Why "Free to Be You and Me" Still Rocks 40 Years Later

Like a lot of people of my generation, I grew up listening to Free to Be You and Me (on vinyl, of course). It was a project of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and used songs and stories to support the idea that kids — whether boys or girls — can be whoever they want to be and do whatever they want to do, regardless of gender. (In other words it was — gasp!! The horror! — a reflection of the feminist thinking of the 70s.)

We have the CD, although it hasn’t been in heavy rotation for a while. But the girls heard the story, “William’s Doll” recently, and we reminded them that there was, in fact, a song based on the story, from Free to Be. (About a boy who wants a doll, in spite of the teasing of friends and the objections of his father.)

So, they started demanding that we play the song over, and over, and OVER, the way kids are won’t to do. And they can now sing the song in its entirety. (As can I.) It’s pretty impressive. Although some of the song’s message is a wee bit lost on them, methinks. After listening to/singing it the other day Clio said, “It’s OK for boys to play with dolls, because there are boy dolls, too!” Well, yes, but….

Anyhoo. We’ve been listening to the rest of the album too, and although I know it well, I’ve been struck by just how relevant it still is today. Especially in the midst of today’s girly-girl resurgence (pink Legos, anyone?) and princess craze, which I’ve fretted about here. Even though it’s a tad heavy handed at times, it really has some great messages about equality and individuality and not giving a crap about what’s traditionally considered the realm of girls/women vs. the realm of boys/men.

Some of the tracks that I particularly like:

Boy Meets Girl — Mostly because of Mel Brooks’s delivery, but it’s two newborns in a hospital nursery debating whether they’re boys are girls. The Mel Brooks baby insists he’s a girl. He asks the other (played by Marlo Thomas) “What do you want to be when you grow up.” “A fireman,” she replies. “What about you?” “A cocktail waitress!” he says. “What did I tell you?!”

Parents are People — Sung by Harry Bellafonte and Marlo Thomas. The gist of the song is that parents are people with children. (As in, being moms or dads isn’t the whole sum of their identity.) And that moms and dads can do all kinds of jobs. The idea of a mom being a lawyer or truck driver or a man being a nurse isn’t as a big a deal now as it was in 1972. But not a bad idea to remind kids that jobs don’t have do go strictly down gender lines. (Even though they still do in many cases….)

William’s Doll — Previously mentioned. Nice message about it being OK for boys to play with dolls, although it is tied to the notion that it’s a good toy choice because it will make him a better dad someday. Not that it’s OK for him to play with a doll just because. (Do we approve of girls playing with dolls because it will make them better mothers? I wasn’t a big fan of dolls as a kid, but I didn’t have any trouble changing diapers or dressing my girls as babies….) BUT in 1972 when the record was released, the idea of dads changing diapers and burping babies was a lot more radical than it is now.

Atalanta — This story is about a clever princess who isn’t too keen on marrying the guy her father, the king, picks for her and moreover isn’t sure she wants to get married at all. So she hatches a plan to try to get her way: she proposes a foot race for all would-be suitors on the condition that she, too, can compete. And if she wins, she gets to pick who she wants to marry (or not marry at all). Spoiler alert! She ties for first place with a very progressive, like-minded fellow who really just wanted to be friends with her, but wouldn’t dream of forcing her to marry him. They hang out, talk, and then go their separate ways to see the world. Whether or not they get back together and get married (to each other or to anyone) isn’t resolved. Because that’s not the point. A little heavy-handed, sure. But I’m all for alternative princess narratives.

Glad to Have a Friend Like You — about a boy and a girl who are friends, and who both bake together and go fishing together. Groovy.

Anyway. In the midst of the ongoing, tiresome (if you ask me) debate between stay-at-home and working moms and who’s more feminist than whom and, while we’re at it, let’s hate on the very idea of feminism, blah blah blah, Free to Be is a refreshing and positive message for the people who seem weirdly overlooked in the whole discussion: the kids.


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