I’ve been carefully building a Christmas playlist for over a decade, adding one track a year. There are now eighteen songs on the list.

  1. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love
  2. “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley
  3. “The Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues
  4. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland
  5. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives
  6. “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
  7. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” By Dean Martin
  8. “Christmas Time is Here (Instrumental)” by Vince Guaraldi Trio
  9. “The Christmas Song” by Nat “King” Cole
  10. “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon
  11. “I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard
  12. “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Elvis Presley
  13. “What Christmas Means to Me” by Stevie Wonder
  14. “All I Want For Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey
  15. “What a Wonderful World” by Joey Ramone
  16. “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” by David Bowie & Bing Crosby
  17. “Father Christmas” by The Kinks
  18. “Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade

This year’s addition is “A Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives. Every year I have a little internal battle when choosing the new song. There are so many wonderful classic tunes. Pick Burl Ives or something new or alternative or a punk cover of something? Does adding too many “obvious” picks dilute the charm of my list? Does it make it “just another Christmas playlist?” Eh. I like Burl Ives.

Update: after a good deal of thinking, I've decided to remove "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and replace it with modern classic, "All I Want For Christmas is You." I've reordered a few songs on the list and I think that the new addition flows nicely from Stevie Wonder.

While I very much like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I’m persuaded that the song is troubling enough that it’s time for it to fall out of my rotation. I’d like to take a moment to first defend the song, then explain why it’s nonetheless problematic even if I’ve convinced you I’m right about the “plot” of the song and its intended meaning.

The song, as described in this piece on Snopes, was written by Frank Loesser, who “wrote the song for himself and his wife Lynn to perform at dinner parties.” The context of the piece would likely be clear to people watching the performance: it’s a story about a man trying to get a women to sleep with him while she wrestles with her own desires versus the expectations put upon her by society.

The plot: a women is visiting a man at his house when a snowstorm begins. She repeatedly tells him that she should be leaving while he repeatedly tries to get her to stay, arguing that it’s too cold and dangerous for her to go. She points out that proper women aren’t allowed to stay over at men’s houses, and that if she does the whole town will think she the worst of her. All the while the two flirt, drink, and eventually do spend the night together.

The alternate, modern view of the song takes her words literally. (“I really can’t stay” […] “I simply must go / The answer is no.”) She’s told him that she isn’t going to stay and he needs to accept that and let her leave. Further, the line, “say what’s in this drink?” means, it’s said, that either he’s put drugs in her drink or that he’s getting her drunk to lower her inhibitions and, since she’s previously said “no” while sober she has not given consent to sex. I.e., date rape.

I don’t agree with that interpretation of the song. I don’t think it depicts a rape. Rather, I think the central “joke” of the song is problematic for a different reason: it makes a lark out of a woman’s “no”s meaning “yes.”

Walking through the plot of the song, we see the woman, in stages, accepting the idea of staying with the man for the night. She says she should be going. They hold hands and enjoy the fireplace. She asks for another drink. He asks her to put on some records. She takes off her hat. He moves in to sit next to her, close enough to look at her lips. They kiss. She has another cigarette, primps her hair. They touch. Each verse brings increased intimacy until, with her final pairing of his refrain, “baby it’s cold outside,” she’s agreed to stay, and we know how they’ll stay warm inside.

Critics of the song usually cite the line, “say what’s in this drink?” as proof that he’s getting her drunk to take advantage of her, that’s she’s only agreeing because of the alcohol. I actually think the line is way more insidious than that, and highlights exactly what’s messed up about the whole thing. The idea would be that she thinks he’s given her a soft drink but he’s actually served, say, a bourbon and ginger ale to get her drunk without her realizing it, thus lowering her inhibitions. But I think she clearly knows what’s going on. Instead, she’s pretending to act surprised that there’s rum in her Coke to give herself cover. Good girls don’t have sex with men they’re not married to. In order to be able to claim she’s still a good girl, she has to protest his advances and build a case that she was coerced into staying over due to them losing track of the time, her unintentional alcohol consumption, and the severity of the snowstorm. Then she can say she stayed only under protest. All the while the actual joke is the audience knows that she wanted to have sex with him all along, her protests are just an act, and that really everyone knows that the whole “good girl” thing has always been an act. We don’t want our unmarried children to have sex despite remembering whatever we got up when we were that age.

All of which is what makes the song fucked up, just not for the reason most people think. It’s not a song about a guy committing date rape. It’s a song about a woman laying the groundwork to be able to claim, if necessary, that she was raped because that’s the only way her culture will allow her to sleep over at a man’s house. And none of this is considered to be that big of a deal to them — the man is okay with her being able to credibly claim rape the next day because 1) it means he gets to fuck her tonight and 2) he knows that it’s her reputation on the line because society didn’t punish the philandering man, just the woman.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t a song about a rape. It’s a song that uses rape culture as its central joke.

Everything about the song hinges on our understanding that 1) the man wants the woman to sleep over, 2) the woman wants to sleep over but, because of her shame, 3) must first go through the motions of denying him. At best she can convince her family that they had a completely chaste evening and she only stayed there because of the snow; at worst she can claim that, yes, they had sex but only because he got her drunk. Nowhere in the song is there any possibility that she could have sex with him because she wanted to, despite (to my ears) the clear implication that she does. This is the basis of rape culture: since women aren’t allowed to openly admit they want sex, men are supposed to know that it’s okay to press a women for sex if she says “no” as long as it’s actually true the woman is only saying “no” out of propriety, and men are supposed to be able to tell the difference between real denials of consent and play-acted ones.

So why do I still say I like the song? Because in my head all the characters involved are consenting. The woman and the man are in a relationship and they’re coping the best they can, as couples always have, with the realities of the societal pressure they’re under. She goes home in the morning, gets a few dirty looks from her aunt, tells her parents it really was too dangerous to go out, then dishes details with her sister. That is, if you can suspend your distaste for the larger culture that brings about the premise and look only at the context in which the song was written, it’s enjoyable, and, if you can’t, that’s understandable.

Thus, I think the implications of the song are too dark for it to remain on my Christmas list when there are so many other completely wonderful songs waiting to take its place. I painstakingly restored Japoteurs and think it’s a beautiful piece of animation, but I don’t regularly show it to my kids and, when I do, I spend a minute explaining a little about how we were mean to draw the villains that way. I love King Kong but will wait until they’re older to show it to them. It’s a delightful adventure story with neat stop motion work but also a racist and sexist mess. Things can be both good and bad. On Friday my family hiked to Monticello, home to perhaps America’s greatest example of the complexities of humanity, Thomas Jefferson. Life is complicated but all I want for Christmas is a little joy for us all. <3