Why are your toes painted like that?”
The question came from the neighbors’ kid Cam, a fourth grader friendly with my children, as a group of us parents sat in his living room drinking wine one afternoon in June. He was sprawled on the couch, sweaty and red-faced from wrestling with his little brother, and he’d noticed that each of my toes sported a different bright color of nail polish.
“I painted them!” my younger daughter exclaimed.
“It’s true, she did,” I said. “Harper really likes painting nails, so I let her do mine.”
I’ve modeled Harper’s salon skills for the past few summers. I like that she takes the task so seriously, choosing colors from a Ziploc bag of polish we keep on a high shelf in the bathroom and applying them carefully to my big, gross toenails.
“But …” Cam began, pausing to consider what his question really was. He seemed torn between viewing me as an object of pity and a key to unlocking life’s mysteries. “But don’t your friends make fun of you?”
“Oh,” I said, putting on a casual air, even though the conversation seemed unexpectedly important all of a sudden. “No, not really. When you get older, you have a different relationship with your friends than you do when you’re a kid.” Now I paused to consider. “Or maybe when you’re a grown-up, you just choose friends who understand the things you do.”
Cam, like every kid I know, has a set of firm beliefs about the clear dividing line between girls and boys. Girls and boys dress differently. They behave differently. They like different things. They manage their toes differently. They are different.
Forty years ago this November, an album appeared in stores that wanted to change all that. Free To Be … You and Me aimed to teach kids that boys and girls aren’t different at all: that every child, no matter which gender, can wear whatever, like whatever, behave however it wants. That every child can be free just to be.
From the album’s opening sounds—the jaunty strumming of a banjo on the title track—Free To Be posited a world in which every boy “grows to be his own man,” and “every girl grows to be her own woman.” The land of Free To Be was a place where girls could grow up to be mommies and doctors, and they didn’t have to get married if they didn’t want to. It was a place where boys could cry or play with dolls without fear of scorn. It was a place where boys and girls could be friends, no matter what they looked like or acted like—unless the girl was a prissy princess, in which case she would be eaten by a tiger.
The brainchild of actress Marlo Thomas, Free To Be … You and Me was also the product of Thomas’ life lived in showbiz. Calling in favors from people she’d known since childhood—her father was the comedian Danny Thomas—and the clout she’d accrued as the star and producer of the hit sitcom That Girl, Thomas assembled a murderer’s row of early 1970s musical and comedy talent. Diana Ross, Harry Belafonte, and the New Seekers sang. Alan Alda, Tom Smothers, Mel Brooks, and Carol Channing performed. Shel Silverstein, Carl Reiner, and Mary Rodgers wrote songs and stories. But all those stars paled in comparison to Thomas herself, who sang and acted on many of the record’s tracks—and assembled its cast of characters, oversaw the album’s tone and direction, and promoted the hell out of it upon its release.
Even with all that star power, the project was, at heart, founded on some serious feminist ideology. Free To Be was shaped by the philosophies of Thomas’ friend Gloria Steinem and the staff of her new magazine, Ms.—particularly Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who was already using the pages of that groundbreaking publication to advocate for a new style of gender-neutral parenting.
Forty years after its 1972 release, Free To Be has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and for a generation of kids—my generation—was a cultural and social touchstone, played not just at home, but at countless schools where its anti-sexist storytelling was eagerly adopted by progressive teachers and administrators. A 1974 book based on the record became a best-seller; its accompanying TV special got better ratings than Gunsmoke and won an Emmy and a Peabody.
Continue reading the rest of the story on Slate