Free to be...
Today I'm celebrating the 35th birthday of one of my favorite childhood albums, "Free to Be You and Me." I've always loved this collection of songs and stories that envision a non-sexist world. As a young adult, I was proud to learn that Jewish feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin was the editorial consultant for the album, book, and tv special (and the author of "Stories for Free Children" which I also loved). Lately I've had the happy opportunity to appreciate "Free to Be You and Me" a second time around, now as a mom. It's fun to hear the voices of Marlo Thomas, Diana Ross, Harry Belafonte, Alan Alda, and Mel Brooks - it's like visiting with old friends.
The album holds up pretty well, lo these many years later. I hear a definite echo of the Seventies in "sisters and brothers, brothers and sisters, ain't we everyone," and if I were rewriting "Free to Be You and Me" for the 21st century, I'd add a couple of songs about how some men marry men and some women marry women, and not all boys grow up to be men and not all girls grow up to be women. But it's no less relevant today to tell kids that boys can play with dolls, that it's alright to cry, that marriage isn't the ultimate dream of all women, and that advertisements do not depict reality.
Which, of course, brings me to the sad realization that the world really hasn't changed much in the past 35 years. More people pay lip service to equality these days, but it seems to me that stereotypes about gender are still very much alive and kicking. As the mother of boy/girl twins, I see the small ways gender norms are encouraged every day. I got a surprising number of pink and blue gifts when my babies were born, and people are very quick to point out how "interesting" it is whenever my kids do something that seems to support a gender stereotype (e.g., if my son picks up a truck or gets sweaty running around, or my daughter is more interested in talking than walking.) Kind of a small sample size, don't you think? Perhaps these differences have more to say about individual personalities than gender?
I think the main difference between these early days of the 21st century and the days of my youth may be one of cynicism versus utopianism. I'm as cynical as anyone else living in this messed-up time, and I like my popular culture with a good dose of irony, but for some reason, I find the energy and earnestness of the album moving, not nauseating. (Ok, I'll even admit to an occasional welling up at the lyrics "every boy in this land grows to be his own man; in this land every girl grows to be her own woman.") I think that's what I'm most nostalgic for when I listen to "Free to Be You and Me" - a time when people believed they could change the world through kids music. It makes sense, really. I'm going to keep trying.