U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Free To Be…You And Me" and History

Marlo Thomas’s pathbreaking record album Free To Be You and Me turned forty last month, an anniversary that has occasioned a fair amount of reflection online and elsewhere.  Slate ran an interesting three-part series about the making of the album and its legacy.  Yesterday, NPR’s Weekend Edition featured a story about Free To Be…You and Me. Comedians Rob Kutner and the Levinson Brothers have even issued a parody album in celebration of the anniversary.

But there appears to be surprisingly little scholarship on Free To Be…You and Me.  There’s a good chapter on it by Leslie Paris in the Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature (2011).  And Lori Rotskof and Laura L. Lovett have edited a collection of essays on Free To Be entitled When We Were Free To Be: Looking Back on a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made, which was published by UNC Press last month (and which, I should add, I haven’t had a chance to look at).

The relative lack of attention is surprising for at least two reasons, the first of which is probably obvious to those of you who were born in the Sixties or Seventies.  Free To Be…You and Me, first as an album and later as a book and tv special (both of which followed about a year-and-a-half later in early 1974), was a major part of early-to-mid 1970s children’s culture. The album sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The book was a best-seller and a winner of an American Library Association Award.  The TV special won an Emmy and a Peabody.*  The songs, stories, poems, and skits associated with Free To Be in its various incarnations have since become major objects of nostalgia for many in my generation. It was one of the first CDs that my wife and I bought our kids, as much a necessary import from our childhoods as Where the Wild Things Are or Goodnight Moon.

The second reason for my surprise for the relative lack of scholarly attention given to Free To Be is of more particular interest to readers of this blog.

As the historiography of the U.S. in the  last third of the twentieth century has ballooned in recent years, one common, emerging narrative thread is the notion that the left won the “culture wars,” while the right won the battle over political economy. Often, these two developments are seen as two sides of the same coin.  Indeed, in its strongest versions, there’s a kind of dramatic irony to this tale: the right (or at least some major piece of it) is surprised that neoliberalism cannot serve as a bulwark for traditional values, as all that is solid melts to air before it (to steal one of Andrew’s favorite phrases of Marx); but the left (or at least some major piece of it) is equally surprised to discover that racial, gender, and, most recently, sexual liberation does not undermine The System or create a world of greater economic egalitarianism.

Whether or not one accepts this as the big story of the end of the (first?) American Century (and I go back and forth as to whether or not I do), Free To Be…You and Me would seem to fit such a narrative fairly well.  It marked a moment in which the Seventies were emerging out of the Sixties and helped achieve a series of fairly significant cultural changes that still fell very much within the context of consumer capitalism.

The album, book, and tv show were the product of an extraordinary moment of second-wave feminist activism.  As Leslie Paris points out, during the first years of the 1970s, a number of feminist organizations set about studying the content of children’s books. Their concerns grew out of a conviction that much sexism flows from what children are taught about gender roles. What they found was that children’s books tended to feature many more boy protagonists than girl protagonists. And that the boy protagonists tended to be much more active in the world at large.  Girls sometimes started stories as “tom boys,” but by the end they tended to adopt more “normal” female behavior patterns (a story type that feminist critics identified as “the cop-out”).  While Marlo Thomas describes her conception of Free To Me…You and Me in much more personal terms (she was disturbed at the books that her niece was reading and unable to find better alternatives in the bookstore), in fact she was part of a larger movement. Indeed, Thomas was close friends with Gloria Steinem and Free To Be…You and Me was co-created by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an editor at the still-young Ms. magazine, which had. by 1971, already become involved in the effort to publish “stories for free children.”**   As a second-generation major television personality–her father was Make Room for Daddy star Danny Thomas and she had just had her own hit with That Girl— Thomas was able to bring an amazing set of entertainment stars to the project, including Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Carol Channing, Mel Brooks, Diana Ross, Rosey Greer, Shirley Jones, and Tom Smothers.

In addition to being a quite successful intervention in children’s culture, Free To Be was also part of the larger spread of feminism into the American mainstream. Two important things ought to be noted about this. First, many of the album’s messages about gender roles and gender stereotypes were quite challenging in the early 1970s.  For examples, “William Wants a Doll,” which appeared on the album, worried executives at ABC television because, according to Thomas, they feared that it “would turn every American boy into a homosexual.” Thomas had to fight for its inclusion in the tv version of Free to Be.***

