My kids, who are five, love Free to Be…You and Me, Marlo Thomas’ 1972 book-then-video of songs and sketches all about how one needn’t be circumscribed by pesky gender roles. And unlike the cloying Little Einsteins or trippy Shapies, it’s not excruciating to watch as an adult. The music has withstood the passage of time, and the star cameos are fun (Formerly Black Michael Jackson’s duet with Roberta Flack about when he grows up, he “won’t have to change at all,” always makes me snicker).
Free to Be‘s message, of course, is righteous. Big, burly football great Rosie Greer sings about how it’s alright to cry (“Crying takes the sad out of you”); Carole Channing warns kids not to be duped by the feminine mystique, and Alan Alda sings of little William, who excelled at any sport his dad threw at him, but nonetheless wanted a doll for his fifth birthday.
That’s the one that stumps Sasha and Vivian. “Why doesn’t his dad just get him a doll?” Sasha asks. “Duh.” And Vivian cites several boys in her class who assume the daddy role when they play house with her. I ask her if that means they make her go get them a beer. “No, silly mommy. It means they give the baby his bottle.” The boys then go on to be Jedi warriors and try to decapitate one another with their imaginary light sabres, but only after the baby is down for the night. Progress!
Now, I know I live in New York City, where men in feathered tube tops and pleather pants sashay in front of my girls’ elementary school and no one looks at them sideways. And I know other parts of the country are not quite as free to let boys be whatever they are, particularly if what they are involves feathered tube tops. But I was nonetheless heartened to see what a profound non-issue such William’s doll jones is to my daughters, and, apparently, at least a few of their male classmates.
I don’t know if Marlo Thomas had in mind the goal of making Free to Be…You and Me obsolete someday, but it’s well on its way to being a Formerly, as in Formerly Necessary or Formerly Radical. It has taken over 30 years, but it’s moving toward becoming quaint. Maybe in another 30 or 50, it’ll be like fear of the corrupting influence of Elvis or gathering around the radio–something that sounds goofy when you explain it to a child.
My favorite aspect of my girls’ take on the song is that the fact that they see it as being not about William’s bizarre desire to (gasp!) nurture a pretend infant, but about William’s dad not having a clue. I didn’t go into how Williams’ dad was worried his little boy was going to grow up to be a little swishy if he bought him a Baby Alive. I just agreed. Sometimes grown-ups simply aren’t as advanced as children.
Photo Courtesy of Free to Be Foundation