The Answer is No: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Our Evolving Understanding of Consent
Put down the milk and cookies and gird your loins, guys, gals, and non-binary pals. The War on Christmas is here again. Starbucks released their holiday cups, alleged serial sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly is on Twitter forcing his Corgi to shill patriotic Christmas merch, and I’m writing an article about consent and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Like those that have come before me, I’m no hero. I’m just doing my part for the war effort.
The song began life as a cutesy duet for Frank Loesser and his then-wife Lynn to perform at parties in the 1940s. Written to be flirtatious and playful, the song explicitly plays with the “pursuer” and “pursued” dynamic between the two singers, even going so far as to label the parts “Wolf” and “Mouse.”
Frank later sold the song for use in the 1949 romantic comedy, Neptune’s Daughter. In the movie, the song is performed twice by two separate couples. In the first couple, a man plays the “wolf” while a woman plays the “mouse.” With the second couple, however, the roles are reversed by a womanly wolf and a mousy man.
In the last seventy years, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has been covered dozens of times and inspired numerous rewrites and parodies. There’s, of course, the classic Dean Martin cover from 1959. Miss Piggy has given us two separate, very harassment-heavy versions – once in 1978 and again in 2014. And in 2010, Norah Jones and Willie Nelson graciously blessed us with my favorite version.
While the playful melody of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is pretty timeless, the lyrics are less-so. They’re highly specific to the culture in which they were created. This isn’t an inherently negative attribute by any means – heaps of both wonderful and terrible media can be labeled as a “product of their time.” It just means we may need to work a little harder to understand their context, both then and now.
In the 1940s, white-picket America wasn’t quite sure what to do with its women. While traditional values and gender roles were still paid a whole lot of lip service, many a woman could also afford to blow a kiss rebellion’s way every now and again. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a great example of a couple negotiating not only with each other, but with the social rules and appearances of their culture. In Neptune’s Daughter, the gendered nature of this negotiation is played straight with the first couple, and subverted ostensibly for comedic purposes with the second.
However, this negotiation is highly complex and requires all parties to be aware of cultural norms, text, subtext, and uncommunicated desires. Frankly, it’s a bad system. There’s a whole lot of room for error, and the consequences of those errors can be devastating.
As the voices of people who had experienced violations of consent, including sexual assault and rape, became more amplified, the conversation became more explicit. There was clearly a need for more direct language and for better methods of limiting abuses of power. If someone said “no,” it should be heard as a “no” and not a coy invitation. If someone said “yes,” it should be heard as a “yes” and not an admission of moral depravity.
The emphasis on clearing up the language around consent continued in the 1990s with the “No means No” slogan. This was followed closely by the “yes means yes” slogan, which was attached to the existing model of affirmative consent. Affirmative consent requires a yes from all parties instead of just the absence of a no.
Over the last ten years, the lyrics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” have been held up against these new models of consent. While the song was clearly written with the assumption of consent, the language we now have helps to draw attention to the potential and real harms of relying on such an assumption in daily life.
The innocently crafted banter can quickly become sinister, especially if it echoes someone’s personal experiences. In time where a proper lady must toy with the rules and feign disinterest in her lover, “I simply must go, the answer is no” can be a half-hearted excuse made for propriety’s sake. But for many people who have been in a situation where their no was sincere and ignored, that same lyric can be a harsh reminder of a terrifying encounter with a “wolf.”
Several rewrites have been attempted to improve the consent in the song, including one by Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski and another by John Legend and Kelly Clarkson. They’re okay. While they don’t maintain the same playful seductiveness of the original, neither song takes itself too seriously and the results are quite silly and sweet. The most successful modern update, arguably, was delivered in 2010 by the characters of Kurt and Blaine on Glee. Using the original lyrics, this cover manages to maintain the song’s adorable chemistry while using a simple framing device to ditch any unsavory implications.
While we’ve clearly experienced a significant shift in our language around consent, the assumptions baked into “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” continue to survive and do harm. As recently as 2014, a fraternity was punished for displaying a homemade sign with the slogan, “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal.”
The annual arguments about this song may seem ridiculous. Many are ridiculous. However, there is still a very real need for continued, nuanced, and public conversations about consent. These conversations are often very difficult and very, very important. So if “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the horse that conversation needs to ride in on each December, I’m more than fine with that.