I’m free to do what I want any old time. And as a person bestowed with such abilities sometimes I miss events. Sometimes I miss events and make up awesome reasons why I wasn’t there. I missed this event because I was trapped under something heavy. Wait for it…trapped under something heavy because I’d just saved the universe from…something…threatening. A threatening Buick. That’s it. You’re welcome.
So back by popular demand, it’s guest blogger Michal Richardson with her perspective on the Free to Be You and Me event: When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made.
I remember where I was when I first encountered Free to Be…You and Me: billowing across the Texas interstate with my college boyfriend, carried along by Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda and all the rest. As we made our way from San Antonio to Kingsland to visit the boy’s parents, who had brought him up on the album (they bought him a doll and everything), neither of us could quite believe that Free to Be and I had eluded each other for this long.
I didn’t know it then, but Free to Be would come to embody all that I wanted to accomplish in the world – to create media that free children of having to act according to a proscribed norm, and that help those children to become more understanding friends to each other. And I’d like to use danceably zippy tunes, if possible.
I wasn’t the only one. This fall, editors and historians Lori Rotskoff and Laura Lovett released an entire volume reflecting on all that Free to Be (as they referred to it) unleashed on an unsuspecting world forty years ago in 1972. The powerhouse duo brought four types of voices to the book: original Free to Be contributors; writers who grew up with the phenomenon; historians; and contemporary media producers. A delegation of CMA folks had the good fortune to attend the book launch event, with several contributors (including CMA’s own Writers’ Group Coordinator, Becky Friedman) in attendance as panelists and audience members.
The evening alternated between screening clips, and a rotating cast of panelists. I have gleefully watched the 1974 television special since the event, but these clips were my first glimpse of the small screen’s interpretation of Free to Be, and I adored them immediately and unyieldingly. Just as I’d become convinced that Marlo Thomas and Harry Belafonte made the world’s most adorable team in Parents are People, I was confronted with Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack tossing hats and feather boas around the preciously nostalgic, cartoonishly sweet set of When We Grow Up.
And then came William’s Doll, which caused a bit of a stir during the Q&A. I admired the animation style, and the choice to jump between perspectives to match the song’s mood. But mostly, I loved how three short minutes of animation brought out William’s father as a character, with a fully articulated transformational journey. I’ll admit to getting a bit misty.
As panelists and audience members hastened to point out, though, William’s Doll left itself open to interpretation. A couple of audience members thanked William’s Doll for having given them, as gay boys in the 1970s, “the code I needed to get by.” Contributor Karl Bryant observed that while many such boys found the song affirming (though he didn’t identify; as a child he yearned not for a baby doll but for a Barbie), the song spoke to the boys’ need for coding – noting that William had to perform as a conservatively-styled boy, playing sports in order to earn his doll.
“Happy as we are that William’s Doll communicated self-acceptance,” chimed in creator Letty Cottin Pogrebin, positing that the song didn’t necessarily reflect William’s sexual identity at all, “…we wanted to open up the other half of the toy world to both genders.” She recalled a painting made of her son as a boy, pictured with all he loved most in the world—his rocket, and his two dolls Edgar and Hanukkah—and concluded majestically with the Free to Be message of, “I can do anything I want, and love anything I want, and be anybody I want.”
Listening to William a couple of years after producing it, Carole Hart regretted the song’s conclusion that William would inevitably become a parent (after all, she and her husband, composer Bruce Hart, had chosen not to). She, Karl Bryant, and other panelists agreed, however, that without coding William the way they did, the song would never have made the airwaves; William had to swing conservative in order to pave the way for works like contributor Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy.
A recurring motif, in fact, presented itself across the evening’s reminisces: creators today would have taken these themes much farther, but Free to Be had to play conservatively to survive. In its transition to television, in fact, Free to Be shed a couple of its gender-themed pieces (including one of the heights of creative twentieth-century achievement, Carol Channing’s sublime reading of Housework) in favor of family-themed sketches. Everyone agreed, though, that especially for its time, Free to Be laid the foundation for a revolution.
