Pop-Culture | Posted by Kate T on 07/27/2010

Free to Be You and Me

Free to Be You and Me

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.

small steps

small steps

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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  • Danielle @ at 4:29 pm, July 27th, 2010

    Awesome article! I appreciate your point about “small steps” being taken to diversify children’s entertainment, but not “huge leaps.” I completely agree.

    Mulan is one of my all-time favorite Disney movies (along with Alice in Wonderland which, I’d like to point out, is one of the few movies that doesn’t put an emphasis on “ending up with a guy”), but when you think about it, these so-called progressive characters (like Mulan and Belle) are still “too” beautiful. Like you said, I want to see a fat princess! A single princess! A lesbian princess! A FEMINIST princess!

  • Tippie @ at 5:42 pm, July 27th, 2010

    Why are you lumping fat women, single women, lesbians and feminists together? More importantly, why does a fat woman, a single woman, a lesbian or even a feminist to teach young girls valuable lessons?

    More importantly, I don’t think that children’s entertainment has to have fat women, single women, lesbians or feminists to teach young girls a lesson. Growing up, my favorite movies were “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”. In “Cinderella” a girl is horribly abused by her stepmother and stepsisters. That doesn’t stop her from believing in true love and the inherent goodness of people. In “Sleeping Beauty”, two people fall in love with each other because of their personalities. Neither of them knew that they were falling in love with another royal. (Aurora didn’t even know she was a princess.)

    I learned very valuable lessons from stereotypically beautiful white women. I am not saying that role models for women must be tall, slender women with long blond hair; I am simply stating that you act like traditionally pretty women have nothing of value to teach young women. If my Disney princess argument didn’t prove my point, try this: My grandmother, a woman who would have people tell her she looked like a movie star, taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons. She’s still teaching me. Furthermore, she never identified as a feminist.

    I never had any fat, lesbian feminists in my life, and I think I turned out just fine.

  • Khadija Hassan @ at 10:33 pm, July 27th, 2010

    Technically, Mulan didn’t marry until the second movie but I see your point.

  • Anna @ at 5:24 am, July 29th, 2010

    @Tippie: I don’t think the point of the article was to say that slender white women can’t be intelligent and important. The point of the article was that they are the unequally represented as the norm, which they are not. This, causing young girls who watch these films and are fat, lesbian, feminists, or just not white slender blonds to feel abnormal, leading to a whole slue of security issues.

  • Nadia D @ at 3:03 pm, July 29th, 2010

    I agree with you 100% Kate. I’ve never listened to or heard of “Free to Be You and Me” but I think its pretty cool considering the time and how we seemingly went backwards in erasing gender roles in children geared entertainment.

    What I liked about Mulan, and also with Tianna(?) in The Princess and the Frog, was that the men were never their goal for the whole movie; Mulan just wanted to save China and be worthy to her family, and Tianna just wanted her own shop, the men were just the icing on the cake for them. Though I wish it would be awesome if a Princess ended up happy WITHOUT the Prince… its a step in the slow, but right direction.

  • Renee @ at 9:50 pm, May 25th, 2011

    I sometimes feel as though some people read into things too deeply…i mean I never sit the bill of any disney princess I wasn’t that well off I was black (african american) and I would be damned if someone made me swab the floors..but despite all of that I still loved them and I still loved myself…im not saying that your theory is bullshit I’m just saying that watching some princess movie and playing with barbies are not going to destroy your self image…having said that I would love to see a jewish girl as a character in a disney movie how coo would that be :D

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