no published criticism of the lyrical content.
The turning point came in the 2000s—after the Will Ferrell/Zooey Deschanel duet in 2003’s beloved Elf—as listeners began to reexamine “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” through a 21st-century lens. In 2004, Canada’s National Post published a satirical article arguing that the song should be banned from the airwaves. “In sum, the man gets the girl drunk amid her protestations so he can take advantage of her,” the story reads, foretelling future interpretations of Loesser’s lyrics.
Bloggers Drew Mackie and Brad Hicks wrote similar pieces in 2005 and 2006, respectively. In a 2007 Funny or Die video, comedians Tess Rafferty and Nic DeLeo create a super-dark visual accompaniment for the song. Their version is more about a serial killer than it is a sexual predatory, but as Rafferty told Refinery29, the video was inspired by realizations about the original lyrics. “We started calling it ‘the date rapey’ song,” Rafferty said. “I thought it was kind of funny that this thing was sitting out here in the open and no one was talking about it.”
From there, the takes came fast and furious. Washington City Paper and Cracked both poked fun about the dark ways the lyrics could be construed. By 2012, the tune was being discussed by highbrow news and opinion sites like Salon, which took stock of the intensifying “Baby” brouhaha and branded the song “icky at best, at worst reprehensible.”
There's Bound to Be Talk
As pundits lined up to condemn the song, some critics took the opposite point of view. In December 2010, the feminist magazine Persephone published a story by Christie Lauder, a.k.a. Slay Belle, titled “Listening While Feminist: In Defense of 'Baby, It's Cold Outside.'" In the piece, Lauder argues that context is crucial to understanding the song.
Back in the ’40s, when "Baby" was written, it was considered scandalous for an unmarried woman to spend the night with her boyfriend. As Lauder points out, there’s nowhere in the lyrics where the woman says she doesn’t want to stay over. All of her excuses have to do with what other people—including her father and her “maiden aunt”—will say if she doesn’t come home.
“They are having an intimate time together and he’s far less constrained by societal expectations, so he can ask her to stay,” Lauder writes. “It’s always assumed that she’ll turn him down. Except that she doesn’t want to.”
Lauder also tackles the song’s most infamous lyric: “Say, what’s in this drink?” Many modern listeners who find the song problematic interpret this as the man drugging the woman’s cocktail. But as Lauder explains, “What’s in this drink?” was a common joke in movies of the time. People would use the phrase when they were acting out of character and wanted something to blame for their behavior. “But the joke is almost always that there is nothing in the drink,” Lauder writes. “The drink is the excuse. The drink is the shield someone gets to hold up in front of them to protect from criticism.”
The conversation surrounding “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” grew louder in 2018, as the #MeToo movement gained momentum. That December, many radio stations around the United States banned the song, though some reversed course after complaints from listeners. NBC News spoke with Susan Loesser, daughter of the song’s author, who said that her late father never intended anything sinister with the lyrics. She added that he would be “furious” about the song getting axed from radio playlists.
The same month, Salon editor-in-chief Erin Keane rolled her eyes in a piece titled “The ‘Baby, It's Cold Outside’ Fight Is Back—But Why?!” As Keane saw it, debating a 70-year-old song was counterproductive—especially in light of larger issues facing women around the world. She wrote that bickering over the song “feels less like settling unfinished business and more like wishful thinking for a disagreement that feels more theoretical, at stake merely a chirpy song we only had to endure one month out of the year.”
At this point, it was perhaps inevitable that a major pop star would rework “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the 21st century. Enter John Legend, who teamed up with comedian Natasha Rothwell to write new lyrics emphasizing consent between the man and woman. When the woman says her mother will worry, the man replies, “I’ll call the car and tell him to hurry.” When the woman ponders having one more drink, the man responds with, “It’s your body and your choice.” Legend recorded the song with Kelly Clarkson, his fellow judge on The Voice, and promptly faced a backlash from some defenders of the original version, including Deana Martin, daughter of Dean Martin, whose recording of “Baby” is among the most enduring.
“He should write his own song if he doesn’t like this one, but don’t change the lyrics,” Deana told Good Morning Britain. “It’s a classic, perfect song.”
It should be noted that Legend has no issue with Loesser’s original lyrics. “The song was supposed to be silly!” Legend told The Guardian, defending his reboot. “It wasn’t supposed to be preachy at all.” Nevertheless, Legend acknowledges that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has become a “proxy war” in a fight for women’s rights that he vehemently supports. His revised “Baby” was a joke, but also not.
Legend and Clarkson’s “Baby” actually wasn’t the first attempt at modernizing the lyrics. In 2014, video blogger Dara Laine served up a feminist-approved rendition, wherein the man—played by John Weselcouch—immediately backs off when the woman sings “I really can’t stay.” The pro-consent lineage continued in 2021 with a scene in the Netflix film Love Hard, wherein actors Nina Dobrev and Jimmy O. Yang charmingly tweak all of the potentially troublesome lyrics.
At the same time, plenty of singers continue to cover the original. Over the last five years, Avril Lavigne, Willie Nelson and Lee Ann Womack, and Fantasia and CeeLo Green have all given the old chestnut a go.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” probably isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the controversy. Expect more parodies, more online outrage, and maybe—just maybe—more substantive conversations about the very real issues underlying the discourse.
A version of this story ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2022.