Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Play-By-Play

It’s the winter holiday season, and time for the annual round of internet comedians snarking about that old song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” There’s usually an equal contingent of self-described “anti-PC” zealots defending the song, but it seems to me that both sides rather miss the point, preferring to parse individual words and phrases without looking at the whole thing in context. So here’s some context.

First, let’s be clear: I’m not defending the song, not that it needs defending. The perception that it’s creepy and rapey is the inevitable consequence of it having outlived its time period. It’s a victim of presentism, the fallacy of looking at the past by the standards of the present. The simple fact is, this song is obsolete; it couldn’t be any more dated if it were about button shoes, bustles and hoop skirts, and there is really no way to rewrite it or update it in a way that works in today’s society. The rules of etiquette for dating are simply too different now. It’s a museum piece and should quietly drop off the Christmas playlist. The big problem with “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is that today’s audience doesn’t know either the language or the societal rules of the era when the song was written. Things that were understood to be playful then sometimes sound threatening now. All attempts to fix the song have come off as heavy-handed “message” performances or awkward and obvious work-arounds, the most popular of which is the gender-flip, as originally done by Miss Piggy and Rudolf Nureyev back in the 1970s.

Last year, Jimmy Fallon and Cecily Strong did a fun “what happens next” version of the song:

Up until about 1970, America clung to a lot of Victorian morality (with occasional relaxation during the “Roaring ’20s” and at the dawn of the rock & roll era of the ’50s); it wasn’t until the invention of the birth control pill, combined with the Women’s Liberation movement and the effects of larger societal progress, that the major rules began to change, but up until then, there were certain things that “good girls” simply did not do, and that a gentleman would never admit to. When Frank Loesser wrote this song in 1944, he was playing on those rigidly enforced rules of etiquette; he and his wife Lynn Garland performed it often at Hollywood parties to great approval.

victorian loveseat - Atomic Junk Shop
This is a loveseat. Really. The Victorians raised “blocking” to an art.

Consider the ABC sitcom, That Girl. It ran from 1966 to 1970, and was concerned with the adventures of a single woman (Marlo Thomas) living in New York City, trying to make it as an actress and breaking free of her overly concerned and controlling parents. Practically every episode involved Dad trying to interfere with Ann and her boyfriend Donald’s romance, usually by imposing etiquette and societal expectations as to what was appropriate or inappropriate for an unmarried woman. One episode revolved around Dad finally allowing his grown-up daughter to wear dangly earrings, something that “good girls” didn’t do, at least among his generation. This was a grown woman in her 20s, living on her own, but still having her life, fashions and relationships controlled and dictated by her parents. It was an oppressive time. The anthology sitcom Love, American Style got a lot of mileage out of the rapidly changing social mores of the time, portrayed as broad farce, but most especially focusing on this truism: People were really REALLY worried about what the neighbors might think.

In modern times, there’s a commonly-repeated “rule” that the third date is when sex becomes part of the relationship, but that’s a recent notion; prior to the ’50s, proper etiquette would have required a much longer dating period, and depending on the woman’s age, possibly a requirement that those early dates be chaperoned, either by a parent (the young man would “come courting” and visit the girl at her home, with the family able to walk in on them at any time) or by a friend or sibling (in the form of a double date); girls were taught from birth that a single woman simply did not go into a man’s home alone unless she fully intended to be there for exactly the reason that everyone assumed. On the other hand, a man was never supposed to directly state what he wanted; he was supposed to tiptoe around it, asking her to come up “for a nightcap,” “to see his etchings” or some similar innocent-sounding suggestion, much the way the kids today say “Netflix & Chill” to mean a booty call.

I would argue that what we’re seeing in this song is not a date-rape or even a seduction; it’s a kind of contest, sparring or dueling, to determine whether the man is worthy of the gift that the woman is thinking she might bestow upon him. This is a couple that have been dating for a while, possibly even months, and are starting to get serious. She’s made up her mind that tonight is the night, but because she’s a “good girl,” she wants to make sure he’s the one; they will escalate their relationship tonight if he gives the right answers to her objections.

Swordfight - 'The Great Race' - Atomic Junk Shop
The ongoing duel.

