Cleveland radio station WDOK decided last week to remove the classic song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from its holiday rotation over lyrics that, through a #MeToo lens, now seem a little rape-y. And other stations, including KOIT in San Francisco and the CBC, Rogers Media and Bell Media in Canada, quickly followed suit.
Good for them.
Of course, the song has been a lightning rod for at least a decade, with Urban Dictionary dubbing it the “Christmas Date Rape Song” as early as 2006 and the hot takes resurfacing every year since. Even a USC professor with family ties to the song has waded into the fray and says the tune is misunderstood.
Written in 1944 by “Guys and Dolls” composer Frank Loesser, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a call-and-response duet between two characters noted in the song’s original notes as “Wolf” and “Mouse” (gross), according to the Washington Post. They navigate a conversation wherein Mouse should really be leaving for home, but Wolf persuades her to stay.
The song is coy and sexy, delving into the delicious agony of what a person wants to do versus what a person should do. That is, until you realize that the language is uncomfortably similar to that used in acquaintance rape, where a soft no is always interpreted as a yes.
Behold the back and forth of the characters’ negotiation:
“I ought to say, ‘No, no, no, sir,’” she says.“Mind if move in closer?” he volleys back. “At least I’m gonna say that I tried,” she acquiesces. “What’s the sense of hurtin’ my pride?” he wants to know.
Those sentiments sound completely different to modern ears, not to mention the whole “what’s in this drink?” line that Mouse asks her paramour almost as an aside.
It’s a stretch to imagine that Loesser was referencing Wolf slipping Mouse a mickey — no pun intended — but in an era in which a portable date-rape prevention device is an actual thing, it’s not surprising that the entire exchange raises eyebrows.
It might be shocking, then, to realize that the song was something of a feminist anthem at one point. In 2010, feminist blog Persephone Magazine argued that on a textual level, it’s clear that Mouse wants to stay the night and that her arguments are all grounded in the worry that she’ll be branded a harlot if she stays. Wolf, for his part, is giving her handy excuses to preserve her reputation, while extending their time together.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has pop-culture bona fides to spare. The tune’s use in 1949’s “Neptune’s Daughter” scored an Academy Award for original song and has been covered by some of music’s biggest names: including Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton, Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.
But even as the song continues to be covered, not all artists are oblivious to the messaging. In 2014, Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé released a version of the song with lightly massaged lyrics, complete with a video showcasing two lovelorn youths, singing about soda pops and getting home in time for dinner instead of drinks and spending the night.
So if times have changed and language has evolved and the song was written in good faith, then why is it good that radio stations are starting to blacklist a seemingly innocuous holiday chestnut?
Because times have changed and language has evolved and good faith means little if it’s making people uncomfortable.
And while, yes, a radio station banning a song that is almost certainly not about sexual coercion is neither lasting nor meaningful, it’s at least a bellwether for the state of cultural conversation right now.
WDOK isn’t located in the liberal bastion of California. It’s in the heart of z Great Lakes region in Ohio. #MeToo is making a difference where you least expect it.
“People might say, ‘Oh, enough with that #MeToo,’” the station’s midday host Desiray Cross told Fox 8 last week, “But if you really put that aside and listen to the lyrics, it’s not something I would want my daughter to be in that kind of a situation.”
“The tune might be catchy, but let’s maybe not promote that sort of an idea,” Cross continued.
Meanwhile, counter arguments in support of the song are bubbling up too.
In Denver, radio station KOSI removed the ditty from its holiday rotation, only to reverse its decision in the face of public outcry, using an internet poll as the basis for its amended position. And San Francisco’s KOIT is facing similar pushback from listeners.
A lot has changed in the more than 70 years since “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was penned. Words that were once used freely are seen through new eyes and deemed no longer acceptable.
As the world evolves in the wake of #MeToo, there will be cultural casualties. There will be movies and songs and books that fail to hold up to increased scrutiny. It is the price we pay for a better world.
If “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is one of those casualties, so be it.