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Mommies are people

Revisiting Free To Be…You and Me

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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Generationally speaking, I fell through the cracks of the feminist movement. I was seven years old when The Feminine Mystique was published, a young teenager when Women's Liberation was hot among twenty-something activists, and over 30 by the time Third Wavers were claiming the right to a distinct -- and distinctively corrective -- feminist voice. Although my personal experience of second wave feminism is based mostly on acquired knowledge rather than direct participation, I'm old enough to understand why one generation of feminists would attack marriage, motherhood, and high-heeled shoes as sources of women's oppression, and young enough to see why a later generation might reject their mother's feminism as narrow, reactionary, and unnecessarily dogmatic.

Yes, it's true the banishment of body hair was considered politically incorrect in certain feminist circles during the late 60s and early 70s -- but to be fair, the unshaven look was also popular among other counter-culture cliques that favored nature over artifice in fashion and other lifestyle matters. In high school, my wardrobe vacillated between the outdoorsy unisex look of flannel shirts, blue jeans and hiking boots, ultra-short miniskirts paired with tight knit tops, oversized denim overalls and tie-dyed t-shirts, and flowery Victorian-inspired granny dresses worn with platform shoes. Sometimes I shaved my legs -- sometimes I didn't. I didn't feel compelled to self-identify as a "feminist," but was sympathetic to the principles of the women's rights agenda -- particularly the call to treat girls as people with brains and ability rather than future bedmates or housewives. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, Generation X and Y women are not the first female cohort to resort to the "I'm not a feminist, but…" disclaimer.) And since I was well past the story book stage in 1972, I completely missed out on the Free To Be…You and Me phenomenon.

As discussions about the paucity of viable options for combining paid work and child-rearing -- and mothers' accounts of feeling blindsided by reality -- move into the public domain, I've noticed that women born in the late '60s and 1970s often use Free To Be…You and Me as a reference point in their reflections on "how it was supposed to be." For the generation of girls who grew up with the refrain "mommies can be almost anything they want to be," the discovery that our society and workplaces are not set up to support maternal employment is bound to be a bit of a let down. It's the qualifier -- "almost" -- that calls for closer inspection today.

As someone whose feminist consciousness is wedged between the revolutionary project of women's liberation and the personal empowerment politics of the third wave, I've been wondering about the ripple effect of Free To Be…You and Me as a popular feminist text.(1) And since the personal is political, I'll never know whether my life would have turned out any differently had I grown up listening to cheerfully subversive scripts of William's Doll and the story of Atalanta instead of Make Way for Ducklings and Winnie-the-Pooh (the real Winnie-the-Pooh, thank you very much, not the witless Disney version).

For the uninitiated, F2BY&M was released in 1972 as a long-playing record album of children's poems, songs and stories. In 1974, the project was adapted as a bestselling story-and-songbook and award-winning television special. Produced by Marlo Thomas in collaboration with the Ms. Foundation for Women, the original material in F2BY&M defines and challenges restrictive gender stereotypes and celebrates self-expression, friendship and a respect for others. Writing talent was supplied by Shel Silverstein, Mary Rodgers, Dan Greenburg, and Carl Reiner, among others. The LP features a diverse voice cast of popular actors, celebrities, and musical artists; the television special combines live action sketches, Muppet-like puppet skits, and animated stories, with appearances by then-superstars such as Roberta Flack, Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Milton Berle, Alan Alda, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, and football player Rosey Grier. All proceeds from the project were donated to the Ms. Foundation for Women, with Ms. Magazine editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin acting as editorial consultant. (The book, audio, and video versions of F2BY&M remain widely available, and all sequences from the television special have been posted on YouTube.)

All good children's literature -- from Harry Potter to David Pilkey's wacky Captain Underpants series -- functions as a morality tale, even when it aims to foster a unique children's culture by subverting adult authority and conventions. While F2BY&M promotes unity, harmony, and self-acceptance, its primary target is sexism, and its principal strategy is portraying traditional gender roles as limiting, hurtful, and old-fashioned. For example, in the song Girl Land (album only), an anti-amusement park where "good little girls" are forbidden to climb trees and have to pick up after the boys is slated for demolition:

They're closing down 'Girl Land'
Some say it’s a shame
It used to be busy
Then nobody came

…And soon in the park
That was 'Girl Land before
You'll do what you like
And be who you are.

Although the book, LP, and television special are filled with the kind of offbeat humor and outside-of-the-box creativity found in the best kind of children's programming, few listeners today will fail to recognize F2BY&M as serious polemic.

"Free To Be…You and Me is a courageous first attempt at breaking new ground in uncharted areas of concern to children and grown ups alike," one child development expert wrote for the liner notes of the original LP. "By raising doubts about traditional restrictive models for men and women alike, the record opens up for children the happy vista that all individuals, male or female, are people above all." Yet stories and poems acknowledging the typical sources of growing children's conflicts, fears and self-doubts are oddly absent in the audio and video versions of F2BY&M. (2) Thirty-five years after its debut, even a cursory review of the project suggests that the bold contours of the wondrous land where boys and girls live free from the shadow of sexism are molded by adult concerns about the perils of the feminine mystique and the gendered division of labor. More specifically, the creators of F2BY&M seem intent on discouraging the formation of romantic illusions in little girls and imparting the value of female autonomy. Instead of outdated fairy tales of sleeping princesses waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince, F2BY&M offers a child-size guide to human liberation through self-actualization.

pink dresses and perfume

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