The First Writers To Call Out “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Didn’t Mean For This To Happen
In 2004, an article questioned the lyrics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” We’ve been arguing about it ever since.
Words like “hellscape” and “murderous” aren’t typically associated with the holiday season, but they’re not even the worst ones used by some to describe “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The 1944 Frank Loesser song, now a pariah in the world of Christmas music, has been called everything from “deeply problematic” to “the holiday date-rape anthem for the ages” after further scrutiny caused a worldwide double take 15 years ago. The patient zero takedown of the song was written by Rob McKenzie and Joe Bodolai for Canada’s National Post in 2004, but is no longer available online. The debate over what was once a benign, beloved Christmas — and Academy Award-winning — duet has raged on ever since.
In November, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson’s progressive rewrite of the song reignited the conversation with just as much fury, which is somewhat surprising given the original complaints. This updated version was intended to eliminate some of the more contentious aspects of the song’s original lyrics, with Legend offering to call Clarkson a car instead of persuading her to stay (no one show him this report), and at one point telling her that it’s her body, her choice. It was swiftly written off as “honestly ridiculous,” “on the level of ‘ruining Christmas,’” and “the stupidest most unnecessary remake ever.”
“The song was supposed to be silly!” Legend said recently in an interview with the U.K.’s Observer. “It wasn’t supposed to be preachy at all. I never disparaged the old version.”
Arguing about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has become a Christmas tradition itself — putting up the tree, wrapping gifts, and calling someone a “feminazi” in an internet forum while roasting chestnuts on an open fire. But nobody is more baffled by this outcome than the people who accidentally started the discourse.
“Every single year my friends are like, ‘Hey Christie, it’s Thanksgiving, it’s ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ time,’” Christie Lauder, who wrote “Listening While Feminist: In Defense of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’” in 2009, told Refinery29 over the phone. “It’s this bizarre moment of my life when six weeks every year I’m asked about this song that I wrote about.”
The piece was published in Persephone Magazine, a feminist blog created by early Jezebel readers and Lauder, a Jezebel writer, in 2006. Persephone has since ceased publishing, but you can still read an archived version of Lauder’s piece. It’s the first well-known defence of the duet, written by a woman no less, despite the fact that criticism of the song is rooted in a distinctly female issue — the fear of sexual violence. Conversely, the first few takedowns of the song were written by men.
The National Post later wrote that the 2004 piece was a “throwaway joke,” but McKenzie, now a writer and editor living overseas, told us over email that wasn’t fully the case. Although his column with Bodalai (who died in 2011) was satire, he would sometimes “sneak in items that were social criticism.” He assumes it didn’t take off at the time because it was classified as a joke.
Drew Mackie can’t say the same. One year later, he posted his own criticism of the piece, unaware of McKenzie’s column, on his blog Back Of The Cereal Box titled “Merry Date Rape: The Truth About Bing Crosby's ‘It's Cold Outside.’”
“The responses I got to the little post I made were pretty negative,” Mackie, who now lives in Los Angeles and runs the podcast company TableCakes Productions, wrote in an email. “And continue to be, since the post has been up since 2005. Whether through blog comment or email, people have called me everything from a blithering idiot to a snowflake.”
“The woman has established that she wants to leave,” Mackie wrote in the post. “The man is trying to convince her otherwise. RAPE!”
Lauder saw things differently.
“It’s not so much that I’m bothered by saying, ‘Hey, in 2010 the song now sounds like he’s drugging her drink,’ but more so, ‘This song was written about him drugging her drink,’” Lauder, who is now an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University after working on projects with The Center for Excellence In Journalism in Pakistan, said of her Persephone piece. The song may now remind us of instances of sexual assault, but that doesn’t mean it was written in 1944 with that intent in mind.
I’ve done freelance journalism for half of my life, and this is literally the only thing I’m known for.
“It’s a fine line,” she continued. “But [the cultural backlash] is ascribing motives to something that is not the same as we experience it now.”
For Lauder, context is key, and she didn’t see any acknowledgment of how women’s expectations around sex and romance differed 60 years prior, nor the recognition that the line between coercive and flirtatious language has shifted since the ‘40s. Loesser's original version was routinely performed by him and his wife, Lynn Garland, as a party trick for friends before he sold it to MGM for the 1949 film Neptune's Daughter — something he did, ironically, without Garland's consent.
