If you grew up in any remotely liberal enclave of America in the 1970s or 1980s, you grew up believing a few things.
You believed that you lived in a land where the children were free, where it didn’t matter whether you were a boy or a girl because neither could limit your choices — not when you were a kid, not when you grew up. You believed it was perfectly fine for William to want a doll and if you were a girl, you might have been perfectly happy for him to take yours.
You believed these things because of “Free to Be … You and Me.” That landmark album, which had its 50th anniversary last month, and its companion book shaped a generation. It took the idealism and values of the civil rights and the women’s rights movements and packaged them into a treasury of songs, poems and stories that was at once earnest, silly and wholeheartedly sappy. It was the kind of thing a kid felt both devoted to and slightly embarrassed by. The soundtrack got stuck in your head. The book fell apart at the seams.
In other words, for a certain generation, “Free to Be” was childhood.
And that achievement is something to celebrate no matter your age. Alas, marking that achievement — the brainchild of Marlo Thomas and other trailblazers including Carole Hart, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Mary Rodgers — also means grappling with the erosion of those ideas. Is it possible we’ve moved past the egalitarian ideals of “Free to Be … You and Me,” and if so, is that a step forward?
To get to an answer, let’s consider what “Free to Be” had to say — and to sing. The album opened with a title song that proclaimed: “Every boy in this land grows to be his own man. In this land every girl grows to be her own woman.” That doesn’t sound like much now, but at the time, it was revolutionary. No matter how liberated your parents were, the larger culture still typically assumed rigid roles for boys and girls, the latter still very much considered the fragile sex. I can’t count how many times people told me, on finding out I had seven brothers, “How lucky you are to have them to protect you!”
“Free to Be” unshackled boys and girls from these kinds of gender stereotypes. As Pogrebin wrote in the book’s introduction, “What we have been seeking is a literature of human diversity that celebrates choice and that does not exclude any child from its pleasures because of race or sex, geography or family occupation, religion or temperament.” For what now seems like a brief moment, boys and girls wore the same unflattering turtlenecks and wide-wale corduroys. Parents encouraged daughters to dream about becoming doctors and police officers. Boys were urged to express feelings. Everyone was allowed to cry.
Then the pushback began. Some of it stemmed from ongoing conservative resistance to feminism’s gains. Some of it was about money. And some it of it emerged from a strain of progressivism that has repurposed some of the very stereotypes women and men worked so hard to sweep away.
These moves started with an ’80s backlash against the women’s movement and, while much of it was ideological, not surprisingly some of it was about money. When lucrative boomers became parents, the toy industry redivided playthings into separate aisles. In a round table for the 50th anniversary of Ms. magazine, also this year, Pogrebin remarked: “Now I have a stroke when I go through toy stores where still everything is pink and blue. When you order a toy online, they say, ‘Is it for a girl or a boy?’ They don’t say, ‘Is this a child who’s interested in nature or in bugs or in dinosaurs?’ They say, ‘Boy or girl?’ That was gone in the ’70s and ’80s. But that’s all slid backwards.”
Of course, when clothing, toys or books are gendered, companies selling those goods make more money. In their 2012 anthology, “When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made,” Lori Rotskoff and Laura L. Lovett noted with dismay, “When crass commercialism shows its true colors, pink and blue don’t make purple, they make green, multiplying profits every time parents buy into the premise that girls and boys require different playthings, books, websites and computer games.”
Such stereotypes belie the lessons Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas imparted in the beloved sketch “Boy Meets Girl,” featuring a girl baby and a boy baby, the latter of whom thinks he might be a girl because he’s afraid of mice and wants to be a cocktail waitress. Back at Main Street School in 1980, where my third-grade class performed the play version of the book, those were the most coveted roles. Everyone wanted to be one of those babies! I didn’t get the part, but I did get the message. Like other liberated kids, I accepted the reality of biological science that I was a girl — and rejected the fiction of gendered social conventions that as such, I should incline toward pink dresses and Barbies.
Now we risk losing those advances. In lieu of liberating children from gender, some educators have doubled down, offering children a smorgasbord of labels — gender identity, gender role, gender performance and gender expression — to affix to themselves from a young age. Some go so far as to suggest that not only is gender “assigned” to people at birth but that sex in humans is a spectrum (even though accepted science holds that sex in humans is fundamentally binary, with a tiny number of people having intersex traits). The effect of all this is that today we are defining people — especially children — by gender more than ever before, rather than trying to free both sexes from gender stereotypes.
Oh, for the days of “Parents Are People,” when Thomas and Harry Belafonte proposed that mommies and daddies — and by extension, women and men, regardless of whether they are parents — should no longer be held back by traditionalist expectations. That they could, as Rotskoff and Lovett put it, “transcend prevailing norms of acceptable ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ behavior.” That everyone, at base, is free to be “gender nonconforming.” (It’s worth noting, that Thomas, when was asked in 2015 if “Free to Be” fit in with transgender rights, said its message encompasses everyone.)
As for that land where the children run free, there is little running around now. Despite efforts at free-range parenting, kids tend to be hovered over at all times: In school by surveillance systems like GoGuardian and ClassDojo and the parent portal. In their free time, by the location devices built into their smartwatches and phones. At home, by nanny cams and smart devices. And the children probably are home, socializing on their screens rather than outside riding a bike or playing kick-the-can until someone yells “Dinner!”
We’ve found new ways to box children in.
In 2012, when I interviewed Marlo Thomas on the 40th anniversary of the “Free to Be,” she told me, “The ideas could never be outdated.” But whereas the 35th anniversary got a newly illustrated edition and the 40th anniversary was marked with an anthology of essays and stories in places like Slate and CNN, the 50th anniversary has quietly slipped by, but for a brief segment on NPR in which the host noted subsequent “huge changes when it comes to gender” and called some of the album “dated.”
Let’s not lose the positive changes. Why not open the book again, still widely available? Stream the album for your kids on Spotify. This is one case in which winding the clock back a little would actually be a real step forward.
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