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Revisiting Free To Be…You and Me
Judith Stadtman Tucker


Pink dresses and perfume

One of the strangest -- and strangely somber -- songs from the F2BY&M television special is "I'd Rather Be the Sun." (Vocals are provided by Dionne Warwick; the poem, by Elaine Laron, appears in the book but is not on the LP.) Accompanied by images of child-like paintings of the sun and moon, the sequence concludes with a stick-figure portrait of a blue-eyed, curly-haired girl and the lyrics, "I think I'd rather be the sun/that shines so bold and bright/than be the moon, that only glows/with someone else's light."

Even back in the bad old days before Betty Friedan, my life as a five year old did not include obsessing about the prospect of living in someone else's shadow, unless it happened to be the shadow of my older siblings or parents. I was much more concerned about getting through kindergarten in one piece and hanging out with my best friend, Jenny. (Instead of playing with Barbies or consulting the Ouija Board about who we would marry, our favorite pastime was playing "all-girl rock band" -- in the land of make-believe, our chart-busting group, The Daisies, was on a world tour.) Fast forwarding to 1973, it's hard to imagine the average 4- to-6 year old (F2BY&M is clearly targeted to younger learners) would be consumed with anxiety about having her full human potential eclipsed by "someone else's light." On the other hand, grown women in the early 1970s -- particularly those whose consciousness had been raised about the nature of women's oppression -- may have been quite sensitive to the effects of internalizing their subordination.

Obviously, the intended message of "I'd Rather Be the Sun" is open to interpretation. The song could easily apply to power relations in childhood friendships -- progressive parents usually agree that children are better equipped for a lifetime of happiness if they learn to value their own interest and skills and avoid attaching their self-esteem to how popular their friends are. But the image accompanying the final notes of the song is a child's drawing of a single, unambiguously female face surrounded by a halo of sun rays (the only human image seen in the entire sequence). Why not an picture of a boy? Or a boy and a girl? Or a whole field-full of shiny, happy children, holding hands?

On the surface, "I'd Rather Be the Sun" offers a positive, pro-girl message -- everyone can shine, and living vicariously through the people we love or admire never leads to lasting happiness. But as a subject of feminist analysis, the poem and visuals raise several red flags. First off, there's that feminine face. (If the goal is to encourage girls and boys to think of each other as equals in every way, why do girls need this message more than boys?) There's also the small problem that in mythology and modern culture, the sun is traditionally associated with male power and the moon with female fertility -- few adults who've spent time in a pre-school classroom have escaped the tuneful entreaty to "Mr. Golden Sun" to "please shine down on me." And because the album and video versions of F2BY&M are presented as complete works with an overarching narrative, "I'd Rather Be the Sun" should be considered as part of text that suggests the first step to freedom and self-respect for girls is do the same things that boys do.

Now, I'll admit my perspective may be warped by the fact that I was 50 years old, not five, at the time of my first exposure to F2BY&M. And as a parent of school-age sons, I've grown accustom to the baseline of gender neutrality in quality children's programming today. Nevertheless, I was stunned by how overtly gender-specific some of the life lessons imparted by F2BY&M seem by present-day standards. It's alright for boys to cry and wish for a doll to cuddle and give a bottle to (as long as they're also good at sports). But girls are repeatedly cautioned about the perils of being too girly -- and the most hideous fate of all is to grow up to be a "lady."

Exactly what being a "lady" means and why it should be avoided at all costs is never fully explained,(3) but various songs and stories hint that being a lady involves "wearing perfume and gloves," an unhealthy preoccupation with one's appearance, having dainty table manners, taking on airs or expecting preferential treatment, being "sweet" and "tender," and wearing pretty dresses with matching hair ribbons and shiny shoes. But the subtext of F2BY&M implies that being a lady involves more than abiding by stodgy conventions of propriety. For the authors of F2BY&M, "a lady" is shorthand for someone who tolerates, cultivates, and possibly revels in, outmoded ideals of femininity -- and being a girly-girl is coded as early-onset false consciousness that inhibits young women from experiencing the joys of independence and the hard work of creating an authentic life. But it's tough to convey such an abstract and politically-loaded concept to a small child -- even if she cares. (A number of young adults who've written about their impressions of F2BY&M on the web comment that they loved the music, but really didn't get the politics.)

I'm not a defender of conventional gender norms -- quite the opposite -- nor am I proposing that marriage and motherhood are the largest kind of life a woman can aspire to. I'm thankful we've made progress in that regard, and projects such as F2BY&M and Ms. Magazine played an important role in expanding women's horizons. However, I also believe oppressive gender ideology is something we should actively negotiate, rather than suppress by prescribing revised standards of male and female conduct based on how we think liberated children and adults should behave toward one another. Frankly, sexism is so deeply rooted in our culture and self-perception that it's probably impossible for anyone of us to accurately predict how people in a sustainable, non-sexist society would interact -- we can only identify, define and react to the conditions and internalization of our own oppression.

In any case, the prescriptive approach to eradicating sexism seems to have backfired on a number of fronts. As former naval officer Susan Park writes in a commentary for AlterNet, "The suppression of feminine qualities isn't getting us equal treatment. …I don't dress inappropriately or in any way unprofessionally, but I dress like a woman, an attractive one. Why does that still translate to me being silly?"

Moreover, I have a problem with children's literature -- no matter how well-meaning -- that assures boys and girls "A person should wear what he wants to wear/And not just what other folks say/A person should do what she likes to/A person's a person that way," then turns around to suggest that being a certain kind of girl -- the kind of girl who likes to wear perfume and play in "Girl Land" -- will lead to a bad end.

In the story "Ladies First," an obnoxious little girl who prides herself on being a "tender, sweet young thing" calls out "ladies first! ladies first!" as she pushes past other children to the front of the line. Eventually, she is captured and eaten by tigers (because she is sweet and tender, while her hardier playmates are too "bony" and "muscle-y" for good eating). It's made clear that the nameless little girl meets her unhappy fate not because she's self-absorbed and inconsiderate, but because she's over-invested in being a "real little lady."

I don't want to belabor this point, but I think it's worth mentioning that the F2BY&M version of "Ladies First" is adapted (by Mary Rodgers) from a short poem in Shel Silverstein's "A Light in the Attic." In the original poem, there are no references to the central character's vanity or her pretensions about being "a real little lady;" the words "tender" and "sweet" are nowhere to be found. There is no starched cotton dress with matching hair ribbons, no mention of the girl bragging about her "lovely curly locks," no demand that other children clear the path for her on their rugged jungle safari (although in the original version, she does hog all the drinking water). In the Silverstein poem, the little girl is bossy and mean-spirited and seals her own fate by shouting "ladies first!" at an inopportune moment (which happens to involve a cannibal king, not tigers). In other words, the stereotypical femininity of the unlikable little girl in the F2BY&M adaptation was inserted into a perfectly serviceable narrative about the value of sharing and respecting others to make a specific political statement.

On a final note: Whatever objections sixty-something feminists have to younger women's theory that stripping, Cake parties and flashing for Girls Gone Wild videos can be construed as feminist acts, it's doubtful anyone would describe those pursuits as old-fashioned or "ladylike." Nope -- definitely not ladylike at all. But there's more to liberation than defying convention.

running faster than anyone else

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