Culture  /  Explainer

‘Baby, It's Cold Outside' Was Controversial From the Beginning

Here’s what to know about consent in the 1940s, when the song was written.

Susan Loesser, daughter of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” composer Frank Loesser, came to the song’s defense last year, arguing that it needs to be understood within “the context of the time” when it was written in 1944. Back then, she said, the lyric “What’s in this drink?” would refer to the alcoholic content, not the thought of being drugged. In fact, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” started out as a shtick that the songwriter Frank Loesser performed with his wife at parties.

The story behind the song never been a secret — the factoid made it into to TIME’s 1949 article on the song’s popularity — but most people first encountered it when Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams performed it in the 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter. In the scene, the two actors are sitting on the couch, and when Williams tries to stand up, Montalban pulls her back down by tugging her arm.

“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 from Louis Armstrong to Miss Piggy covered it, and TIME named it one of the 100 best songs of all time. But even when “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” first became a hit, some people thought was risqué.

As TIME reported in the June 27, 1949, issue: “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.”

In that debate, experts on mid-20th century sexual norms say, lies a lesson about how consent and dating culture in America has evolved.