Monday, March 15, 2010

Free to Be

When I was a kid, I loved Free to Be, You and Me, that fabulous Marlo Thomas extravaganza of the 70's. I had most songs, stories, and dialogues memorized. I never really thought much about the messages, but loved all of the stories and songs. I loved singing along with "It's alright to cry" and "William Has a Doll." I was thrilled when Atalanta and Young John tied the race and when the "tender sweet young thing" got eaten by the tigers. Before Leigh was even born, I knew that the number one musical purchase I would have to make would be Free to Be, You and Me. It was important to me that my daughter grow up learning those same feminist messages in a fun and musical way.

But 35 years later, those messages sound a bit different to my ears. The first casualty was "Ladies First." For some reason, Lyn didn't want us send the message that a "girly girl" is in danger of being tiger food. I thought it was just because she didn't grow up with the album in the same way I did. Thankful for iTunes, we edited that song out of our version of the album. But although I was skeptical, after a while I found myself uncomfortable with the story as well. I don't like the portrayal of young girls who like to wear pretty things as spoiled brats who, if we are all lucky, will get what they deserve.

Fine, but don't let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch, right? Except that I've always been confused by Diana Ross's "When We Grow Up," which contains lyrics like "When we grow up, will I be a lady?/Will you be an engineer?/Will I have to wear things like perfume and gloves?/I can still pull the whistle while you steer." The message of the song seems to be we can still be friends, and "we don't have to change at all," but why can't I be the engineer and you be the lady?

Then I start hearing all the sexist messages the songs and vignettes are sending my kids even as they refute them -- most women can't throw a ball or climb a fence, most people think boys shouldn't play with dolls, most big boys don't cry (although Rosey Grier knows some that do). And "Girl Land" is just creepy. Not to mention the fact that I actually don't want to tell my kids that housework is "just no fun." In our house, we talk about how important all kinds of work is, housework included. I agree with Carol Channing when she says, "make sure when there's housework to do that you do it together," but I don't see why doing it has to be such an unpleasant experience. Then again, I'm not "waxing the furniture till it just glows."

So it seems that except for a few choice songs and stories (like "Helping" and "Glad to Have a Friend Like You"), Free to Be, You and Me is moving out of our music rotation. I for one will really miss it, but I think that Leigh and Ira can learn to be feminists without it.


Sue VanHattum said...

I borrowed the movie of it, maybe from Netflix, and was similarly disappointed. I hated seeing William teased about his doll.

I guess this tells us how far we've come in some ways.

I like to think of housework as a Zen thing. That hasn't helped me find a way to teach my son to enjoy it. But he does like it when things are clean, and we actually had a good day recently cleaning up his room. And that moved him to decide to sleep there! :^) (He's 7.)

bionic brooklynite said...

hmmm, i'm sure ira and leigh will grow up to be feminists without it, but i think you're being a bit hard on free to be -- an opinion heavily influenced by my own love for it, no doubt.

i've seen parts of the movie for the first time only recently, via youtube, so all comments are about the audio, which is all i knew as a kid:

william wants a doll still seems pretty true to my experience of teaching first graders (granted a few years ago and in a cultural setting i imagine is pretty unlike yours). you mileage may and i hope will vary, but gender-norming is alive and well in the elementary students i've spent time with, especially for boys. but to me, the big lessons of that song aren't so much about masculinity as they are about william's desires being right even if they aren't the desires of his peers or even -- gasp! -- his parents. i also love that the lesson about the appropriateness of fathers' involvement in infant care comes from the grandmother -- i like the implication that this isn't a radical notion that young whippersnappers have come up with to overthrow tradition, but a natural idea. the grandmother is probably my favorite character in free to be.

as for ladies first -- i disagree that it's about femme-ness as deserving of anything bad. what's wrong with that girl is that she's selfish, not that she's wearing a dress. (i don't remember any references, for instance, to her not being able to do things because of her dress, only to her refusing.) [my baggage to follow, maybe only mine --ed.] furthermore, as a girl who wore dresses but never had the "right" things -- the new mary janes with bows, the un-hand-me-downs, the blonde hair, etc., that were not only (or even primarily) the objects of envy from other children but also the grounds of MASSIVE ADULT APPROVAL (yes, in front of all of us and completely obvious -- i'm looking at you, all the teachers and parents who told us all how cute katie kyle was all the damn time) -- i remember really loving that her looking perfect (not just "girly") didn't blind the story to how annoying that girl was. i hope leigh's experience of adult approval of that sort of thing is really different from mine, but i certainly saw the same dynamic where i taught (even though the kids wore uniforms). it was not nice for the kids whose hair wasn't perfect and whose shoes weren't shiny and new.

i'm glad you all don't find housework unpleasant -- and i can easily see why you wouldn't want to plan that seed -- but i think of that bit all the time when i'm talking myself into cleaning something i hate. plus, i do appreciate the early lesson in critical reading of television images. even as an adult, i like the reminder that my failure to love housework and therefore be like the pretty women on TV is not *my* failure at all.

however, i am 100% with you on girl-land., and also nasty. even as a very small person, i always fast-forwarded that one.

(my word confirmation is not quite "reveres," but it's pretty close. heh.)

Lex said...

I agree with bionic brooklynite in that I think FREE TO BE is intended for an older audience than your kiddos. I was shocked to see what happened to our older two once they started kindergarten (even at a funky, progressive elementary school), how all of these old-school thoughts about gender were suddenly cropping up. Everything opposite of what I'd thought we had taught/shown them. Boys DO still get teased for wanting to play with dolls.

We have the dvd and the kids watch it a couple times a year. I like to play the "Free to be you and me" song on the guitar for them, but we don't have the album.

I don't think it's all bad at all. There's a time and a place for it. And it appeals to me so much more than the majority of the the current stuff being marketed for kids (we love old school sesame st. too, but our kids have never seen the current version).

Cindy said...

I had the exact same experience that you did! It was disappointing. I don't feel like I have to make sure Elijah isn't exposed to it, but like so many books/music/movies, etc. I will want to add my own commentary, eg. "When this song was written a lot of women felt like they couldn't work outside the house so they were upset about it. Today, men and women work outside the house and inside."

The other thing I was annoyed by, which you didn't mention, is the heterosexism. That, too, is to be expected for the time it was made, I suppose, but it seems dangerously outdated now.

By the way, when I sing "Free to Be You and Me" to Elijah, I always change the lyrics from "every boy in this land grows to be his own man, in this land every girl grows to be her own woman" to "every child in this land can grow to be his own man, in this land every child can grow to be her own woman". More reflective of what I believe about gender identity....