Mom & Pop Culture: Lessons Learned From Free to Be... You and Me

Growing up in the ’80s, I wasn’t surrounded by the iPods, computers, video games, and television shows that my son is currently exposed to daily. Instead, a record player (and later, a Fisher-Price cassette player) made up the majority of my “tech” toys. And it was enough.

With my record player, I would listen to stories and music as I transported myself to various places, like the Big Apple Disco or Sesame Street. But my absolute favorite record came in a vibrant pink sleeve, covered in colorful letters with people climbing all over them. I could sit for hours, staring at the cover, coming up with stories for each person pictured.

Cover art of Free to Be... You and Me

I also spent many hours, laying on the shaggy carpet of my bedroom, listening to the record inside. Free to Be… You and Me, which was released in 1972, was the brainchild of actress Marlo Thomas and was incredibly innovative for its time. Thomas created the record after becoming frustrated when looking for a gift for her niece, Dionne. She was tired of all the children’s books that told kids what they should be, rather than what they could be. Thomas decided the best solution was to create something that challenged the status quo around children’s books and toys, and got to work creating a pretty progressive collaboration. Championed by Thomas’ friends Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and others, Free to Be… You and Me was an inclusive record and book that took on gender, race, sexism, and other issues—all via children’s music and stories.

Not only did I have the record, but eventually I had the book, and even later on, a copy of the video on VHS. And I still have them in addition to versions on CD and on my iPod, for my son to now enjoy. In fact, I think the lessons shared in Free to Be… You and Me are not only timeless, they are also incredibly essential to remember in today’s world. When we have young boys being targeted by Fox News writers for wearing pink toenail polish, and large companies that continue to push gender stereotypes, I think it’s time for a little refresher course in what it truly means to be free. With that in mind, I present to you five lessons I have learned, and continue to hold dear, from Free to Be… You and Me:

1. It’s Alright To Cry: Growing up, the song “It’s Alright to Cry”  never really grabbed me. In fact, I’ll admit that I skipped over it more than I listened to it. Yet, as the mom of a boy? It now speaks volumes to me. There is an acceptable social norm that boys and men should not show their emotions too frequently. If they do, they’re called weak and are shamed by others. Being told to “man up!” and bury feelings of sadness can be harmful to young boys who then don’t learn how to deal with their emotions, further perpetuating negative stereotypes. Free to Be… You and Me tried to break down this fallacy in the best way possible. In a song by professional football star Rosie Grier,they showed that it really is alright for anybody to cry and let out those emotions—even for strong, athletic, macho men. (Bonus: Bitch published an interview with Rosie Grier in the Confidential Issue.)

2. Parents are People: We are, we really are. Despite what some of my friends think, I didn’t just disappear when I had my son. I still have the same passions, drive, and interests I did when I was child-free (Just now with extra stains on my clothes, less sleep, and a greater knowledge of how to build the perfect block tower). I loved this song as a kid for its catchy tune and the reminder that I could be anything I wanted to be (regardless of my gender!). I love it now for the little reminder that I’m not defined (only) by my child.

3. You Don’t Have to Change For Anybody: Sung by Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson, “We Don’t Have To Change At All” is a song that reminds us that you don’t need to change who you are to meet others’ expectations. In a world where conforming is the norm, and where the slightest step outside stereotypically defined boxes can lead to negative consequences, it’s good to remember that…

4. Dudes Like Dolls Too. Much of what I write about deals with gender stereotypes and generalizations. For some reason it’s controversial and jarring when a young boys wants to wear pink, play princess, or snuggle a doll. Even as a child, I never quite understood why everyone was giving William such a hard time for wanting a doll, and was so glad his grandma was there to help set everyone straight. Now, I just wish more people saw the simplicity and truth of William’s grandmother’s words. Allowing boys (and girls) to play based on their interests rather than their gender won’t hurt anyone, and in fact will most likely help to create a well-rounded child.

5. Check Your Assumptions at the Door: Many of the songs, stories, and poems from Free to Be… You and Me remind us that what you see isn’t always what you get, especially when it comes to gender. Women aren’t necessarily the homemakers (or can choose whether they are or not) and men aren’t always the breadwinners. Girls can fish and boys can cook, flying in the face of rigid stereotypes. Despite the varied attempts by Free to Be… You and Me to remind others that people are more than the sum of their parts, strict gender codification continues to be pushed today—in toys, television, clothes, and general society.

My dog is a plumber. He must be a boy,

Although I must tell you his favorite toy

Is a little play stove with pans and with pots,


So perhaps he’s a girl – which kind of makes sense,

Since he can’t throw a ball and he can’t climb a fence,

But neither can dad – and I know he’s a man,

And mom is a woman and she drives a van.

Maybe the problem is in trying to tell

Just what someone is by what she does well?

-Dan Greenburg

While none of these lessons are all that revolutionary, they are ones that some folks tend to forget. So, perhaps we need to crack back open that book, spin the LP, or pop in the VHS, and remember the simple but important messages from Marlo Thomas and friends: That we’re Free to Be… You and Me.

Previously: Music Madness, An Interview with Ani DiFranco

by Avital Norman Nathman
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Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and fulltime feminist killjoy. Find her tweeting @TheMamafesto

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Great post- one small

Great post- one small correction: When We Grow Up was sung by Diana Ross on the LP/CD. Roberta Flack sung it on the live cast recording. What a great song!

The songs made me cry!

The songs made me cry! They're so beautiful. If I ever have children, this will be playing on loop, for sure.

We had this record when I was

We had this record when I was young. Looking back now I can't believe how ahead of it's time it was and how much it shaped who I became. Thanks for the reminder! I'm downloading it as we speak and will absolutely be sharing it with my children one day.

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