When we grow up

Pub date June 17, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


In the 1960s and early ’70s there was great enthusiasm behind the idea of loosening up the public school system. You know, making things more participatory, sparking kids’ imaginations, encouraging those who might have be bored or neglected in traditional classroom models.

Suddenly grade-school veteran Mrs. McGregor was prodded — not that some sterner specimens didn’t resist — to read the hidden signs of each child’s psychological well-being as well as drill ye olde reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. If the freshly arrived 20-something teacher (or teacher’s assistant) seemed more cool, accessible, and just plain interested, that’s because she or he was; universities had started moulding them that way.

Anyone who grew up in that era remembers the incongruity of old playground games alternating with teacher-led, noncompetitive new ones. Old instructional and filmstrips that seemed prehistoric because they came from the Eisenhower era, offering laughably corny behavioral (not to mention grooming) advice, were shown alongside hip new edutainments urging tolerance, getting in touch with one’s feelings, and treading gently on Mother Earth. (Most of the latter were produced by questionable corporate friends of the planet like Exxon and DuPont.) Where minority students had always had to accept their absence from textbooks and other media, now kids in the whitest small-town or suburb saw rainbow-coalition peers depicted in revised or brand-new materials.

This happened fastest on TV, where much children’s programming seemed to grow sophisticated and viewer-improving overnight. On the commercial networks, there were the likes of Schoolhouse Rock and Fat Albert. The bounty on PBS, then fatly funded and as yet undiminished by cable competition, included Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and ZOOM. All knocked themselves out painting learning as fun, group inclusion and individual differences as neat. The messages were subversive by prior standards: girls could grow up to be astronauts too; boys were encouraged to cry if they felt like it. (And we all know they sometimes do.)

Perhaps the era’s zenith was Free to Be … You and Me, a multimedia phenomenon that hasn’t died yet. (The original album is still in print.) Chosen this year for the annual Sunday kids’ matinee slot at Frameline, it has a special place in the memories of umpteen lesbian, gay, and trans adults — because while it didn’t directly address sexual identity, the emphasis on upending stereotypical gender roles echoed deep for kids who mostly didn’t know yet just how "different" they might turn out to be.

The story goes that Free first grew from liberated That Girl star Marlo Thomas’ desire to create something for her young niece. Something that didn’t reinforce traditional "See Dick! He’s building a mud fort! See Jane! She’s happy just watching him, keeping her dress clean!" sentiments in kid lit.

That idea became a half-million selling 1972 LP by Thomas and starry "friends" including one 6’5 NFL legend (and author of Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men) singing sensitive boy anthem "It’s All Right to Cry." There were also tracks like "Parents Are People," "William’s Doll," and "Helping," performed by everyone from Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross to Tommy Smothers, Carol Channing, and Dick Cavett.

Many of them were back for the prime-time, hour-long special on ABC two years later, joined by Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Harry Belafonte, some Muppets, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson (still cosmetically intact), and the choral Voices of East Harlem.

A broadcast staple for some years, the show is still pretty great, reflecting the contributions of such brains as Carl Reiner, Shel Silverstein, Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), and Thomas’ major collaborator Christopher Cerf. Mixing sketches and songs, live action and cartoons, it humorously soft-pedals myriad corrective lessons: revising the Greek legend of suitor-outrunning Princess Atalanta so that the happy ending is feminist, not marital; clucking at the selfishness of a superfemme, pink-clad girl who brattily insists "Ladies First" (and gets eaten by tigers as a consequence).

The term "politically correct" hadn’t been invented yet, but it could certainly be levied against Free. As it duly was/is, in some quarters. "Make no mistake, this is propaganda aimed at children. The message is that girls will find happiness only if they mimic boys," harrumphs one current Amazon customer. (He also considers the running skits with wisecracking Muppet infants "disturbing" and "revolting.") Alert Rush Limbaugh, quick!

This dangerous brainwashing tool generated picture books, a belated TV sequel (1988’s Free to Be … A Family), and a 35th anniversary revised-form original print reissue for which Thomas made the publicity rounds last year. These days she may be lesser known in gay circles for public philanthropic expressions than her alleged private despotic ones (see scurrilous unauthorized biography That Girl and Phil: An Insider Tells What Life is Really Like in the Marlo Thomas-Phil Donahue Household, a camp tell-all classic right up there with Call Her Miss Ross.) All gossip aside, however, innumerable grown-up queers are still in Thomas’ debt. A self-Acceptance 101 dose as easy to swallow as Flintstone multivitamins, Free to Be … You and Me remains good for you, and baby too.


Sun/21, 11 a.m., Castro