DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Free to Be You and Me

In the early 1970's, actress Marlo Thomas, the daughter of famed comedian Danny Thomas, added to the feminist story by starring in the sitcom That Girl, which was revolutionary for being the 1st series portrayal of a single working girl on network TV. Following the success of that show, Thomas wanted to do more to shatter the gender stereotypes of the times and so she became the brainchild behind the wildly successful 1972 children's album  Free to Be ... You and Me,  which saluted values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one's identity and endorsed the message that anyone—whether a boy or a girl—could achieve their aspirations.

The album, which included a Who's Who of the entertainment world including Alan Alda, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross was followed by a TV special, a book, and a play which is still performed around the country.

Recently, a panel of experts discussed the impact of the ventures in a special program at the National Archives entitled When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children's Classic and the Difference It Made.

The panel consisted of  :

  • Lori Rotskoff, author and cultural historian
  • Laura Lovett, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts
  • Carole Hart, an award-winning television and film producer and writer
  • Barbara Sprung, co-director of the Educational Equity Center at FHI 360 and
  • Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a feminist and child-welfare advocate
From the view of the 21st Century, it is difficult to remember just how revolutionary the idea of gender equity was at the time the record was produced. "Not 1 big label would take it," Hart, one of the project writers said. "One executive asked 'Why would I want to put out a record produced by a bunch of dykes?'"

There was also difficulty is getting the TV special aired. "Executives were afraid they would lose their Southern audience because Marlo and Harry Belafonte (a black actor/singer) acted as a married couple," Hart said.

So why was the at-the-time-so-controversial project such a success? "You were finding an unspoken need," Hart said.  "It was very funny and very entertaining. It didn't feel like it was preaching anything. It was just pointing out stereotypes that were very limiting and celebrating all the freedom you could have."

Sprung, who was beginning her curriculum work at the time, said America "was deluged with sexual stereotyping that was not reflecting the lives people were living in the 70's."

"We had messages like boys invent things, girls use what boys invent or boys fix things and girls need things fixed," Sprung recalled. 

Sprung said the project helped free young girls to move into areas previously thought of as masculine. "But it was much harder and more difficult for boys to break out of their roles, probably because of the fear of homosexuality," she noted.

"The project put on a light bulb in the heads of many parents. It made a difference and it is still making a difference. It changed parenting and children in this country," Sprung said.

Rotskoff agreed that the scope of the project was powerful. "Now is a good time to take a measure of its historical importance," she said.  "It encouraged young children to reject stereotypes and value individuality. Really, it's a version of a Declaration of Independence."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips 
The special program was part of a series on the 1970's being offered in conjunction with the exhibit Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photography Project. The exhibition is running until Sept. 8.

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