When I was a kid, I loved Free to Be, You and Me, that fabulous Marlo Thomas extravaganza of the 70’s. I had most songs, stories, and dialogues memorized. I never really thought much about the messages, but loved all of the stories and songs. I loved singing along with “It’s alright to cry” and “William Has a Doll.” I was thrilled when Atalanta and Young John tied the race and when the “tender sweet young thing” got eaten by the tigers. Before Leigh was even born, I knew that the number one musical purchase I would have to make would be Free to Be, You and Me. It was important to me that my daughter grow up learning those same feminist messages in a fun and musical way.
But 35 years later, those messages sound a bit different to my ears. The first casualty was “Ladies First.” For some reason, Lyn didn’t want us send the message that a “girly girl” is in danger of being tiger food. I thought it was just because she didn’t grow up with the album in the same way I did. Thankful for iTunes, we edited that song out of our version of the album. But although I was skeptical, after a while I found myself uncomfortable with the story as well. I don’t like the portrayal of young girls who like to wear pretty things as spoiled brats who, if we are all lucky, will get what they deserve.
Fine, but don’t let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch, right? Except that I’ve always been confused by Diana Ross’s “When We Grow Up,” which contains lyrics like “When we grow up, will I be a lady?/Will you be an engineer?/Will I have to wear things like perfume and gloves?/I can still pull the whistle while you steer.” The message of the song seems to be we can still be friends, and “we don’t have to change at all,” but why can’t I be the engineer and you be the lady?
Then I start hearing all the sexist messages the songs and vignettes are sending my kids even as they refute them — most women can’t throw a ball or climb a fence, most people think boys shouldn’t play with dolls, most big boys don’t cry (although Rosey Grier knows some that do). And “Girl Land” is just creepy. Not to mention the fact that I actually don’t want to tell my kids that housework is “just no fun.” In our house, we talk about how important all kinds of work is, housework included. I agree with Carol Channing when she says, “make sure when there’s housework to do that you do it together,” but I don’t see why doing it has to be such an unpleasant experience. Then again, I’m not “waxing the furniture till it just glows.”
So it seems that except for a few choice songs and stories (like “Helping” and “Glad to Have a Friend Like You”), Free to Be, You and Me is moving out of our music rotation. I for one will really miss it, but I think that Leigh and Ira can learn to be feminists without it.