Free to Be ... You and Me enjoyed considerable success, with the record album selling over 500,000 copies. So what was it all about?
The politics of Free to Be ... You and Me is discussed in an interesting article by a modern day feminist, Judith Stadtman Tucker. She notes the influence of Free to Be ... You and Me on the ideals of feminist women of my generation:
As ... mothers' accounts of feeling blindsided by reality ... move into the public domain, I've noticed that women born in the late '60s and 1970s often use Free to Be ... You and Me as a reference point in their reflections on "how it was supposed to be".
Stadtman Tucker sums up the political message of Free to Be ... You and Me as follows:
its principal strategy is portraying traditional gender roles as limiting, hurtful and old-fashioned.
In particular, there was an attack on girlhood. For instance, the lyrics of one of the songs, Girl Land, includes these lines:
They're closing down 'Girl Land'
Some say it's a shame
It used to be busy
Then nobody came
... And soon in the park
That was 'Girl Land' before
You'll do as you like
And be who you are.
Stadtman Tucker suggests that the vision of the future presented to children in the poems, songs and stories is,
molded by adult concerns about the perils of the feminine mystique and the gendered division of labor. More specifically, the creators of F2BY&M seem intent on discouraging the formation of romantic illusions in little girls and imparting the value of female autonomy.
None of this is surprising, as it fits in easily with liberal autonomy theory, on which feminism is ultimately based. According to this theory, we are human inasmuch as we are self-defining, self-determining individuals. Therefore, aspects of our identity or social roles which we simply inherit, rather than choosing for ourselves, are thought to be restrictive. This includes traditional national identities (based on ethnicity); received moral codes; the traditional family; and inherited forms of manhood and womanhood (or girlhood and boyhood).
This is the theory being expressed by the child development expert who wrote the following notes for the Free to Be ... You and Me record:
By raising doubts about traditional restrictive models for men and women alike, the record opens up for children the happy vista that all individuals, male or female, are people above all.
Being thought of as distinctively male or female is a "traditional restrictive model" in this theory; therefore, there is a logic to the attack on girliness in the Free to Be ... You and Me record.
More than 30 years after the appearance of Free to Be ... You and Me, problems with the theory behind the record are apparent, even to committed feminists like Judith Stadtman Tucker.
She puts forward three criticisms. The first is that the record "overpromised". If gender really is just an oppressive gender construct, then it ought to be easy to liberate people from its bonds. The record promised its listeners that freedom was "not far from where we are"; other feminists at the time, such as Letty Cottlin Pogrebin predicted that by the year 2000 "traditional marriage and the gendered division of labor would be obsolete".
As it happens, feminists have certainly had some influence in pushing toward such aims, but the influence of gender has nonetheless survived in the way we live. Although Stadtman Tucker doesn't argue this, we could conclude that this is because gender is neither as oppressive nor as artificial as the theory assumes.
The second criticism is that girls were told that there were no limits, that there was nothing to restrict them from doing anything or being anything. This is the autonomist vision of freedom, but in practice it turned out to be oppressive for many conscientious girls.
The reason is that if there is nothing to stop us from doing or being anything, then why can't we achieve all that we have a mind to? If I can do anything I set my mind to, then I can be perfect. Stadtman Tucker writes:
the fable also brings to mind what Courtney Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters (2007), describes as "the oppressive paradigm of the perfect girl". According to Martin, the newly-minted model of the Perfect Girl is "unhealthily driven and fiercely independent". Some of us with feminist parents were told "You can be anything." Somehow we heard, "You have to be everything." Instead of triggering the viral spread of female self-acceptance, Martin argues that targeting the free-to-succeed message to impressionable young girls has resulted in an epidemic of self-loathing and obsession with weight control.
The final criticism is the most significant. The Free to Be ... You and Me record had already, by 1972, picked up the idea that careers were the path to autonomy for women as they were a more self-defining and independent sphere than motherhood.
What this meant, though, is that the traditional male role was assumed to be the standard, "human" one. Men were (supposedly) the autonomous ones, so the first task was to push girls away from their "false" femininity and toward the "privileged" masculine (i.e. human) role.
But this leads to a contradiction in autonomy theory. Autonomy theory tells us that we should be able to choose in any direction; yet, it also tells us that achieving autonomy requires making some choices (such as being a feminine girl) illegitimate. The ideal of autonomy becomes coercive.
Judith Stadtman Tucker is aware of this issue. She notes that the Free to Be ... You and Me record,
suggests the first step to freedom and self-respect for girls is to do the same things that boys do ... girls are repeatedly cautioned about the perils of being too girly - and the most hideous fate of all is to grow up to be a "lady" ... being a girly-girl is coded as early-onset false consciousness that inhibits young women from experiencing the joys of independence and the hard work of creating an authentic life.
Stadtman Tucker tells us that she is uncomfortable with this "prescriptive approach" which suppresses feminine qualities. She really nails the problem, though, when she writes that,
I have a problem with children's literature - no matter how well-meaning - that assures boys and girls "A person should wear what he wants to wear/And not just what other folks say/A person should do what she likes to/A person's a person that way," then turns around to suggest that being a certain kind of girl - the kind of girl who likes to wear perfume and play in "Girl Land" - will lead to a bad end.
In the world of 1972 feminism, a girl was free to be anything, except what was most natural for her to be. She had to attempt to be authentically herself by aiming to be something she was not, namely a boy.
It was not a quirk of feminism to assert these positions, but an outcome of liberal autonomy theory - a theory which is still the orthodox view but which is ripe for criticism.