Michael Grasso / May 15, 2018
In 1972, actress Marlo Thomas, who’d made her name on the hit ’60s TV series That Girl, along with a team of entertainers and the support of the newly-founded Ms. Foundation for Women, of which Thomas and pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem were founding members, released an album of songs and skits titled Free to Be… You and Me. The album’s intent was to try to break down the dominant gender stereotypes in American culture and encourage parents and kids to think differently about how girls and boys were raised. Covering practical issues like girls’ achievement in athletics (especially timely given the 1972 Title IX decision), boys playing with dolls, and the importance of household and emotional labor, Free to Be… looked to the promise of a future of gender equity. The album became a founding second-wave feminist document, achieved gold record status, and slowly was enshrined as a generational touchstone for young people growing up in the 1970s. In the spring of 1974, a TV special inspired by the album aired on ABC. It included many of the stars who’d lent their voices to the album, in combination with animated segments produced by The Point!‘s Fred Wolf. Much like The Point!, Free to Be… settled strongly into the collective memory of the children of Generation X.
In their time, the album and special were simultaneously immensely controversial and gushingly well-received. Anti-feminists bristled at the special’s overt messaging that seemed to want to undermine patriarchy. On the other hand, plenty of young parents in the early ’70s who’d been part of the counterculture and who had embraced the nascent women’s lib movement suddenly had their first pedagogical tool for instructing their children in gender equality. Showing how very little had changed in the decades since the project’s appearance on the scene, the 40th anniversary of the TV special’s release rehashed all these old, familiar arguments, ranging from an incisive three-part series on the franchise by Slate‘s Dan Kois to a retrograde, seemingly-ripped-from-a-1974-typewriter take by New York Post columnist Kyle Smith.
I will confess, I don’t remember the TV special itself, but the songs from Free to Be… were still floating around in my childhood, possibly even in school (film versions were sent to progressive schools across the nation in the era before VCRs). The album remained an artifact of the project well after the ephemeral memory of the TV special had vanished; songs like “William’s Doll” and “It’s All Right to Cry” still stir deep memories in me today. So what does this artifact of the early ’70s women’s liberation and alternative pedagogy movements have to tell us about where we are in 2018? What sorts of adults did Free to Be… You and Me make? What happened to this kind of painfully earnest children’s educational programming, and what were its weaknesses and strengths?
The producers were really trying to strike out at what they saw as the root of the problems in gender relations in America—the stereotyping that was drilled into young children by popular culture in games, toys, stories, and other popular media. Free to Be… You and Me was meant to be a tonic for the aisles of toy stores that groaned with pink dolls for girls and guns and army men for boys. In its somewhat naive ’70s way, the producers of Free to Be… figured the best way to do that would be to present girls excelling at sports (such as in the story of “Atalanta”) and boys playing with dolls (the aforementioned “William’s Doll”). It’s this simplistic reversal that seemed to grate on a lot of commentators at the time, as well as snark-filled modern provocateurs like the Post‘s Smith.
Granted, to observers in 2018, this approach can feel somewhat hokey and reductive, but let’s keep in mind: at the time, there were generations of oppressive stereotypes of girls and boys to dismantle in 1974. Thomas and Steinem wanted more possibilities for each gender. But yes, no one is going to say that Free to Be… You And Me somehow hits all the right cultural notes today. It was a time when American culture was trying to assemble something new out of a toolbox that was full of decades of broken tools. It’s going to feel like a half-finished structure at best, and, at worst, painfully out-of-date and square. The conversation around gender roles has advanced so much since 1974 that some of the sketches have come back around to being odd or even problematic (like the Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas sketch “Boy Meets Girl,” where one baby meets another and they try to puzzle out their gender together).
I wanted to center my examination of Free to Be… You and Me around the dorky, endearing, and, in my opinion, still devastatingly effective vignette with NFL great Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, where he strums a guitar and sings to the boys out in the TV audience that “It’s All Right to Cry.” Grier spent much of the latter part of his NFL career trying on new hats that hadn’t usually been open to ex-jocks back in the ’60s and ’70s: acting (in the classic 1972 racial farce The Thing With Two Heads, among other films and TV appearances), pursuing a religious ministry, and, in a gender stereotype-busting move of his own, trying his hand at needlepoint and macrame.
