Forty years ago today, Free to Be...You and Me, one of the most innovative, progressive, and certainly groovy programs for children aired on ABC. The brainchild of Marlo Thomas, Free to Be was about boys who like to play with dolls, girls who want to be firefighters, and, as the title suggests, the idea of being free—regardless of gender or background—to grow up and be whatever kind of person you want to be.
Thomas, known for her iconic role as prototypical “nice girl” Ann Marie on That Girl, was a left-leaning feminist eager to change the way boys and girls conceived of gender roles. She worked with the Ms. Foundation and Letty Cottin Pogrebin to create songs and stories that challenged the traditional notions of stoic, emotionless men who rescued pretty, simpering damsels in distress. She recruited some of the biggest and outspoken celebrities of the era including Harry Belafonte, Roberta Flack, Cicely Tyson, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Alda, Dionne Warwick, Mel Brooks, and Michael Jackson, and writers Shel Silverstein, Mary Rogers, and Carl Reiner.
What started as an album and later a book and television special would win an Emmy for children's primetime special and a Peabody Award in 1975. But Free to Be wasn't politically-correct in an annoyingly preachy way. The stories were charming and the songs—like “William Wants a Doll,” “Parents Are People,” and “It’s Alright to Cry”—are catchy as hell. And unlike lava lamps and key parties, Free to Be’s feel-good ‘70s vibes would resonate well beyond the decade.
Growing up in the 1990s, I watched Free to Be on VHS and listened to the songs on a cassette tape over and over again. At a time when saccharine sweet Barney dominated children’s entertainment, Free to Be stood out as genuinely enjoyable and smart for kids and their parents. Screw the Teletubbies and The Wiggles; my children will be raised on Free to Be…You and Me.
Perhaps because I am so proudly evangelical in my love for Free to Be I am surprised to find myself having to defend it on its 40th anniversary. Kyle Smith's denouncement of Free to Be in Sunday's New York Post because it “emasculated men” is totally baffling. Smith charges Free to Be as “feminist propaganda disguised as entertainment,” which is understandable, since anything that teaches young girls that they can be welders or doctors or that they don't have to marry a man to find happiness is clearly a tool of lying, radical she-males.
Smith’s analysis only gets progressively convoluted, sexist, borderline homophobic, and oddly pro-Putin. He bashes the kindhearted principal in one Free to Be story who comforts a young boy, Dudley Pippin, and tells him not to fear crying because “a sissy is somebody who doesn’t cry because he’s afraid somebody will call him a sissy if he does cry!” Apparently men should hold in their emotions so they can ride horses while shirtless, as Smith sarcastically writes, “Kinda like how Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea was (in the words of John Kerry) ‘acting out of weakness.’” He says that Free to Be has rendered a generation of men into impotent, incompetent sissies writing and now there is a generation of sexually unsatisfied women:
“No wonder that the girls of the Free to Be generation would grow up to buy millions of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. Forty years of gender re-education later, the only place they could find masculine men anymore was fiction.”
This is a completely heteronormative presumption that masculinity is a quality only exuded by men who have sex with women. Not only is this a peculiar conflation of BDSM with masculinity and fictional literary desires with unfulfilled real life desires, it assumes that the men in Free to Be who show emotions and, dare we say, cry are inherently emasculated.
You see, the larger message of Free to Be is not actually about redefining masculinity or femininity, but rather, learning to be comfortable with who you are and no conforming to some outside expectation. That someone could write something so simplistic and chauvinistic about gender roles reveals why Free to Be is still relevant—and needed—40 years later.
If anyone embodies a traditional vision of masculinity it's big-chested, deep-voiced, football-playing Roosevelt (Rosey) Grier. His crooning assurance that "it's alright to cry" was rarely told to young boys, but hearing it from such a stoic figure made it all the more comforting. So, do not fear the tears, little man. When someone who has multiple appearance in the Pro Bowl, is part of a famed Fearsome Foursome defensive line, and subdued Sirhan Sirhan tells you it's alright to cry, then get in touch with your emotions and those tears flow.
Sung by Alda and Thomas, this song has a charmingly simple message to calm all the homophobic parents who worry if their sons play with dolls: chill out, it’s good practice for when he becomes a father. Now, would it have been better if the song wasn't so coded in heterosexual conceptions of marriage and fatherhood? Sure, but it was 1974 and the thought of letting a boy play with a doll lest he be a “nancy” was still pretty revolutionary.
“Boy Meets Girl”
Women and Gender Studies departments at every university should make this mandatory viewing. Voiced by Thomas and Brooks, the simple premise of a baby boy and a baby girl trying to figure out what each other's gender is by discussing their appearances, their behaviors, and career ambitions unpacks a whole lot of stereotypes. Also, as with pretty much anything featuring Brooks, it is pretty darn hysterical, especially as he voices a baby's desire to be a cocktail waitress. It sounds kooky, but watch it. Watch it now.
This is not, as some would say, Free to Be’s “most quintessentially, insufferably Ms.-y moment” It is a valuable entertaining forebear of the progressive fairy tale animated films, like Shrek and Frozen, that would become the new childhood movie classics of the 21st Century. Atalanta is a young princess, and her father has decreed she must marry whichever man wins a footrace. To save herself from an unwanted marriage, she trains day and night, so she can win her own race. She ties with a forward-thinking lad named John, who refuses to marry any woman against her will. If only more fairy tales ended with this line: “Perhaps someday they'll be married, and perhaps someday they will not. In any case, it is certain they are living happily ever after.”
“Free to Be...You and Me”
Yes, it's a little trippy, but you can't talk about Free to Be without including the New Seeker's delightfully infectious opening song. You'll actually be happy it's stuck in your head. Also, just compare it to Barney's “I love you” or The Wiggles' “Fruit Salad.”