Perhaps the best way to show what’s going on here is to provide color commentary the way a sportscaster would do it. It’s sort of like a game show…

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to our show; today’s contestant is Frank, a songwriter from Los Angeles. Welcome, Frank. You’ll be playing opposite Lynn. You know how our game works: Lynn will stay until you screw it up by saying the wrong thing and offending her. She can slap you in the face and storm out the door at any time for any reason at the slightest offense. If you make it to the end and she’s still here, you win. Are you ready? Let’s go:

LYNN: I really can’t stay
FRANK: But baby, it’s cold outside

ANNOUNCER: A solid opening from Lynn, but Frank offers a good deflection. He doesn’t contradict her or argue whether she really has to leave, he simply points to the weather as a reason to stay. He’s being the voice of reason and concern. Smart move.

LYNN: I’ve got to go away
FRANK: But baby, it’s cold outside

ANNOUNCER: Frank is sticking to what works, playing it safe. We’ll see how well that strategy works…

LYNN: This evening has been
FRANK: Been hoping that you’d drop in
LYNN: So very nice
FRANK: I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice

ANNOUNCER: Lynn is giving mild approval so far, and Frank’s shifted to a new tactic, combining compliments with expressions of concern for her. He might have a shot.

LYNN: My mother will start to worry
FRANK: Beautiful, what’s your hurry?

ANNOUNCER: Another good deflection from Frank! If he had criticized her mother or told her to defy her parents, the game would most likely be all over.

LYNN: My father will be pacing the floor
FRANK: Listen to the fireplace roar

ANNOUNCER: Frank is on his game tonight! He avoids challenging the parents or belittling Lynn for caring what they think, instead he redirects to the warmth and comfort of his home.

LYNN: So really I’d better scurry
FRANK: Beautiful, please don’t hurry

ANNOUNCER: Lynn’s testing his patience now, since the parent gambit didn’t rattle him; she’s retreated to her starting position. If he gets exasperated or pushy, she’s gone. Frank’s proceeding cautiously.

LYNN: But maybe just a half a drink more
FRANK: Put some records on while I pour

ANNOUNCER: Frank has made it through Round One! Good job!

LYNN: The neighbors might think…
FRANK: Baby, it’s bad out there

ANNOUNCER: Lynn’s trying the broader societal pressure gambit, so Frank goes back to playing the weather card.

LYNN: Say what’s in this drink?
FRANK: No cabs to be had out there

ANNOUNCER: This is a clear win for Frank; Lynn is setting up the old “God Was I Drunk Last Night, I Have No Idea What I Did” defense. Plausible deniability!

LYNN: I wish I knew how…
FRANK: Your eyes are like starlight now
LYNN: …to break this spell
FRANK: I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell

ANNOUNCER: Frank’s turning on the romance now, and she’s going for it.

LYNN: I ought to say, no, no, no sir
FRANK: Mind if I move in closer?

ANNOUNCER: She ought to say it, but she isn’t. Frank’s gaining ground fast here.

LYNN: At least I’m gonna say that I tried

ANNOUNCER: That’s a pretty clear admission that she’s letting him win.

FRANK: What’s the sense in hurtin’ my pride?

ANNOUNCER: Ooh, that might be a misstep for Frank; putting his ego into it could cost him. Let’s see if she calls him on it….

LYNN: I really can’t stay

ANNOUNCER: And there it is! She moves back to square 1. Frank has lost a lot of ground there. Tough break.

FRANK: Oh baby don’t hold out

ANNOUNCER: Frank’s not even offering excuses now. Risky move, but sometimes begging works…

BOTH: But baby, it’s cold outside

ANNOUNCER: And it does! Frank makes it through Round Two!

LYNN: I simply must go

ANNOUNCER: But she’s not going to make it easy on him…

FRANK: But baby, it’s cold outside

ANNOUNCER: He’s back to playing it safe, using the one pitch that’s been his go-to all along.

LYNN: The answer is no

ANNOUNCER: Lynn’s trying to play tough, but Frank hasn’t asked a question yet, so it’s not clear what she’s saying no to. She hasn’t moved toward the door yet. 

FRANK: But baby, it’s cold outside

ANNOUNCER: Frank really needs to get back in the game here. He’s depending too much on the weather doing it for him.

LYNN: Your welcome has been…
FRANK: How lucky that you dropped in
LYNN: …So nice and warm
FRANK: Look out the window at that storm

ANNOUNCER: But surprisingly, it’s working. Lynn is still engaging, still seems to like his moves. The nonchalant reference to being lucky that she dropped in reduces tensions nicely, allowing them to pretend that this is a spontaneous casual meeting and not something they planned and scheduled and prepared for. And now Frank’s ramping up the weather gambit.

