Free to Be You and Me

On my last procrastination streak, in addition to watching dozens of videos of young children singing pop songs on YouTube, I stumbled upon a gem from my childhood – all 44 minutes of ‘Free to Be… You and Me’. I don’t know how many of you watched, read or listened to ‘Free to Be,’ as kids, but for those who didn’t, it is a movie, book, and CD created in 1972 dedicated to entertaining kids without reinforcing gender stereotypes – boys are told its okay to cry, “mommies’” and “daddies’” jobs are unrelated to their gender, and princesses travel the world and remain single. I still remember my first “feminist moment” when, at age six, my jam sesh to ‘William’s Doll’ was interrupted by my dad saying that it was weird for boys to have dolls, to which I responded, “boys can do what girls do and girls can do what boys do!”

Rewatching ‘Free to Be’ made me think about a subject that is brought up a lot in feminist writings – gender roles in children’s entertainment. Disney Princesses are the go-to example of the problems that exist, with their plots centering on “beautiful” (read: slender, fair skinned, and young) women getting married to wealthy and powerful men. Meanwhile, movies and books aimed at boys focus on machines and vehicles. The vast majority of children’s books, tv shows, or movies aimed at both sexes have a primary male character, sometimes paired with a primary female character, but rarely with only a primary female character.

‘Free to Be…You and Me’ was a project of the Ms. Foundation for Women, giving it an openly feminist base, and the expressed goal was to erase stereotypes based on class, race, and sex in society from the bottom up, starting with children. I watched ‘Free to Be’ because my baby sitter watched it when she was growing up with a mother involved in the feminist movement of the 70’s, but heavily supplemented it with Disney and PBS.

While children’s entertainment has come a long way since 1972 when ‘Free to Be’ was published, growing up, our generation had little entertainment completely rooted in feminism and devoted to ending gender norms. The 1990’s brought a book-worm princess with Belle in 1991 and in 1998, Mulan, a princess whose “unladylike” behavior saves China. However, these characters still fit the beauty ideal and are ultimately rewarded by marrying a wealthy, powerful and handsome young man. When will we have a lesbian princess? A fat princess? A bachelorette princess?

I worry our generation is too complacent with the changes that are taking place, and, for the most part, refuses to push for extreme feminist change. What we watched as kids was applauded for taking steps in the right direction, as it should be, but it refused to take big leaps. Because some corrections have been made, there isn’t a call for entertainment dedicated to giving kids a view of the world with the stated purpose of ending all stereotypes in society.

This goes to the root of the problems with teenage feminism. Many feel as though the world has changed enough with the small steps taken that feminism is no longer applicable to their lives. However, sexism and gender roles continue to be present in entertainment and all other aspects of life, something that can only be fixed when we notice these problems and work to eliminate them.

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Kate T
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