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Jewesses with Attitude

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.

3 Comments

As the writer said, gender stereotypes are alive and kicking. I heard a 40-year-old woman tell her nephew recently that the sparkly decal tattoo was girly. I inwardly hit the ceiling. The nephew's mom, a cleric, smiled and said...nothing.

Interestingly, where most gender-based taboos have been broken, a strong one still remains: Naming. Women can be Prime Ministers and police officers, boys can be nurses and even midwives, but it's amazing how nearly everyone, when choosing their children's names, revert right back to Pink and Blue World.

I know strident feminists who live gender equality in every area of their lives, yet who could not wrap their heads around naming a girl a "boys' name"; they instead go for unmistakably feminine names like Ariella or Aviva. It never occurs to them to slice off that "a" at the end.

It kills me that naming is that last stronghold of gender stereotype when it's the easiest thing in the world to change.

I helped write a Hebrew version of FTBY&M at Camp Ramah! Who knew there were so many Hebrew versions out there...

Thanks for sharing your friend's critique. I have to say, as much as we live in a culture that *claims* boys and girls can grow up to be whatever they want to be, there is still a lot of implicit evidence to the contrary, and kids don't miss a thing. Even in cases where parents have jobs that go against traditional gender stereotypes... I'm thinking of a story of a little boy whose mom is a rabbi and who, when asked if he wanted to be a rabbi, made a face and said "that's for girls." So maybe we can detach the job from its gender stereotype, but getting rid of the idea that roles are gendered altogether... that seems harder to do.

Thanks, Judith, for this-- I also love Free To Be You & Me (and have fond memories of being in a Hebrew language version at Camp Yavneh) and continue to play it (to the annoyance of my husband), but was surprised recently when a friend said that she didn't want her children to have FTBY&M because 1) it's so heteronormative, as you point out and 2) she wasn't interested in her kids learning that there might be an expectation that boys & girls should be different. As you say, the kids will learn it eventually anyway, but I thought this was an interesting observation-- I wonder whether kids whose mommies and daddies are already doctors, teachers, and poetry makers will understand that song, or perhaps start to wonder for the first time why someone needs to point out that mommies & daddies can be anything they want to be.

"Free To Be You And Me" Album Cover by Marlo Thomas
Full image

Letty Cottin Pogrebin was the editorial project consultant for "Free to Be You and Me" album, released on November 27, 1972, as well as the book and television special associated with the project. Created by feminist and actress Marlo Thomas, "Free To Be You And Me" is an album of non-sexist stories and songs for that have helped shape the worldview of a generation of children.

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Free to be...." 27 November 2007. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/free-to-be-you-and-me>.

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