Free to be…you and me: 40th Anniversary

This November is the 40th anniversary of Free to be…you and me. The television special, which aired on March 11, 1974 (3 months before I was born) and was shown repeatedly in my elementary school in North Carolina, was my introduction to feminism. In honor of the anniversary, I thought I’d post some of my online lectures about the film; I’ve screened parts or all of it in many of my classes.

Feminist Debates, Fall 2011

Final day of class, December 13, 2011 
In “Feminist Education for Critical Consciousness” (in Feminism for Everybody), bell hooks argues for the need to give children access to a feminist education. Is this possible? Necessary? What would it look like? Did you have access to feminist education when you were younger? If so, what were (weren’t) you taught?

On our last day, I thought I’d show you my introduction to feminist/feminist values: Free to be…You and Me.

top_logo.gifI’m a child of the 1970s (born in 1974). When I was in elementary school in North Carolina, the entire school watched the Free to be…you and me film (Videos/VCRs didn’t exist yet…yes, I’m that old) during an assembly. Everyone was really excited because it was a long film–a whole 45 minutes!–and long films meant less class time. Anyway, I don’t remember much of what I thought about the film back then (I was probably 6 or so). Yet, I’m sure some of it seeped into my consciousness, helping shape how I experience the world and how I see myself and my relationship to others.

Originally a book/album created by Marlo Thompson, with a little help from Gloria Steinem, Free to be…you and me was turned into a one hour TV special. It first aired March 11th, 1974 (3 months before I was born). You can find out more about the history of the project here. Several years later, it became a popular film to show in schools around the country (like mine in North Carolina. It was also shown in Minnesota).

It stands as one example of feminist mass-based education. Would such a show be possible now? What sorts of feminist (or feminist-friendly) films did you see in elementary school? If we were to create a feminist resource for kids, what would/could/should it look like?

Here’s one of my favorite songs from the show:

Note: Rosey Grier was a football player during the 1970s. I really like how “Free to be…you and me” challenges the stereotype of who does cry (girls/women) and who isn’t supposed to (boys/men). In addition to having Grier sing the song, they also show a series of images of all sorts of people crying. As I was searching through youtube for this clip, I also found this one from Barney, “It’s OK to Cry”:

Barney is singing to little Beth about how it’s OK for her to cry. Does this song undercut a feminist message to boys (and all children), that its alright for everyone to cry?

Feminist Debates, Spring 2011

Week of April 11th, 2011

April 11               Youth/Children and Values
Martin, Karin. “William Wants a Doll
Berstein, Susan David. “Transparent
film clips: Free to be…you and me and Tomboy

Direct Engagement Question for the week (students were required to post comments on these questions):

  • What does it mean to engage in gender-neutral child rearing?
  • How are gender and sexuality connected in terms of child rearing and the development of gender identities? This is a key part of Martin’s argument–I am curious about what you all think she is saying with this argument and if you agree with it or not.
  • We will be watching the clip from Free to be…you and me, “William Wants a Doll” in class on Monday.

    You can check out the lyrics here). What sorts of strategies (theories of gender, etc) are going on in this song? What do you think about how this song frames William’s behavior in terms of his role as a father?
  • In her essay, Martin describes one of the critiques made against socialization theory, that it offers an “exaggerated view of children as unagentic, blank slates” (457). (How) are children active participants in their gendering process? How do they process and reflect on their own gender performances (their practices, actions, etc)? Are they just products of socialization? Or, are they both projects of socialization and agents who negotiate their gender identities/roles/expectations?

Online Lecture/Discussion:

We wil be watching this video in class today:

Tomboy from Barb Taylor on Vimeo.

Here are some questions to consider from kjfalcon’s discussion of the movie:

  • What are some of the main messages from the cartoon?
  • Why is gender something that has to be policed?
  • In the cartoon how do you interpret the representation of the intersections of gender and race? If you don’t see the explicit connection between gender and race/ethnicity does it matter that this Alex – the tomboy – is a Latina character?
  • What do you think of the representation of the mother character?
  • This is meant to be a tool for teachers learning how to teach – is this affective in this sense? What value do you see in encouraging dialogues around these issues to occur through this movie?
Is it possible to raise children in a gender-neutral environment? How do toy advertisements discourage this and encourage rigid gender divisions?
We are also watching some clips from free to be…you and me.

