Forty years ago, when Marlo Thomas met with executives at ABC Television after turning in the final cut of “Free to Be… You and Me,” the one-hour special they’d commissioned based on her best-selling children’s album, they told her, in that way the business people who control our media so often do, that they loved it and that she had to utterly change it. They wanted her to cut three segments.
One was “Parents Are People,” which showed Harry Belafonte and Thomas performing various traditionally male or female jobs in such a way as to challenge their gender specificity. The executives took issue with one brief shot in the middle of the song depicting the two of them pushing baby carriages across Fifth Avenue. This, apparently, might be misinterpreted to imply that they were married; America’s children, the executives believed, weren’t ready for positive images of miscegenation.
Typical and shameful, yes, but less central to the message of “Free to Be…” than their other concern, which involved the songs “It’s Alright to Cry” and “William’s Doll.”
In “It’s Alright to Cry,” a towering Rosie Grier smiles pacifically at the camera and croons about the cathartic power of tears. “I know some big boys who cry too,” he proclaims over a montage of world leaders, sports heroes and macho men breaking down and bawling. This softened image of masculinity was problem enough for the execs.
What was worse was the message conveyed by “William’s Doll,” a Broadway-style story song written by Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for “Fiddler on the Roof,” about a small boy who’s good at all the things boys are supposed to be good at — baseball, primarily — but really just wants a doll “to wash and clean and dress and feed.” This was what really got the executives’ backs up. They told Thomas that if they allowed “William’s Doll” to air on national television, they’d be responsible for turning every boy in America into a “sissy.”
Thomas refused to change a thing and had enough clout at the time to get her way. The show aired as planned and the rest is history.
What’s interesting to me about this story is that the television special was produced in 1974 as a collaboration between Thomas and the forthrightly feminist, overwhelmingly Jewish editors of Ms. Magazine (both Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin helped mold “Free to Be…”), and explicitly strove to empower little girls to believe that they could do anything and be anyone their hearts desired. Yet the controversy was caused not by the show’s challenge to traditional notions of femininity but by the way it dealt with masculinity.