July 23, 2018

Free to Be ... You and Me

It started with a book, or at least an idea for a book.  On March 11, 1974, on the ABC television network, a television special entitled "Free to Be ... You and Me" aired on U.S. broadcast television.  Produced by 1960's "That Girl" star Margaret Julia Thomas, better known as Marlo Thomas, (Marlo was the daughter of 1950's TV legend Danny Thomas, although her own TV show had gained her fame and popularity for being one of the first TV shows that featured a working woman who was not actively seeking out a husband, along with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" which ran a few years later).  Incidentally, Marlo's brother Tony Thomas was co-owner of Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, which is the company that produced such hit sitcoms as The Golden Girls (very recently, his partner Paul Junger Witt died of cancer, see https://usat.ly/2KnztsL for that news).

At the time, because Ms. Thomas was already a celebrity in her own right, she was able to assemble an all-star cast for this particular special, among them: Marlo Thomas herself, along with actors/actresses Alan Alda, Dustin Hoffman, Kris Kristofferson, Shirley Jones, Jack Cassidy, Carol Channing, talk show host Dick Cavett, comedy producer Carl Reiner, NFL football star Rosey Grier, singers Diana Ross, Rita Coolidge, Dionne Warwick, Harry Belafonte, singer/songwriter Roberta Flack and a very young Michael Jackson (then of the hit Motown singing group known as the Jackson 5).

The idea began with Ms. Thomas herself, who as noted, was already a star of the late 1960's TV sitcom "That Girl", and in 1971, she also became a new aunt.  (This was prior to Ms. Thomas marrying daytime television talk show host Phil Donahue in 1980, whom she remains married to as of 2018).  Ms. Thomas felt that her young niece's storybooks were the same old ones that she had read as a child, and she felt that the then-recent entries to the bedtime canon only reinforced the idea that boys were supposed to grow up to become pilots and doctors while girls were supposed to become lesser stewardesses (the feminine form of a term that has since been replaced with the gender-neutral term flight attendant) and nurses.

Marlo Thomas conceived a children's book that, instead of telling boys and girls who they should be, instead hopefully opened them to the possibilities of who they COULD be.  She gathered many of her talented friends and acquaintances from various worlds of the arts (TV, music and even professional sports) and the result was highly-regarded as a modern classic of children's literature.  Life-enhancing themes were imaginatively blended with music and humor to expand children's personal horizons, enabling them to invent their own futures without limitation, while dispelling some old constraints and worn-out conventions in the process.

Among her collaborators was Shel Silverstein and co-producer Carole Hart, and the project created a gold record album and a best-selling book.  Then, in 1972, it was then turned into an Emmy-and Peabody-winning TV special.  The effort was feminist and multicultural; an early childhood education in empathy; multimedia before anybody even used the word.  It was also promoted by Gloria Steinem's Ms. magazine (I touched on Ms. magazine in my Lynda Carter post at https://goo.gl/c25V1y) which was very big at the time.

Ms. Thomas admitted that her inspiration was that she had just became an aunt (her sister Terre recently had a daughter she named Dionne Gordon in 1969 -- the very same year I was born).  Thomas wrote in the prologue to the book 'When We Were Free to Be' edited by Lori Rotskoff and Laura L. Lovett:

"Honestly I was just trying to do something for one little girl." That it would grow to become a cultural phenomenon was never a part of the plan."

But the basic themes in the book, album and TV special were meant to inspire girls and boys to challenge gender and racial stereotypes, value cooperation, and respect diversity became very much part of the feminist movement of those days.  Remember, back in those days, there were only 3 broadcast television networks (plus government-sponsored PBS if you count that, along with some independent stations in select markets).  Cable TV was largely non-existent at the time, and VCR's, DVR's, videocassettes, DVD's and streaming video hadn't been invented yet.  That basically guaranteed a large audience for a TV special that aired just once.

Marlo Thomas' own YouTube channel (which can be found at https://www.youtube.com/user/marlothomas) and The Free To Be Foundation's YouTube channels (which can be found at https://www.youtube.com/user/ftbfoundation) both have clips from different segments of the original ABC special.  I've pieced them together in a playlist (which may or may not be in the original sequence) below, along with clips prior to and at the end of the "Free to Be ... You and Me" television special with commentary from Marlo Thomas and several of the other collaborators on the project.

Yet this particular TV special, the book and especially the soundtrack that was created for it, were fondly remembered by thousands of kids who tuned in to watch the show when it aired on TV.  Today, those kids now are in their late 40's or early 50's, and stepping into leadership roles in society.  The lessons taught in the special remained in the minds of many of those who watched.

The result of "Free to Be ... You and Me" effort created a very large population that largely wants to put racial issues, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny behind it.

