Stop investing your energy in "Baby, It's Cold Outside"

Yesterday my Facebook feed was besieged by, as CBC put it, "two camps."

The pro-"Baby, It's Cold Outside" camp, and the anti-"Baby, It's Cold Outside" camp.

As I am sure you have heard by now, many radio stations, including CBC, have pulled the song from rotation this holiday season.

The pro-camp seems to be made up of two sub-groups (at least in my broader circles): those who take the move to be "political correctness gone too far," and—somewhat surprisingly—those who see the song as a feminist-consistent commentary on women's discourse and agency in the 1940's. The latter position maintains that the track has nothing to do with consent, and everything to do with shaming a woman for making "her own premarital sexual choices."

The anti-camp—again, I only speak from the articles and opinions shared by my peers—actually do not seem to be adopting a discourse surrounding political correctness. They're actually far more "reasonable" (reason of course being the only acceptable standard by which to discuss our lived, unwanted sexual experiences in the 'free, non-threatening public space' that is the internet). Their argument is basically, "Hey, this song includes a bunch of triggering, rape-suggesting exchanges like 'Say what's in this drink?'—'no cabs to be had out there,' and 'At least I'm gonna say that I tried'—'what's the sense in hurtin' my pride?', so can we just not remind women of these creepy, often traumatic, situations of sexual pressure this holiday season? How about we not legitimize this type of behaviour, which we know still occurs at work Christmas parties and holiday events."

I see the point of this argument, and it frankly annoys me that it is made into some "Me Too" straw man that Jordon Peterson's cronies can shoot at and laugh at, having 'proof' again that the feminist conspiracy is real.

But the sheer amount of emotional and personal investment in this debate about a "cultural product"—that is to say, a Christmas pop song often blared at Wal-Mart while we buy things—points to a different, separate problem of agency and choice.

This is the problem of the illusion of equal individual agency in establishing the parameters and content of the mediums of popular culture and consumption with which we identify.

Let me put that in plain language: we don't actually choose what content is dispersed and received on mass media platforms (television, radio, Netflix). The people who actually make these decisions generally have one goal in mind: profit (yes, even in the case of a beloved and treasured crown corporation). In the name of profit, such institutions and their decision-makers will exploit base emotions and biological responses (think: "sex sells") in exchange for more listeners, relevance and especially cash. Your informed and well-considered opinion about which songs should and should be in rotation, especially on an individual level, is largely irrelevant.

This is not to say we should be apathetic about issues related to social justice as they appear in the media. Quite the opposite—I think we should go at these issues full force on a larger scale.

But to focus energy in campaigning on either side of the "Baby, It's Cold Outside" debate means operating within, and indeed, legitimizing the parameters of popular culture in such a way that works in the favour of both the song and the radio station. It gives both of them recognition. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" gains recognition as a valid and relevant cultural product (as a money-maker, so to speak), and the radio stations are recognized and affirmed as relevant cultural institutions and media sources for people's lives today.

If you don't want to free yourself from "Baby, It's Cold Outside" as such, at least free yourself from being bothered about it. The radio stations and television channels have never accurately portrayed exactly who you are back to you (if they did, they wouldn't inundate you with ads). So perhaps you should go burn good old fashion CD of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" on repeat and play it in your car and around the dinner table. I don't know. I don't really mean to be so facetious, but my point is there are easy ways around this dilemma if preserving this track in particular is important to you.

Deeper than that, this whole debate affirms that during the holiday season, we open our emotions and their connection to family traditions up to severe infiltration and manipulation by the media. (Almost) any of us can blare "Baby, It's Cold Outside" off YouTube all day long if we like. But that is not good enough. We need the dominant cultural institution to play it back to our ears (in between commercials) while we shop for presents or spend time with family. The backdrop to consumerism and private life do not look so different after all.

In their famous "Culture Industry" essay in the seminal book the Dialectic of Enlightenment (ironically published the exact same year as the release of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"!), critical theorists Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued that the popular culture industry creates psychological needs, and then standardized products to fulfill those needs. This helps theoretically explained why our craving to hear the particular stock of American Christmas songs played back to us time and time again is so strong. The ultimate result of these needs and their fulfillment, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, is a passive and docile society. 

This passive and docile society is so integrated into the mass production process of cultural goods (like songs) and identified so closely with mass media that it sees itself as active, not passive, when debating questions like "Do our cultural products on massive media platforms reflect our society back to us?," rather than focusing attention and energy on the actual pressing economic and material needs of its communities (many people cannot afford to eat during the holiday season, and gift-giving for many is a painful reminder economic disparity and inequality).

The fact that "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and not Ludacris' "Move Bitch" or some equally misogynist rap song is the subject of this controversy clearly shows the dangerous, close entanglement of our feelings surrounding Christmas tradition and popular culture driven by profit. But traditions can change, and this change is not an inherently bad thing on its own. Families who used to binge watch "The Cosby Show" on Boxing Day—each family member respectively identifying with Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa and Rudy—probably don't do that anymore. Letting Bill go was hard at first, but most of us did it.

And if you can free yourself of the cultural product that is "The Cosby Show," you can free yourself of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." It might hurt to hear, but as a product, it's replaceable—and I can guarantee you the radio stations see it as such. There are tons of outdated, sexualized Christmas songs that are still in rotation. "Santa Baby" may indeed be your new female-sexual-agency-promoting holiday song of choice!

All in all, I think the fight during the holidays in general is to separate emotional outflow from easy consumption. And if we can do that, and serve the people for whom this time of year is financially and otherwise painful in the process, well I think that's more worthy of our attention than the "Baby, It's Cold Outside" debate, which really seems to be nothing more than a distraction.