Okay, first things first: yes, both the song and the presentation are hopelessly square to modern eyes. In his Slate piece, Kois mentions that he showed the song to boys in 2014 and saw them “openly scoff” at it. But think about this: you’re a 7-year-old American boy in 1974. You’ve grown up with a constant, omnipresent message, probably from your father and other men in your family, to never let someone see you cry, to always be tough, to not let your emotions get the better of you “like a girl.” And one of the meanest, biggest defensive linemen to ever play the game sits there for a couple of minutes and tells you he cries—and laughs, and gets angry, and feels all those feelings that you feel. He also tells you that crying is good for you. Get it out, feel all the feelings, and move on! Grier is not just giving boys the right to cry, but the right to feel angry, to feel hurt, to feel joy. All these emotions are necessary and part of being human. What does that message do to you? Someone suddenly understands all the feelings you have, every day, and justifies them; tells you they’re worthwhile, and normal, and natural. It’s a revolution akin to Mr. Rogers telling the children in his viewing audience that they’re special “just by being you.” No conditions, no restrictions. For boys who often grew up with no male role models delivering this message, it is a profoundly liberatory ethic to inculcate, one that generations of boys were (and arguably still are) dissuaded from embracing.
I suppose the modern equivalent of “It’s All Right to Cry” is the film Inside Out (2015). I can recall a few parents of my acquaintance saying how much of a revelation the Pixar blockbuster was, and how welcome its message was for a new generation. I do find it interesting that in the organic, macrame-and-wood-grain 1970s, this message is conveyed by a man with an acoustic guitar; and in the technologically-fragmented 2010s, a similar message is conveyed by five emoji-like computer-generated characters who work inside a giant control room. Even this very notion of control, as embodied by the manic “Joy” character in Inside Out, seems utterly at odds with Grier’s message. But Inside Out eventually presents the same valuable lesson about a diversity of emotion being an essential part of maturing and growing up. Eventually, Sadness teaches Joy that, yes, it’s all right to cry and that, more important, sadness and sorrow can help you express yourself, induce catharsis, and move on from pain. The messy emotions often have the most to teach us about being truly ourselves.
When cultural conservatives hear the phrase “toxic masculinity” these days, they tend to strawman the next (supposedly unspoken) part of that phrase, which they assume is “all masculinity is toxic.” On one hand, nobody is saying that; the very existence of a modifier for masculinity intimates that somewhere out there, a “non-toxic” masculinity exists. On the other hand, if we look at it honestly, masculinity as it is currently defined by both gender essentialists and our culture at large absolutely is toxic. Essentialists these days like to trade in theories of biological determinism—supposedly bolstered by either science or cultural tradition or both—that it’s “natural” for boys to be aggressive because of the insoluble bonds of biological destiny. But as Rosey Grier sang, and as he undoubtedly knew from Scripture, there are times to fight and times to mourn; the trick is knowing which is appropriate for each circumstance. We are ultimately more than our bodies, our brain chemistry and hormones, and even the legacy of generations of oppression and misery. Moving a mountain takes a lot of little efforts, and the makers of Free to Be… saw an opportunity to, in some small part, take an oppressive cultural burden off of boys and girls for a little while and see what would happen. Remember, Free to Be… appeared at the tail end of the devastating Vietnam War, when American military aggression had wreaked havoc on hundreds of thousands of American men, leaving tens of thousands dead and tens of thousands more physically and psychically wounded, to say nothing of the violence inflicted on the people of Southeast Asia. It’s no wonder the makers of Free to Be… wanted to find a new way.
Today, a new generation of hucksters, grifters, and shills are finding great financial success selling a hierarchical and deterministic vision of masculinity to the young man alienated from himself and society. That young man is questioning his identity and purpose in a hyper-capitalist, hyper-competitive power structure that has, during his own journey to maturity, offered him no purpose at all. In a contemporary era where men are in such psychic turmoil that they turn inwards with self-hatred and subsequently explode with rage and violence (which is not to say this sort of thing hasn’t been going on for as long as there have been men), it’s long overdue that we re-evaluate how our culture, economy, family structure, and support systems all fail young boys. Maybe “What is wrong with men?” isn’t the right question; it might be better and more productive to ask, “What is wrong with the environments in which boys mature into these kinds of men?” A hyper-competitive environment that rewards aggression and domination will naturally produce boys who turn into aggressive men, keeping the vicious cycle of vicious men going on forever.
Marlo Thomas and the Free to Be… You and Me team were not trying to solve the seemingly insoluble in a single record album or TV special. This was rather the first step in a much longer journey. They were trying to give girls the self-confidence to be fully themselves, to give boys a more well-rounded childhood that would let them discover who they truly are. They knew that attempting to liberate girls who would grow into young women, free to pursue their own lives and destinies, would be a fool’s errand if they did not also simultaneously liberate boys from generations of oppression by societal expectations. The generation who watched Free to Be… You and Me—and other 1970s media like it—tried tentatively to emerge from human history’s harmful legacy of narrowly-defined gender roles. These children grew into adults who seized this possibility and ventured beyond the narrow bounds of sexism in their personal and professional lives. But nearly a half-century later, it’s worth asking why that possibility has narrowed back down again into a strangling limitation that has poisoned a new generation of young men.
Michael Grasso is a Contributing Editor and Exhibit Curator at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.