In a tiresome-but-understandable tradition, made more relevant by the power of the #MeToo hashtag that brought down senators and Hollywood moguls, we must once again reconsider the problematic nature of a perennial Christmas music favorite: the 1944 track, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” considered by more than a few feminist writers to be an affront to feminism and a ballad in support of date rape.

On one hand, they’re not entirely wrong. Aspects of the song are undeniably rapey – if not by 1944 standards, by 2017 standards. “Say what’s in this drink?” could be a nod to a drugged drink, or simply an overly strong one, designed to get a woman especially drunk. Drugging or spiking drinks isn’t particularly smart or socially acceptable these days – but listeners versed in the rhetoric of the 1940s should know that “Say what’s in this drink” is not a line about roofies, but a winking, archaic expression implying the strength of the booze is why the speaker is doing ... whatever it is they’re doing.

Then, the rebuttal, “No cabs to be had out there,” makes it sound like the female protagonist is trapped. And later on, “What’s the sense in hurtin’ my pride?” sounds like the woman owes the man sex, simply because of his ego, or because “hurtin’ [his] pride” would be too high a price to pay.

The duet undoubtedly contains some rusty gender relations – no wonder it’s drawn the ire of so many writers in the past decade. Except in cases where the singers reverse the parts, thereby easing most associations with rape, there are some lines that give modern ears pause.

“The answer is no,” for example. If the female protagonist is clearly withdrawing consent, that should be respected. But still, it’s worth considering: To what degree is “Baby” more a reflection on female sexual repression of the 1940s and beyond? Perhaps the song is more of a coy call-and-response reflection on how, in that day and age, women couldn’t really give an enthusiastic “yes” to sex and still be considered upstanding members of society. There was no way to be a good girl, one worth dating and marrying, and also a sexually empowered girl.

It’s a good thing that the dynamic in “Baby, It's Cold Outside” is out of style. Women, in theory, are now free to speak their minds, and clearer consent (coupled with less playing-coy) will help people of all genders understand whether sex is mutually desired. And in the future, “the answer is no” will probably not be a cutesy line in Christmas songs. Browbeating someone into staying the night is something to frown upon as a society – and the rise of #MeToo, has shown us that men applying pressure to women to have sex is not a winning strategy.

But the song is more interesting the more we overthink it. There’s a whole smorgasbord of mid-century sexual push-and-pull in this song, and it’s fascinating and charming, even if we’ve moved past that in our modern culture.

The best interpretation is that the woman wants to stay, but the neighbors and “vicious” aunt she mentions will gossip, and the parents who will be concerned – and although her man is smitten, she can’t come off too forward. The repeated “I ought to say no, no, no” is key here. She is supposed to do one thing, but she’s finding another thing very appealing.

In this sense, it’s far more erotic than rapey, as she realizes what other people want and what she wants are not fully aligned. In fact, maybe the song itself is subtly calling attention to the problems with a patriarchal society where female sexual agency is undervalued to the point that a woman can’t simply admit that she, too, wants to spend the night with her suitor.

Like most good art, there’s room for interpretation here. A little creeped out? Fine. There are countless versions from which to choose. The song’s composer, Frank Loesser, used to sing it with his wife at parties before including it in a musical he was writing – a squarely charming origin story.

Permanently-drunk-sounding Dean Martin’s 1959 version, with a chorus of chirpy women, is probably the most common, and it’s got the same “problematic” lyrics, but Deano just can’t sound menacing. In She and Him’s version, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have switched the genders in the song, creating what feels like a less loaded version of a seduction. On a 2013 Muppets special, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and singer Lady Gaga also swapped the male and female verses, and managed to be both sexy and old-timey, while still conveniently allowing us all to unclench any 21st-century pearls.

There are misfires, too. “Frozen” belter Idina Menzel and crooner Michael Buble’s version is adequate, but putting two tweens in the forefront of the video feels like creepy overcompensation for the song’s mixed reputation. Then, in 2016, there was Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski’s more progressive rendition that aggressively beat the idea of consent into the listener’s brain with lyrics like “I really can’t stay/Baby I’m fine with that,” and “What’s in this drink?/Pomegranate La Croix.” But consent-oriented lyrics do not a good song make, even if the sentiment is admirable.

Maybe in our hurry to update the carol, we’re forgetting the original context: It wasn’t intended to be as rapey as it sounds now, and it might have been addressing female sexual desire in a head-on way.

As with all art, the song can be updated and interpreted, and maybe another rendition will become more popular with time. But perhaps we should try to understand the song before we condemn it, and celebrate that women are now largely free to have their own sexual preferences and desires – ones they used to have to hide back in the 1940s.

Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is managing editor at Young Voices. Lucy Steigerwald (@LucyStag) is a journalist and an editor for Young Voices.

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