Comments (on blog entry)

Author Profile Page Nosecage | April 15, 2011 1:20 PM
I am going to try to keep this comment relatively brief, as I know we all have so much work to be getting done. I was, however, a little bummed that we didn’t get to address “Transparent” by Susan Bernstein in class last week. I think it’s a really important article to critique and engage with, so I wanted to bring some of my curiosities up here on the blog and see if we could have a bit of a discussion.
My main concern here is that we understand that Bernstein’s perspective is quite problematic on a couple of levels. The article is not meant to be taken as an authoritative perspective on what it means to raise kids with gender-neutral values. Bernstein does nothing to address the consequences of her kid’s gender non-conforming behavior, which can be severe and damaging. Throughout the article, Bernstein writes from a stance that suggests an almost utopic (not-a-word; adjective form of ‘utopia’) understanding of the world. As early as the third paragraph she says, “…it’s a commonplace to encourage children to try on all sorts of identities.” Really? I think not.
She at one point explains to Nora (her daughter) that, “…once in a while boys grow up and decide to be women, and the other way too.” This seems like an overly simplistic description of transgenderism, if not outright misinformation. Most transgender folks I know don’t ‘decide’ to be transgender, or to transition to living as some other gender than they were assigned at birth, it’s something they need to do in order to begin the process of being comfortable with their bodies–which I would argue is an undeniable human entitlement. While I understand that some of the complexities might be hard to put into language that young children can comprehend, it’s important to not set them up with assumptions that could potentially lead to transphobia (“If they’re simply deciding, why don’t they just not do it?”) Is this all we can say to kids to trouble sex/gender assignment? Can’t we work outside gender binaries to ensure our children have a full range of ways of expressing their gender and, more importantly, their personhood?

Perhaps even more troubling is the way Bernstein deals with and addresses Nora’s eventual move toward gender conformity. She praises Nora’s androgyny as if it were the ultimate answer to gender troubling–some phase on the path to personhood at which we can all arrive and feel at ease. Bernstein also largely ignores the question of Nora’s sexuality, which clearly deserves to be addressed.

Finally, the second to last sentence of the article, “Today’s multiplication of options, though inevitably a challenge, definitely bespeaks a better chance for adult postgender happiness,” almost critiques itself. Bernstein’s uptopic vision is made so apparent in this sentence that I’m not even sure what else to say. Postgender!? Equivalent to color-blindness!? Eek.

Author Profile Page sara | April 16, 2011 10:32 AM

Thanks, nosecage, for beginning this discussion. I agree that it is important to be critical of this essay and I think you do a great job of raising some key points of concern. As I was reading this essay, I also found myself writing all over the margins: what about the consequences of violating gender norms? In many ways, this story of Nora seems very utopic. The recent s**tstorm over a boy wearing pink nail polish demonstrates that “playing with gender norms” has serious consequences–consequences which are exacerbated by social media and the ability to spread violations so rapidly and effectively across the interwebz.

I also agree that sexuality needs to be a big part of this discussion. In many ways, Bernstein’s essay and her promotion of postgender happiness seems to be an extension of the second wave gender-neutral parenting techniques and the “free to be…you and me” attitude that was always haunted by heteronormativity and the threat of homosexuality (this gets hinted at when Bernstein discusses Nora’s “baby dyke” haircut on page 4). How are negotiations of gender tied to negotiations of sexuality?

This essay is from the perspective of Nora’s parent and not Nora. What might Nora’s narrative about growing up and negotiating the gender binary look like? How might she talk about the experience of being mis-identified at the hotel or being accused of being in the wrong bathroom? We focused our discussion on family values from the perspective of feminist parents and their attempts to educate kids/youth. How can youth be engaged in the process of educating? Check out Put This on the Map and their video about reteaching gender and sexuality (created in the wake of the It Gets Better Campaign from last fall).