Tis the season when a blizzard of holiday and wintery-themed songs hits the radio waves. And yet, in recent years
, one classic in particular has become controversial over the last decade
A year after radio stations banned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” because of it’s been seen, in the #MeToo era, as being about a man pressuring a woman not to go home and stay with him, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson released a modern version. When the female singer sings “I really can’t stay / I’ve got to away (But baby, it’s cold outside) [x2] Legend sings, “But, I can call you a ride)My momma will start to worry (I’ll call the car and tell him to hurry). The line “I ought to say “No, no, no sir” (Mind if I move in closer?)” is replaced with “I ought to say, “No, no, no, sir” (Then you really ought to go, go, go).” Instead of “Say what’s in this drink (No cabs to be had out there)”, Clarkson sings “What will my friends think? If I have one more drink?” and Legend says, “(It’s your body and your choice).”
The song took off when Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams performed it in the 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter. The two actors sitting on the couch, and when Williams sings “I really can’t stay” tries to stand up, Montalban tugs at her arm and sits her back down on the couch.
Gene Lester—Getty Images Frank Loesser, composer and lyricist who wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” became a “bouncy new jukebox favorite,” and even back then people thought it was risqué. As TIME reported in the June 27, 1949, issue: “It was all about a girl who kept protesting that she had to go home and a boy who kept insisting that she stay. Queasy NBC first banned the lyrics as too racy, then decided they contained nothing provably prurient, and put the tune on the air. Baby hit the hit parade and began climbing.” (TIME described the songwriter Frank Loesser created what today would be considered viral gold in 1947 with “Bloop Bleep,” an onomatopoeic song in which he impersonates a leaky faucet.)
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” won the Academy Award for best song in 1950, and it became one of the hottest songs of the holiday season in the next years. Artists who covered the song include Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ray Charles, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler and James Caan, Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart, and even Miss Piggy sings it on The Muppet Show. TIME named it one of the 100 most popular songs of all time.
It’s not that women didn’t have pre-marital sex, but if they got caught, there would be serious consequences if they didn’t “hold out,” as they said in the 1940s.
“It was a weird contradictory time, just a lot of hypocrisy,” says Rachel Devlin, author of Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture and a professor of History at Rutgers University. “Men were expected to push, and women were expected to make sure men didn’t cross the line, which was entirely up to the women because if line was crossed, and they did have sex, she was ruined. The song is an important historical document because it does represent these constant negotiations. It’s describing an everyday encounter.”
If people found out a woman had had pre-marital sex — and got pregnant — her personal reputation and her family’s reputation would be on the line. These women were considered damaged goods, unfit for marriage. Women who got pregnant were kicked out of their homes and out of college; pregnant high schoolers were sent to homes for unwed mothers, forced to give their babies up for adoption, and undergo a rehabilitation program before they could go back to school, according to Devlin.
Or these women could be arrested and imprisoned. Scott W. Stern’s book The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women is about the “American Plan,” in which the federal government rounded up tens of thousands women suspected of being promiscuous in concentration camps for national security purposes to safeguard the troops from sexually-transmitted diseases during the first half of the 20th century, and especially during World War II. At a time when women were starting to pursue higher education, mass imprisonment was a way to control them — a situation TIME likened to book-turned-hit-TV-show The Handmaid’s Tale. But most of the women targeted were minorities and working class. These female prisoners did not remain silent; they resisted.
Many women did get married at younger ages and dropped out of college to do so or got married to the first person they had sex.
There was some permissiveness during World War II. “People behaved in war in ways they wouldn’t behave in peace time,” says Beth Bailey, author of From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in 20th Century America and the Director of the Center for Military, War, and Society Studies at the University of Kansas Couples had sex because “they thought they might never see each other again.” Post-war, there was such a big emphasis on getting veterans married, so women got married at younger ages, and even dropped out of college to do so. Many got the first person they had sex with because it was considered the right thing to do.