Secondly, as Leslie Paris notes, Free To Be is very much an example of liberal feminism. Its chief concern is fighting sexism and gender stereotypes. Its message is deeply individualistic; all children, boys and girls, should be whatever they want to be….and can be if they simply embrace their individuality. Though it suggests a kind of joyful racial and class egalitarianism, at its center is a traditional, heteronormative vision of the family.  “William Wants a Doll,” emphasizes that William is, otherwise, “normal,” and that his desire to have a doll is reasonable precisely because he may be a father someday.  Indeed, “William Wants a Doll” is  prominently mentioned, for just this reason, in the negative review that fran pollner gave the album in off our backs, arguably the single most important radical feminist journal.  “Nowhere are free and loving relations between two girls or two boys depicted,” wrote pollner, who suggested that the album was aimed entirely at straight, middle-class women (and women-to-be).****

One might also note that absent from Free To Be…You and Me is any very clear sense of an antagonist, beyond sexist individuals.  One of the great goals of the Sixties’ New Left had been, in Paul Potter’s phrase, to “name the system;” Free To Be…You and Me doesn’t even attempt to do this.  There’s very little sense of what one might need to do, beyond consuming the album itself,  to achieve, in the words of its opening, title song, a land where “every boy…grows to be his own man” and “every girl grows to be her own woman.”  Indeed, the song simply suggests “it ain’t far to this land from where we are” and “the time’s comin’ near” when we’ll achieve it.  Indeed, the entire album is almost relentlessly upbeat and nearly utopian in tone.*****   

We might, indeed, put Free To Be…You and Me in the broader context of the kind of hopeful, earnest liberalism regularly produced by the U.S. entertainment industry, from the social problem films of the Thirties and Forties, through the Fifties and Sixties films of Stanley Kramer, to the sitcoms of Norman Lear in the 1970s and The Cosby Show in the 1980s.  What was new, however, with Free To Be, was its feminism and its focus on very young children.

Over the course of the 1970s, the kind of anti-stereotyping message that was found in Free to Be became quite common in American children’s culture. You might remember, for example, this PSA produced by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter years:

Throughout my years in elementary school in the Seventies, I remember being taught that sexism and racism were evils, and that they were caused by “prejudice” and “ignorance.”  Where prejudice and ignorance came from was never made very clear.  And the implication was that knowledge itself could cure prejudice and ignorance, which made the stubborn persistence of prejudice, ignorance, sexism, and racism somewhat mysterious.  All of my peers certainly heard NFL star Rosey Greer sing “It’s Alright to Cry,” but as an occasionally emotionally fragile young boy, I knew damn well from personal experience that, in fact, it was not socially alright to do so. 

It’s interesting to note that, following off our back‘s initial negative review, Free To Be…You And Me showed up over the next several decades in its pages as an object of bitter-sweet nostalgia, a key feminist text of the early Seventies that was nonetheless inadequate.  “We knew there was more to being lesbians than playing ‘Free to Be You and Me’ at three a.m.,” wrote Sally Sheklow in a 2003 article, “but we didn’t know what to do.”******

More pointedly, Marilyn Webb, one of off our back‘s founders, tallied up the successes and failures from the vantage point of 2005:

When my daughter was born, her generation was socialized as we never were. They were supposed to be tiny feminist soldiers in training, raised on Free to Be You and Me and expected to move right through that glass ceiling. All the while, they were also supposed to understand the treachery of American arrogance and global capitalism. But today we have George W. Bush, not socialism, Condoleeza Rice, and repeated attacks against legalized abortion, national health and childcare, and the planned destruction of Medicare, whose benefits are proportionally greater for older women since we live longer than men. Yes, we opened female doors: to Little League, to medical and law offices, and to the U.S. Senate. But most American women still have to work–as I did, by the way–and still not for equal pay. And all but the rich still also have only shaky options for childcare.*******

It’s somehow fitting that, two years ago, the album’s title song, shorn of any transformational political message whatsoever, was very effectively used in a back-to-school Target commercial.  Whatever else Free To Be…You and Me accomplished (and I think it accomplished a fair bit that was good), it can still very effectively be used to move product, especially to the generation that initially consumed it.

[UPDATE 12/11: I realize that I had forgotten to add a citation for the pollner review of Free To Be when I originally posted this yesterday.  I’ve just done so.]

* Leslie Paris, “Happily Ever After: Free To Be…You and Me, Second-Wave Feminism, and 1970s Children’s Culture” in The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature (Oxford, 2011), 520.

** On “Stories for Free Children,” see Margaret B. McDowell, “New Didacticism: Stories for Free Children,” Language Arts, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan. 1977), 41-47, 85.

*** Paris, 531.

**** fran pollner, “free to be…,” off our backs, Vol. 3, No. 6 (February/March 1973), 19.

***** Lest you think I’m being unfair asking a children’s book to be anything but relentlessly upbeat, let alone to suggest a systemic, political antagonist, compare Free To Be…You and Me to Dr. Seuss’s 1971 environmental classic, The Lorax.

