Why ‘Free to Be ...’ Still Kicks Butt

Published May 28, 2004, issue of May 28, 2004.
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How “Free to Be … You and Me” has influenced my life, examples #312-317: My husband does the lion’s share of the cooking. (His brisket is to die for.) He and I have taken turns being the primary breadwinner. (Right now, I’m at bat.) Our child has my last name. Our house, so far, is a Barbie-free zone. The Legos and toy trains have pride of place in the living room.

Recently, the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan sponsored an evening billed as a 30th anniversary celebration of “Free to Be,” the collection of children’s stories, songs and poems celebrating gender equality. Technically, the album came out in 1972 and the companion book and television special (featuring a dark, skinny, massively Afro’d, impossibly young Michael Jackson singing, “When we grow up… we don’t have to change at all” — and don’t even get me started on the many levels of freakishness there) premiered in 1974, but who’s counting? The audience, composed primarily of 30- and 40-something women, was as giddy as 9-year-old girls at a Britney concert. When the panelists entered — Marlo Thomas, who conceived the entire project; Carole Hart, the “Sesame Street” contributor who co-produced the album; Francine Klagsbrun, the editor of the “Free to Be” book; Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. and an editorial consultant on the project; and Gloria Steinem, who served as Gloria Steinem — the audience screamed.

For many women in my generation, “Free to Be” was a seminal force. (I probably should call it an ovoid force.) I remember lying on the woefully ’70s green-and-blue flecked wall-to-wall in my brother’s bedroom, playing the record over and over on his hi-fi. I loved “William’s Doll,” narrated by uber-sensitive-guy Alan Alda; “Housework,” composed by Sheldon Harnick (of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame) and quirkily voiced by Carol Channing, and “Ladies First,” a cautionary tale about a pushy little princess consumed by a hipster tiger who sounds unnervingly like he’s on his way to a key-swapping party. I didn’t have the book, but I read it over and over at Debbie Putnoi’s house. I was particularly crazy about Judy Blume’s contribution, a story about brother-sister sibling rivalry called “The Pain and the Great One” (let’s say I could relate), and Judith Viorst’s “The Southpaw,” a niftily designed tale written entirely on ripped-out scraps of notebook paper. The scraps are notes passed between a boy and a girl whose friendship is nearly destroyed by sexism on the neighborhood baseball diamond. I got shivers every time I read the girl’s two-word note: “I pitch.” Ooh. (For a year, I was the only girl on my neighborhood baseball team. My mom sewed a women’s lib patch on my cap, which flustered the dads.)

I was oblivious to most of the heavy-handed messages about bias and liberation. I liked the bouncy tunes and humor of the album and the super-cool graphic design and humor of the book. I did sometimes know there was a didactic intent I was not getting; both of Dan Greenburg’s contributions — a poem about sartorial conformity and another about the perils of assuming that certain jobs are for certain genders — annoyed the living daylights out of me. “Don’t dress your cat in an apron/just ‘cause he’s learning to bake”? Uh, why not? Boy kitties like to get flour on their clothes? I didn’t get it.

In any case, 30 years later, the creators of “Free to Be” told engaging stories of its history. Thomas mentioned that Mel Brooks (who memorably plays a boy baby who thinks he’s a girl and wants to grow up to become a cocktail waitress) didn’t know he was supporting the feminist Ms. Foundation; he thought that “Ms.” stood for multiple sclerosis. She also said that ABC wanted two things taken out of the television special. “They wanted ‘William’s Doll’ cut,” she said, “because it would turn every boy in the world into a homosexual — which isn’t such a bad idea. And the other issue was ‘Parents Are People.’ Harry Belafonte sang the man part and I sang the female part, and we were walking down Fifth Avenue pushing baby buggies and ABC said it wouldn’t play in the South. It looked like we were married.” She smiled slyly. “Thankfully, ‘That Girl’ was a hit on ABC at the time, so I had a little clout. Both things stayed in.”

I ended up with a little crush on the warm, funny and glamorous Klagsbrun, who pointed out ways in which kids’ ideas about gender are so much more egalitarian than they were 30 years ago. Her granddaughter couldn’t believe there was a time when women couldn’t be rabbis and was shocked that men could be doctors; at 5, the child was also baffled by the notion that in the dim recesses of history, men didn’t do housework. (My friend Katie tells the story of her 3-year-old nephew, raised in a home where Dad’s the primary chef, who told his mom, “I’m a boy and daddy’s a boy and you’re a girl.” His mom playfully said, “How do you know I’m not a boy?” Griffin answered, “You can’t be a boy! You can’t cook!”)

Some of the other panelists seemed depressed about how little the world had changed.

I understood where they were coming from, but I prefer to see it this way: Of course we have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way, baby. And how can we have the strength to keep fighting the good fight if we don’t celebrate our own successes? A great thing about “Free to Be” is how funny and upbeat it is. Even living in a half-changed world, I still think we should maintain that optimism. (Josie, my daughter, recently watched a young male friend’s diaper change, opining, “What a great penis! I wish I had one just like it!” I choose to think she meant this in an inclusive, everything-is-possible-and-I-also-love-my-vagina way, as opposed to some old-school penis envy kind of way.)

I also found myself wondering whether some of the panelists’ insistence on gender equality actually could send the message to a child that his own tastes and desires are bad and wrong. If a girl really prefers dolls to front-end loaders, are you doing her any favors by continuing to force construction equipment on her?

A trio of 20-somethings sitting behind me had a similar reaction. When a 30-something mother passionately asked how to raise a nonsexist son, telling of keeping him away from trucks in the hope of keeping him loving and cuddly, the young women rolled their eyes. When a panelist advised the woman to explain to her son, “We’re so lucky in this family that we have a choice about what we play with,” one of the young women muttered, “Excuse me? He doesn’t have a choice! He doesn’t have the opportunity to choose trucks!”

I’m not one of those dimwit women who insist they’re post-feminist or humanist or “not a feminist but… I’m a feminist. But I also think childhood should be about joy and possibility as much as it is about fixing the world for future generations. (That’s a lot of responsibility for a toddler.) “Free to Be” is celebratory and fun, and its best contributions are sly and silly and melodic, not ham-fisted. And they’re the reason that 30 years later, “Free to Be” still kicks butt. And they’re the reason I still get tears in my eyes when I sing “William’s Doll” to Josie at bedtime. I love that I can share something of my own childhood with her. And I love that she honestly doesn’t get why anyone would deprive William of his heart’s desire.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.






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