Experts on mid-20th century sexual norms say society’s expectations for female behavior on a date can be seen in the parts of the song in which the woman sings “I ought to say “No, no, no sir / At least I’m going to say that I tried” and rattles off all the members of her family and extended family who will “worry” or be “suspicious” and the neighbors who would “talk.”
“That song comes from an era when women were just expected to say no, no matter what they wanted,” says Bailey. “The culture refused to acknowledge women’s right to say yes or no, not being able to say yes is as much as a problem as having to say no.”
Whether the woman in the song is seen as wanting to stay depends on the time in history in which you are listening to it. When the song came out, Bailey argues, “It portrayed a woman who wanted to stay, but was faced with public insistence that she couldn’t do that or she would face public censure. The way we hear it today, no means no, and he ought to back off.”
Social science research also showed the contradictory views on women’s sexual behavior. According to Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (aka the “Kinsey Report”), about one of the best-selling books in America in 1948, about half of men said they wanted to marry a virgin, and more than 60 percent of college-educated men said they disapproved of premarital sex, and about 80 percent of college-educated women said they had moral objections to it, and yet, about half of women and more than half of men said they had had pre-marital sex. “Not since Gone With the Wind had booksellers seen anything like it,” TIME reported back then on the book’s popularity, which noted that even Wellesley College students could not purchase the book at the college bookstore without a permission letter from a professor (so they didn’t).
There were laws on the age of consent, which protected children, but the idea of consent in terms of protecting women from rape or harassment and sexual misconduct on a date wasn’t in public consciousness or in the law when “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” came out in the mid-1940sTHIS SECTION MAY UPDATE AFTER TALKING TO HECK ESTELLE FREEDMAN. “The notion that women were sexual decision-makers in their own right was not a popular one,” says Joe Fischel, a professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Yale University and author of Screw Consent: A Better Politics of Sexual Justice.
“If woman is already alone with the man and potentially flirting, that could be considered consent [back then],” says Devlin. “If a women tried to bring this into court, the court would say, ‘What were you doing alone with him?’ They would blame her. There was no way for women to win. The redefinition of consent during the second wave of feminism includes people that you might have said ‘I have to go’ to.” Most marital rape laws started to appear after the 1970s, meaning until then, husbands could not be charged with rape, and “date rape” becomes a better known concept in the 1980s.
Scholars told TIME that the song is clearly about white people because white men took advantage of women of color without hesitation, and they ex. “Interracial rape was a ubiquitous form of terrorism in the South,” says Devlin. “Sexual harassment of black women was even worse than sexual harassment of white women. On the streets of southern cities in rural ares, white men felt entitled to black women’s bodies.’
In fact, the year “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written in 1944, the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to help a 24-year-old Alabama sharecropper, wife, mother Recy Taylor speak out about being gang-raped by six white men on her way home from church. While two grand juries didn’t indict the men, the case and protests against the rape of black women helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement that became even more famous after Parks’ Montgomery Bus Boycott a decade later. Rumors about an African-American man raping a white woman sparked about half of race riots between Reconstruction and World War II, according to historian Danielle McGuire.
The magazine’s 1949 article on the song’s popularity noted that the song, written in 1944 by Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls) was originally a schtick that the songwriter performed with his wife at parties. But to people who don’t know that the song was inspired by a married couple, the song comes off as being about singles.
The public attention hasn’t hurt sales of the song, however. In fact, it helped it. Last year, by mid-December, Dean Martin’s 1959 cover became the second best-selling song by mid-December.
And the new version that was supposed to take out the controversial elements has also become controversial among people who think the song is harmless fun. On The Talk, Sharon Osbourne said it’s “ridiculous” and “not right” to change “an innocent lyric” and record a new version, which she said is akin to trying to covering up nudes in classic works of art. In response, Clarkson said they just wanted to give people thought the original was uncomfortable “another option.” Legend pointed out that people remake songs all the time and that, “If you don’t wanna listen to it, you don’t have to.”