Why this "Baby, It's Cold Outside" update works, where others have failed

Depending on who you ask, this duet is either romantic or problematic. A Netflix rom-com reclaims its playfulness

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published November 15, 2021 8:49PM (EST)

Nina Dobrev and Jimmy O. Yang caroling in "Love Hard" (Bettina Strauss/Netflix)
Nina Dobrev and Jimmy O. Yang caroling in "Love Hard" (Bettina Strauss/Netflix)

I am not here to debate "Baby, It's Cold Outside." 

Just like the arrival of pumpkin spice in everything, arguing whether the classic tune should really be considered "a date-rape anthem" or not has become something of an annual holiday tradition. But I'm having none of it. 

Instead, I fully acknowledge that this delightful song, a favorite of mine since childhood, can also be disturbing in the right context. Yes, I've heard about its origins as a cheeky husband-and-wife duet sung at parties and its nuanced feminist intent for the 1940s. But this is 70-odd years later, and how we speak about power dynamics, manipulation and sexual coercion does actually matter. Both interpretations can be true.

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The conversation – and the zillion covers of the song – is far too nuanced to be boiled down into one verdict. Instead, I want to examine what allows some remakes to capture the intended spirit of the original and what makes others fall into creepy territory. 

And in doing so, I'll prove that the latest update of the song in Netflix's new holiday rom-com "Love Hard" is the best reimagining so far.

Expression and interpretation, not just intent

Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán in "Neptune's Daughter" (1949) (FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

I've been attempting to parse my mixed feelings about this song for a while, but it wasn't until I recalled the original way I saw the song performed that it gelled for me why some versions are more successful than others. And it was all right there from the beginning. 

Composer Frank Loesser's song made its onscreen debut in MGM's 1949 confection "Neptune's Daughter," which I caught on cable as a child. I was fascinated partly because of the pairing of Esther Williams – a swimmer who somehow became a marquee movie star – and a young Ricardo Montalbán, whom I only previously knew as Mr. Roarke from "Fantasy Island." 

But watching the two perform "Baby, It's Cold Outside" was also mesmerizing. Melodically the back-and-forth is dynamic and playful, and the intricately timed choreography reinforces this as an exciting courtship dance. The lyrics "I really can't stay," didn't register with me that much because the performances – Williams calm and clever; Montalbán elegant and cheerful – feel balanced and, yes, consensual. At no point did I ever feel that the characters are at cross purposes. They are absolutely flirting.

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This for me is the key to the best covers of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," where both parties feel like equals entering into the duet. And a big part of that is context, which is why for me, the more multidimensional playacting performances trump the mere musical performances. (Although a master like Ella Fitzgerald can convey volumes vocally, which is why her duet with Louis Jordan is the gold standard.)

You see this in a 1986 performance of the song on "Saturday Night Live" between Sigourney Weaver and Buster Poindexter, in which she is draped over him for most of the song – her actions revealing her interest in him and reluctance to leave. The cover by Chris Colfer and Darren Criss for a "Glee" Christmas episode is also a sweet tribute, with both parties unable to keep their eyes off each other at the beginning of their burgeoning romance.

"Neptune's Daughter," however, also features a second performance of the song, one that horrified me. Red Skelton and Betty Garrett enter into a gender-flipped version of the song in which she plays the aggressor. Because of the duo's fantastic slapstick skills (and perhaps owing to the subversive-for-the-time nature of the flipped narrative) her character is hands-on pushy to the point it made me anxious while watching it. 

I was reminded of my intense and longstanding distaste for Pepe Le Pew, that amorous, manhandling Looney Tunes skunk that has no regard for the cat he pursued. Skelton is literally trying to wriggle out of Garrett's grasp. He even escapes her clutches, making it outside her quarters at one point until he realizes he's wearing her coat not his. It was clear to me watching this that he wants to leave. When she switches off the lamp at the end of the song, presumably having her way with him, it feels foreboding. 

Yes, the two later continue to date and even become engaged, but that makes their initial hookup even more troubling, as if to perpetuate the idea that courtships are about "yes disguised as no." And this discomfort is not even taking into account how Skelton's character is there under false pretenses, putting on an atrocious Spanish accent after a case of mistaken identity. So yeah, I hated it. 