As one original review for the book 'When We Were Free to Be' eloquently observed:

"A moving reminder that the women's movement was and is ardently pro-child. These fascinating reminiscences and timely essays about what still needs doing to make our children truly 'free to be' will have you singing the songs again—or discovering the joy of learning them."

Some of the most popular tracks from the original soundtrack can be listened to at  The Free To Be Foundation's website at at http://www.freetobefoundation.com/.  I have included four of the main songs which are found on its website below.

Free To Be You And Me

It's All Right To Cry

Sisters And Brothers

When We Grow Up

The book that inspired this blog "Whatever Happened To Pudding Pops?" has an entry about the "Free to Be ... You and Me" initiative which was as follows:

Free to Be ... You and Me

A BOY who loved his doll, a girl getting chomped by tigers, and a dog fixing a sink? Where do we sign up?

A record album, illustrated songbook, and 1974 TV special, triple-threat media powerhouse Free to Be ... You and Me was created when That Girl star Marlo Thomas wanted to teach her young niece that it was OK to break gender roles, in careers and life. And looking at today’s world, with its stay-at-home dads and doctor moms, there's little doubt that she helped make that happen.

Kids who got this book or album had probably never heard of women's lib except as a punch line on Maude. Many of the major points sailed over our heads; other parts seemed “no-DOY” obvious. No one likes housework. It's all right to cry. Boys can bake cakes, girls can bait hooks, and whatever gender you dreamy pencil sketches, snappy cartoons, and one story told in handwritten notes on torn notebook paper. Its most memorable song? "William Wants a Doll," sung by Alan "Hawkeye Pierce" Alda. Its best story? Shel Silverstein's hilarious “Ladies First,” in which a demanding little girl is eaten up by tigers. The book even addressed issues kids didn't know were issues, such as how you shouldn't dress your cat in an apron but should, if he so desires, let your dog be a plumber.  Heather Has Two Mommies gots nothing on this.

X-Tinction Rating: Revised and revived

Replaced By: A thirty-fifth anniversary addition of the book came out in 2008.  And in fall 2010, Target released a back-to-school ad prominently featuring the "Free to Be..." song.

The effort was not without criticism, even in the early 1970's.  As CNN reported, for every "Free to Be" class play, another school wouldn't acknowledge it. TV producers initially balked at a song that seemed to show Thomas and Belafonte as an interracial couple. At least one TV critic warned parents to keep kids away from the television when "Free to Be" was on.  James Dobson (who helped create several known anti-Semetic and anti-LGBT hate-groups, while avoiding anything that might imperil his own organization's tax-free status) Focus on the Family criticized it and advocated for rigid traditional gender roles in child-rearing. Even "Free to Be" supporters argued that some of the skits were classist, and noted that its bent toward traditional families with mommies, daddies and children were exclusionary to children in single-parent homes.

Still, with this kind of feminist-inspired teaching of children of that era, no one should be surprised that today, a majority of younger people are far less interested in reigniting old race or gender role tensions of the past (no matter what Donald Trump and his white supremacist supporters may believe, and a President who just barely won the electoral college while losing the popular vote by more than 3 million votes cannot presume he is guaranteed unwavering public support for his racial perspective).

Aside from the 2016 election results and the subsequent national embarrassment of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the country stands at a precipice right now.

Baby Boomer voters are finally outnumbered by the number registered voters, although voting patterns have enabled them to claim a majority for at least the 2016 election and possibly the next one or two elections, mathematically, their days are numbered.  Given the societal cues, the racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic views embodied by the Alt-Right (which is basically white supremacy re-branded with a new name), the very people who so fervently supported Mr. Trump will be increasingly difficult to maintain much beyond 2020.  Indeed, while he has solidified support among right-wing voters, polling shows that he has lost support among independent voters, and more generally, female voters overall.

On October 21, 2015, Marlo Thomas Tweeted this picture of herself,
her sister Terre and her niece Dionne (the little girl that inspired Free To Be)
who had both come to see her in the show Clever Little Lies.
While the original "Free to Be ... You and Me" television special had a very limited broadcast, The Free To Be Foundation was incorporated in 1973 to develop and market educational products that challenge stereotypes, fight discrimination, and encourage individuality and the freedom to pursue one's talents and dreams.  The foundation continues to maintain a website which can be visited at http://www.freetobefoundation.com/.  The Free To Be Foundation's website has links to where the 2008 thirty-fifth anniversary edition of the book (a link to the publisher is listed below) is still sold, along CD's with the soundtrack and even a DVD release of the original ABC television special.  In addition, a stage play with a script and accompanying music can be licensed from the foundation.

Several Links About the "Free to Be ... You and Me" initiative can be seen below:




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