Free to Be You and Me can claim responsibility not only for moving feminist ideals into the mainstream and for cult fandom (one editor – I never actually learned which was Lori and which was Laura – noted that her stoically academic colleagues would burst into song at mentions of her work), but for a drive among media creators to produce artful and intentional work to children, addressing difficult issues without oversimplifying the content.
One audience member credited Free to Be with the generation that elected Obama. Another panelist spoke of Free to Be inspiring her children’s media awareness, taking care in the media they consume much as they do the food they eat. A familiar audience voice—Jeffrey Lesser, who worked as an engineer on Free to Be before moving on to a career in composing—applauded the panelists’ bravery in not dumbing down the music for their young audience. “They’re smart,” he observed; “they can take it.”
Of course, without much provocation, the evening gave way to freewheeling reminiscing. Some creators recalled the accusations that flew against them: that they weren’t married or parents; that they hated men; that “William needs a gun.” Contributor and reporter Robin Pogrebin, featured in the 1974 special with her siblings, recalled filming the iconic carousel scene: “I remember the smell of Marlo—very perfumey.” Robin, later jealous that her siblings featured more prominently on television, was consoled by her mother (creator Letty Cottin Pogrebin), “You’re in the New York Times.”
Carole Hart spoke of her need to produce an album that would change children’s perceptions of their gender options: “Honestly, I was aghast at what was out there.” When Marlo Thomas presented her prospective source materials, Carole pronounced everything but William’s Doll to be “pedantic and unsuitable,” telling Marlo, “I don’t think you’re being ambitious enough.” This, of course, lit a fire under Marlo to produce the songs she wished she’d had growing up.
Carole went on to recount the saga of the Parents Are People number (including “a series of incidents” wherein Marlo Thomas and Harry Belafonte, in separate cities, accidentally recorded the song in different keys), and a standoff between Marlo and the network. Staring down ABC’s threats to can the song, for fear that viewers might infer that Marlo and Harry were married, Marlo threatened to walk and take the entire project to CBS instead. The song stayed.
Composer Stephen Lawrence, who fondly pulls out Free to Be when tough times require a boost, recalled: “Michael Jackson’s agent, I believe, was in charge of setting his keys.” To a question from the audience he remarked, “We should have cut Girl Land. It was a great song, but it scared the hell out of kids.” To a suggestion that the song had the gravitas that other tracks lacked, he retorted, “It had enough gravitas for the whole album.”
The celebratory atmosphere became contemplative during the Q&A, as one young audience member stood and explained that her friends identified as postracial and postfeminist. How, she wondered, could she inspire them to view her and the Free to Be mission as anything other than angry, boring, and outdated? Would her friends understand when they had kids?
“My kids love Free to Be,” quipped Robin Pogrebin. “They have to.” With her mother Letty working at Ms., Robin and her siblings had grown up with Free to Be‘s mission in “the air we breathed,” confident that gender would never become an obstacle to achievement. When Robin became a journalist and a mother, however, “it was kind of like hitting a brick wall.”
Robin felt a common tension – that she couldn’t meet either her parenting or her career obligations fully. She toned down her ambitions to be available for her children. Prestigious assignments still come up “that I don’t cover because I want to tuck my kids in at night.” This, she asserted, was the reason we don’t see more women running things.
“My kids love that I work,” continued Robin; “…my Free to Be values are definitely in my children.” Her story, however, highlighted another consensus among the panelists: the work begun by Free to Be was not yet finished.
Robin Pogrebin’s yearning for systemic change was a call to action: not only for workplace policy reformers, but for this generation of media-makers. We craft the ideas that will allow today’s children to feel free to be themselves, and to grow up accepting each other as equals and individuals – if we’re careful. If we’re thoughtful and innovative and wildly irreverent. And maybe if we can book a banjo player.
So change your desktop wallpaper to a photo of Carol Channing. (I just did.) There’s housework to do, children. Let’s do it together.