You can take your pick when it comes to creepy covers of "Baby It's Cold Outside" that reveal an unbalanced power dynamic. There's the Willie Nelson version where he croons to Norah Jones, who's 46 years his junior. Or a mother-son duet (horrors!). Or the Selma Blair-Rainn Wilson one that allows her to be the aggressor, but concludes with them breaking the fourth wall and staring into the cameras (and our souls) for a GAP ad. 

And at the risk of angering the "Elf" fans, the duet between Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell is the ultimate in nonconsensual. She's naked and singing to herself in the shower, while he lurks outside before surprising her by finishing the duet. I don't care if he knows Santa. That should land him on the naughty list.

Consensual lyrics aren't enough

Love HardNina Dobrev, Harry Shum, Jr. and Jimmy O. Yang in "Love Hard" (Bettina Strauss/Netflix)

Because of the rise of Me Too, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" has had its reckoning of late, with a couple artists offering up new versions with "consensual" lyrics. While these do not come off as creepy per se, they haven't made much of an impact either because they miss the mark of the original.

In 2016, musicians Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski offered up their version that emphasizes consent. Their acoustic song is gorgeously rendered, but lacks an engaging story. She really can't stay  . . . and he's cool with that. Repeat. Similarly, higher wattage doesn't help when John Legend and Kelly Clarkson released Consent Version 2.0 three years later. Jazzier and with more production, it feels slick and similarly uninspired.

But these lyrics "fixed" the consent issue, so what more do the libs want? 

How about some narrative tension? Why in the world are we listening to two people agreeing that one person should vacate the premises? Even if she's reluctant because of her romantic feelings, neither version seems to indicate this lyrically. Also, incredibly stilted lines like, "You reserve the right to say no," or "It's your body and your choice," don't help the mood either. No one talks like that in real life, and it's counterintuitive to the chemistry built by the banter in the original song.

Legend's version also includes him calling a rideshare for Clarkson, and the driver's name is Murray. We know this because his name is repeated twice, which makes it seem that Legend is far more excited to see Murray than to stay with Clarkson.

All this brings us to the latest consensual version of the song heard in "Love Hard." 

"That is like the sexual assault theme song!" Nina Dobrev's character Natalie declares, as Jimmy O. Yang's Josh convinces her to sing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with him during his family's caroling outing. 

"This is what we're gonna do, OK?" he says. "You just do your part. I will change my lyrics so the song doesn't sound so, uh, rape-y."

This setup alone already provides the necessary tension that has been missing in the previous two attempts. While the beginning sounds familiar, with Josh agreeing to her departure and offering to call her a car, the underlying subtext that we see onscreen is that he's making the song safe and fun for her. She is charmed and surprised by his ingenuity and kindness, and what transpires is a duet that doubles as courtship. 

Since this is a rom-com based on a ridiculous premise – Josh catfishes Natalie on a dating app, and therefore must win her back as a friend before wooing her – the song itself skews towards lighthearted and funny. A sample of the updated lyrics:

Natalie: The neighbors might think –
Josh: It's just my old friend Troy
Natalie: Say, what's in this drink?
Josh: It's just lemon La Croix

Josh also performs the song with a warmth and humor, finally pointing out in the lyrics Natalie's apparent reluctance to leave. At one point he even cheekily sings, "I feel like you're not trying [to leave] at all." 

The reimagined song, named "Maybe Just Go Outside," also functions to fulfill an essential element of the "fake dating" rom-com trope – that in the course of two people pretending to be a couple (in this case, to impress Josh's family), the two fall for each other through displays of empathy and excellence. In fact, it provides one of the best examples of the couple's chemistry in the film and allows Josh to prove himself through song.

In this way, this updated song in "Love Hard" continues the tradition that was started in "Neptune's Daughter," playing out a relationship with all the contextual clues, between two friends who come to an understanding over the course of singing together. 

While "Maybe Just Go Outside" is in no way amorous – and doesn't lead to any immediate romantic overtures – it does what these other consensual versions could not. It actually focuses on the uncertain singer in a way that goes beyond lyrics. It puts her comfort and safety first, while also making her laugh. And isn't that what we all want in a partner these days?

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective.

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Baby It's Cold Outside Commentary Elf Glee Love Hard Movies Music Neptune's Daughter Netflix