“I’ve done freelance journalism for half of my life, and this is literally the only thing I’m known for,” Lauder said, adding that the discussion has sometimes spiralled out of her control, with her piece getting plagiarised and hijacked. “[It was always my fear] that this would become a conservative talking point about crazy liberal feminists. I’m not a conservative, and I am probably a crazy liberal feminist.”
The first comedic take on the song arrived in the form of a Funny or Die sketch written by Tess Rafferty and Nic Deleo. They had not seen any previous commentary on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and instead got the idea from listening to Christmas music in their shared office as writers for E!’s The Soup.
“We started calling it ‘the date rapey’ song,” Rafferty told Refinery29 over the phone. “I thought it was kind of funny that this thing was sitting out here in the open and no one was talking about it.”
A few years passed before they made the sketch, which depicted man trapping an unwilling woman in his apartment by intercepting her, cutting the phone line, and at one point revealing another woman tied up in a closet, as the song played sweetly in the background.
“Obviously we weren't trying to make light of it,” Rafferty stressed. “This guy's clearly a psycho. This is clearly his kill room.”
“I think sometimes people would complain that we had stolen the idea, and I’m like, check the date,” Rafferty said. “Most creative people will tell you that's the story of their life — somebody gets attention for something you did a few years ago.”
In 2017, the national discussion about sexual abuse changed thanks to the flood of accusations against Harvey Weinstein that then opened the door for an industry-wide reckoning of the behaviour by powerful men against women (Weinstein continues to deny all allegations of nonconsensual sex). It revived Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement and led to Time’s Up, both dedicated to amplifying the voices of women that had previously been overlooked or silenced when it comes to sexual assault, harassment, and inequality. Rafferty, who still writes for TV, as well as Dame Magazine, actually organised the Take Back The Workplace March in Hollywood in November 2017.
“Not that my opinion has changed, but I would definitely make my points differently post #MeToo than I would have when writing the piece previously,” Lauder said, making sure to acknowledge that people in the ‘40s, unfortunately, were also drugged and assaulted; she just doesn’t think this particular song is about that.
Those who criticised the song also have some regrets about the way they went about it.
“I wrote about rape in a much more casual and off-hand manner than I would have today,” Mackie said. “I think 20-year-old me didn't understand how this poor attempt at humour obscured the point I was trying to make: The song hasn't aged particularly well.”
If that version caught on, I'd be fine with it, just because it might end this debate we have about whether this dumb song is appropriate.
These four writers now stand as unwitting tent poles for the discourse, their early-2000s whims frozen in time as the world has become angrier and angrier in the last 15 years. Despite their status as trailblazers in this argument, in 2019, the writers don’t feel strongly about either side.
“I mean there's so much misogyny already wrapped up in Christianity. Why would we stop with this song?” Rafferty said. “I'm far more on the fence about it than I am about, like, reading the account of Aziz Ansari. Nowhere in the lyrics is it like, When he [put] [his] claw[ed fingers] in my mouth / I came out of the bathroom and he was naked.”
While Mackie says he probably wouldn’t play the song at a Christmas party out of respect for friends who are survivors of date rape, he still thinks it’s okay if people want to listen to it, and he doesn’t mind Legend’s new version, either.
“If that version caught on, I'd be fine with it, just because it might end this debate we have about whether this dumb song is appropriate,” he said.
If anything, the past decade-and-a-half has made some of the writers think less about the song, and more about what they put on the internet, in fear of the next thing they’d end up giving interviews about in 15 years.
“I tend to spend more time considering if this is really what I want to say and how I would say it,” Mackie said of his current writing. “We can't predict how we'll feel about our work in the future.”
Rafferty expressed a similar sentiment in an email: “You have no idea what people are going to respond to, no control over it, but your only choice is to keep turning out your work or stop.If you want to keep creating then you have to just do it and let go of the outcome.”
Perhaps this year, the masses can avoid arguing altogether by listening to something totally benign. How about a classic like “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”? Just ignore the fact that it kind of sounds like stalking. Or rather, in 2019 it sounds like stalking. Oh God — is this song about stalking? Hold on, we need 15 years to figure this out.