****** Sally Sheklow, “Blast from the Past,” off our backs, Vol. 33, No. 5/6 (May-June 2003), 32.

******* Marilyn Webb, “Giving Birth and Birthing off our backs: one of the founding mothers of oob talks about motherhood then and now,” off our backs, Vol. 35, No. 5/6 (May-June 2005), 23

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is just a thought based on little actual analysis regarding individualism and prejudice; how would you compare this easy doctrinaire individualism with the brand of individualism portrayed in Ellison’s Invisible Man?

  2. I have been talking for some time about the need for historians to look at the 1970s more than they do and lo and behold I find this marvelous post. Many Thanks!

  3. This is a fascinating analysis of “Free to Be” and the limits of popular children’s media fully to challenge consumer capitalism, heteronormativity, and economic inequality. As co-editor (with Laura Lovett) of the new book “When We Were Free to Be,” cited above, I agree that “Free to Be’s” utopian tone reflected a kind of “hopeful, earnest liberalism” and that (as fran pollner and other radical feminist critics argued) the project did not fundamentally oppose the heterosexual family norm during the 1970s. We include a revised version of Leslie Paris’s essay in our book, and provide new insights about the efforts and constraints of “Free to Be’s” creators to reach a racially and socioeconomically diverse audience of children and to challenge racism, economic injustice, and homophobia as well as sexism.
    Free to Be didn’t depict gay and lesbian couples raising children (the children’s book “Heather Has Two Mommies” by Leslea Newman appeared a decade or so later) and fran pollner’s critique that “nowhere are free and loving relations between two girls or two boys depicted,” is correct.) While Free to Be consultant and Ms. magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote elsewhere about the damaging effects of homophobia on children, “Free to Be” did reflect heteronormative assumptions. But it isn’t true that Free to Be was “aimed entirely at straight, middle-class women (and women-to-be).” Nor has its influence been confined to that population / audience. When selecting contributions to our new anthology, Laura Lovett and I included essays by 30 scholars, artists, journalists, activists, and educators that collectively paint a far more nuanced picture. (continued below).

  4. (Continued from above comment): Songs like “William’s Doll” and “It’s All Right to Cry,” and stories like “Dudley Pippin and the Principal” were explicitly crafted to influence boys as well as girls. Different listeners and critics—male and female, gay and straight—have interpreted these songs in different ways; in our book, sociologists Karl Bryant and Karin Martin, choreographer Trey McIntyre, journalist Jeremy Adam Smith and others offer varying interpretations of heteronormativity in “William’s Doll.” The scholar Laura Briggs explores Free to Be’s influence on her childhood as well as her sensibilities as a lesbian parent today. Essays by Deesha Philyaw, Patrice Quinn, and especially the childcare and civil rights activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes explore how Marlo Thomas and her collaborators incorporated a vision racial inclusiveness by casting over a dozen African-American performers on the album and 1974 TV special– part of which was filmed at Hughes’ West 80th Street day care center soon after Hughes led a protest at NYC Mayor John Lindsey’s office opposing limits to day care eligibility (a story covered in the press by Gloria Steinem, who soon after became Hughes’ friend and speaking partner.) And yet, it’s also true that ideologies of self-empowerment and exhortations to individual self-fulfillment, in the tradition of Abraham Maslow’s psychology of self-actualization, were threaded through “Free to Be,” and those ideologies themselves do not oppose structures of consumer capitalism. Marlo Thomas was a liberal feminist activist and a supporter of civil rights legislation, firmly entrenched in the entertainment industry; she leveraged her connections and “star power” as “That Girl” to create a trio of children’s media that would bring those liberal feminist ideas to a mainstream audience. Also, all profits from “Free to Be” sales have been funneled through the Ms. and Free to Be Foundations, which fund programs and organizations with material benefits to families—something that distinguishes “Free to Be” from most other books and commercial products for children. As you point out, though, and as the recent Target ad reveals, this doesn’t translate into a fundamental opposition to consumer capitalism or the commercial uses to which nostalgic childhood references can be put.
    Significantly, some advocates for transgendered and “gender creative” youth today see “Free to Be…You and Me” as precursor to their efforts to create a safer, fairer world for all kids. Cheryl Kilodavis, who wrote the recent children’s book “My Princess Boy” finds common kinship with the original “Free to Be” message (although, as Karin Martin argues in her contribution, cultural affirmations of children’s variant gender expression are not the same as systemic, feminist challenges to structural inequalities or patriarchal institutions.) In sum, I’m pleased to see “Free to Be” as a subject on this blog. I hope our book will provide fodder for further discussion & debate.

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