LYNN: My sister will be suspicious

ANNOUNCER: Lynn goes back to the family disapproval thing.

FRANK: Gosh your lips look delicious

ANNOUNCER: And Frank counters with romantic compliments.

LYNN: My brother will be there at the door

ANNOUNCER: Bit of a veiled threat there; Lynn is implying that her brother will happily punch Frank’s lights out if this game goes south.

FRANK: Waves upon the tropical shore

ANNOUNCER: Frank keeps his ego out of it, doesn’t take the bait. He’s not going to acknowledge the brother. He switches it up, plays on a different romantic fantasy. Smart move.

LYNN: My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious

ANNOUNCER: She’s running out of ammo in the societal disapproval department; her maiden aunt is suspicious of everyone. But again, if Frank takes a cheap shot, it could be over.

FRANK: Gosh your lips are delicious

ANNOUNCER: Bold move on Frank’s part; he actually kissed her, defying on the maiden aunt play. Let’s see how it goes….

LYNN: But maybe just a cigarette more
FRANK: Never such a blizzard before

ANNOUNCER: She’s staying! Frank is through Round Three!

LYNN: I’ve gotta get home
FRANK: But baby, you’d freeze out there
LYNN: Say lend me a comb
FRANK: It’s up to your knees out there

ANNOUNCER: He’s making the weather bit work for him. Sometimes the simplest plays are the best. She wants a comb to straighten herself up after the make-out session.

LYNN: You’ve really been grand
FRANK: I thrill when you touch my hand

ANNOUNCER: Smooth move, Frank! Innocent, romantic, poetic, he’s on a roll.

LYNN: But don’t you see?
FRANK: How can you do this thing to me?

ANNOUNCER: He’s bringing his ego in again? That hasn’t worked yet.

LYNN: There’s bound to be talk tomorrow
FRANK: Think of my lifelong sorrow…

ANNOUNCER: And he’s cranking up the ego even more. He could blow this.

LYNN: At least there will be plenty implied
FRANK: If you got pneumonia and died

ANNOUNCER: Boom! He turns it around, takes it right back around to worrying about her.

LYNN: I really can’t stay
FRANK: Get over that hold out

ANNOUNCER: Lynn reverts to her first position again, but this time Frank holds his position and challenges her to close the deal.

LYNN: Baby, it’s cold
BOTH: Baby, it’s cold outside

ANNOUNCER: GOOOOAAAAL!!! He did it! It was a tough game, Lynn threw him some surprise moves, had him off-balance a couple of times, but Frank avoided a lot of mistakes. And that’s our show. Good night, everybody!


  1. M-Wolverine

    Actually, I think the SNL video helps illustrate that those social mores aren’t all that out of date. Yeah, you might not have to go through all those games to just get laid. There are lists of Netflix and chill hookups. But it shows that even young people often aren’t going to take the Tinder level relationships as something serious, and if you want to consider a relationship as something potentially serious, the game is still on. Because if you’re just giving it away you’re going to end up with a lot of the reaction/results you get with the Fallon character.

    What is different is that is fine if she wants to get out of there as fast as he does. But if you’re going to be like the Strong character, maybe not so much.

  2. frasersherman

    I remember a book on romance films that argued they can date faster than most genres, simply because our standards shift: we might be amused by antiquated “cutting edge” technology, but antiquated mores is tougher.
    Of course that can affect even contemporary films. Kevin Sorbo’s What If? (a blatant knockoff of Nicolas Cage’s Family Man) has a seen near the end where Sorbo (having finally embraced his alt.life as a happily married minister and father) tells his teenage daughter that he’s talked to the boy she’s interested in and arranged for them to go out that night, chaperoned by her mother. Though it’s totally not a date! This reflects the purity-culture belief that a)dating is bad; b)the father should stage-manage the relationship so that he can make sure the relationship is Right. But as someone outside that culture, all I can think was that it seemed horribly, horribly wrong.

  3. Alaric

    “Up until about 1970, America clung to a lot of Victorian morality (with occasional relaxation during the “Roaring ’20s” and at the dawn of the rock & roll era of the ’50s); ”

    I’d argue that even throughout the ’70s and ’80s there was a strong element of “look at how bad we’re being!” or “look how loose we are!” or “look how daring we are!” in a lot of aspects of American culture, which indicated that much of the cultural loosening was done as a self-conscious reaction to a still-present strain of Victorian morality.

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