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“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: To Ban or Not to Ban?

Two FASHION staffers discuss the mixed response to CBC Radio pulling the Christmas hit from its stations this year

The ranks here at FASHION are not filled with men. Shocking, right? But there are one or two (there are actually, literally, two). Naturally, when a question about male/female dynamics arises it’s only fair that one of them stand in for the members of his gender and provide some insight. Our last topic of conversation was about the social media furor over Ruby Rose being cast as lesbian superhero Kate Kane aka Batwoman and today we’re talking about the controversy surrounding cult Christmas hit “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Two of our staffers—from the men’s corner, Greg Hudson, and from the women’s, Pahull Bains—talk it out.

PB: Yesterday, when two of our colleagues began discussing the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” brouhaha I realized I’d never actually listened to the song in full. Growing up in India, it wasn’t something we heard regularly around the holidays (shocker, I know) so I was unaware of its baggage. But I knew I had to give it a listen when I heard it described as “rapey.”

GH: I think we can all agree that one of the most beautiful aspects of cultural exchange is sharing and comparing problematic or offensive pop culture. It warms my heart that we were able to share with you this Ode to Toxic Masculinity: The Holidays Edition.

Before we delve into all the ways that song is icky, I think it’s interesting to note how this issue has been growing each successive Christmas. I remember a few years ago, it felt like calling out “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was a unique observation, albeit one that several hundred people were all having independently. It’s like the Die Hard-as-a-Christmas-Movie debate, which seemed to have hit its peak last year. I think it’s interesting that a song that has been a bit gross for, like 70 years, is just now really entering the popular consciousness.

Hot take: this is all happening this year because of Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings.

But, anyway: yes, the song. Last week, it made news by being removed from some radio stations owned by Canadian broadcasters like CBC and Bell Media because of the mild outrage. Then, this week, because of the backlash to the backlash (there’s always backlash to backlash), CBC has put it back up. Now that you’ve finally heard the song in its entirety, what do you think about it?

PB: Initial verdict: CRINGE. The woman’s voice is completely negated throughout the song/conversation. She’s repeatedly ignored, patronized and dismissed, while the man is clearly the dominating force calling the shots. By depicting such a skewed power dynamic in which a man refuses to take no for an answer, it’s propagating dangerous ideas about consent. That said, I think we’d be remiss not acknowledge the era in which this song was written. In the 1940s a woman’s voice had very little power and women very little agency or independence. They were expected to be coy and demure, and let a man “take charge” and never, ever make the first move. So the song is clearly a reflection of the societal mores of the time, hugely problematic as they were.

On a second listen, though, my strong initial reaction was tempered a bit. If you listen to all of the woman’s objections, they’re largely of the “what will people say” variety: “the neighbours might think,” “I ought to say no, at least I’ll say that I tried,” and “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow.” Again, this is an era in which a single woman drinking alone with a single man was bound to raise all sorts of eyebrows. So most of her reluctance seems to stem from a desire to protect her reputation, rather than, you know, a desire to get away from him. What do you think?

GH: That’s a really good point! And by good, I mean, it’s a new point that I’d never noticed before. See, because I always read her stated objections as the excuses she chose to say in order to be the most persuasive, while still being relatively inoffensive. Like, she can’t just say, “No. I don’t want to make out. I want to go home. Back off, creep.” Because, ha! Who cares what a woman wants. But! If that woman makes it about more than just herself, ie. worried mothers, gossipy neighbours, maybe—just maybe—she’ll convince the dude that she needs to leave, despite the cold.

Actually, I realize it’s kind of like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” That song, despite its adulterous undertones, is about a mom and a dad kissing while the dad is dressed as Santa. It’s never explained in the song because the songwriters assume the listeners will know (spoiler alert) that Santa isn’t real. But as a kid, because Santa was real, the Mommy was just a cheater. It’s all about the assumptions you have going in.

From our modern perspective, we can’t help but hear the woman in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as endangered. We assume she doesn’t want to be there, hence her always wanting to leave. But, the piece, which was written by a real life couple, wasn’t meant to carry that kind of baggage. The songwriters would likely have assumed that listeners would believe that the couple was just being coy. That they both really wanted to stay together but were pretending to have doubts. Granted, that people at the time wouldn’t assume a date rape was happening represents its own problem.

PB: Right. I read a couple of interviews the songwriter’s kids have done in recent years, always around the holidays when, like clockwork, the debate rears its eternal head. “They’re really equal roles. No one is really the aggressor,” Frank Loesser’s son told Vanity Fair in 2016. “It was a flirtatious, wonderful, sexy number between people who like each other. It really wasn’t anything but that.”

That said, when people hear a song on the radio, they don’t immediately rush to Google it and get the whole backstory. Their assumptions and opinions will be based on an intuitive response. And that gut response is naturally shaped by the context of the world we live in. Last week, Loesser’s daughter told NBC News that the song was beloved until “Bill Cosby ruined it for everybody.” Well, lets face it: the world is changing. Why should we have to take off our new, Cosby-coloured glasses in order to enjoy a song?

Which brings me to the inflammatory question fuelling this debate year after year: should the song be banned?

I think it’s important to acknowledge just how much pop culture shapes our society. I mean, a generation of young boys listened to this song, which by all reports, seems to have gone the 1940s-equivalent of viral. (It also won an Oscar!) Which means a generation of boys grew up to be men who believed that getting a ‘yes’ out of a woman was just a matter of pushing long enough to invalidate all her hesitations. Whether or not that’s what the song set out to do is besides the point; if that overwhelmingly seems to be the takeaway then that is the takeaway.

I don’t know if banning it is the answer though because a) honestly, which young kid these days is modelling his behaviour on a classic hit from the ‘40s that he probably only hears once a year? b) there are far more pernicious pieces of pop culture out there that deserve an irate debate more than this one (I’m looking at you, R Kelly) and c) I’m not in favour of blanket bans in general. If there are parents out there with an aversion to the song, change the channel. Don’t play it for your kids on Christmas. TALK to your kids about consent.

But if a radio station doesn’t want to play the song, I’m totally fine with it. That’s their executives’ decision. If a nightclub doesn’t want to play R Kelly, that’s their choice. If a film festival doesn’t want to screen a film by a problematic director, again, their choice. And I respect it.

Which side of the ‘to ban or not to ban’ debate do you fall on?

GH: I agree. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that since I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve wanted to leave a woman’s house only to be ignored (and potentially drugged). Well, actually, I have been in that situation, but it was different since there was no potential for physical violence. But I digress.

The truth is, this is one of those issues where both sides seem disproportionately passionate about their cause. Will a Christmas song really influence anyone’s behaviour (aside from going to bed early and choosing not to cry or pout)? No. But will Christmas and Freedom of Speech be ruined if this one song is forgotten? No! A Christmas song—let alone a controversy surrounding one—is basically privilege in action. There are, as you say, more important things to worry about. And until I do something to, like, help the poor and hungry at Christmas, I’m not going to pretend that fighting against problematic songs is really making the world better. And besides, as you say, there’s a teaching opportunity here.

Like how “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” taught me about polyamory.