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Reflections on Free to Be You and Me Turning 40

Last month I mailed a copy of the CD version of Free to Be You and Me, the 1974 musical collection developed by Marlo Thomas to my feminist friend who is having her first baby.  Thomas got her “famous” friends together (Alan Alda, Rosey Grier, Tom Smothers, Diana Ross, Mel Brooks, Billy de Wolfe, Carol Channing, Dick Cavett, and Shirley Jones) to make this album of songs and stories as an antidote to the lack of gender free toys and books on the shelves as she searched for a birthday gift for her niece.  (Imagine getting this present from your Aunt Marlo?).

I don’t know how old I was when my parents gave me this album, but it came with a songbook of the words and I learned every one of them.  As I entered adulthood, I made copies for baby shower favors for my brother and for my best friend.  And while a 40 year old songbook seems dated, it is still very relevant.

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Christina Hoff Sommers provides a trenchant tribute in her March 11th Time Magazine article “‘Free to Be’ Boys and Girls: 40 Years After the Failed Gender Revolution.” She negatively summarizes some of the songs and stories, stating “the songs drive home the idea that we are all androgynous beings unfairly constrained by social stereotypes.”  Then she goes on to use the example of the American Girl Doll franchise to demonstrate how boys do not go for dolls; and that is another failure of the women’s movement for gender equality.  WHAT?

Ms Hoff Sommers, you are clearly missing the point.  The point is not that boys want dolls.  The point is that men want to be active engaged daddies and that mommies want help.  And yes, Ms Hoff Sommers, there has been a shift in 40 years toward this endeavor I call equality.  I know many of you would cite examples like this, but my little brother and his wife are true equal parents to their little boy.  They take turns doing all the parenting pieces required to raise a child in today’s world.

But then Ms Hoff Sommers begins her descent down the slippery slope of stereotyping.

But, after 40 years of gender activism, boys and girls show few signs of liking to do the same things. From the earliest age, boys show a distinct preference for active outdoor play, with a strong predilection for games with body contact, conflict, and clearly defined winners and losers. Girls, too, enjoy raucous outdoor play, but they engage in it less. Girls, as a rule, are more drawn to imaginative theatrical games — playing house, playing school — as well as exchanging confidences with a best friend. Boys playing kickball together in the schoolyard are not only having a great deal of fun, they are forging friendships with other males in ways that are critical to their healthy socialization. Similarly, little girls who spend hours in deep conversation with other girls or playing theatrical games are happily and actively honing their social skills.

To suggest that the ways in which boys and girls like to play, as socialized by their parents and our culture, is a prediction for whether they will parent in sex stereotyped roles is a reach.  Free to Be You and Me was about looking ahead to the future where limits wouldn’t be placed on what girls and boys wanted to do with their lives. (This was really happening in 1974.  Remember “Help Wanted” ads for men only or girls only?)  Free to Be You and Me was not, and is not, what Hoff Sommers calls “a cautionary example of how an idealistic social fantasy can turn into a blueprint for repression.”  Sex stereotyping and limiting women’s and men’s ability to develop their own free expression is repression. Patriarchy, which still exists, Ms Hoff Sommers, is the blueprint for repression and continues its architecture in many places across the globe.

Marlo Thomas and her friends planted within me, from this album, a passion for equality, justice, freedom, and theatrical expression.  And forty years later, I am thankful to her for that.

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The Pube Debate–NSFW

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Upon my return from my amazing vacation to Hawaii, I saw that American Apparel had put pubic hair, or merkins, on its window mannequins.  According to American Apparel, they did this to show the “rawness and realness” of sexuality.  My feminist colleague, who writes a blog called The Feminist Cupcake, addressed the issue.  Her main point,  

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you own your crotch, make decisions based on your relationship to your parts, and voice the opinion that other feminists have a right to be masters of their bodily universe and self define. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you choose to sport a 70s style full-fledged bush or not – as long as you think about it and make a choice based on your needs. This is the gray land of actual feminist empowerment. 

 

While I agree with her on some points, I think there is a larger analysis missing from this conversation. But before I get into that, I want to assure you I’m not some old lady feminist who hasn’t attempted the bikini wax or the Brazilian.  I’ve done it all and continue to believe, in the words of Eve Ensler, that “hair is there for a reason.”  If you’ve ever tried to pee with no pubic hair, it goes everywhere.  You need a mop instead of a few pieces of toilet paper.  This fact alone is crucial in analyzing the importance of the bush.

Three years ago I taught a Women’s Studies class called The Female Body: Women’s Health, Sexuality and Reproductive Rights. There were forty people in the class.  We got into a discussion of the shave/wax versus au-naturele.  What amazed me the most about this group of young women, mostly junior and seniors, and many of them from the College of Nursing, was their complete lack of awareness about why they shaved or waxed. On the whole, they all felt that 1) pubic hair was dirty; and 2) men would not have sex with them if they had pubic hair.  They also discussed the policing of their bush by men. For example, a woman was talked about at a party by other men “Don’t get with her, she isn’t clean.”

Roger Friedland’s Huff Post article addresses this lack of awareness.  If boys only see depictions of hairless women as they grow up, they will not be prepared for the bush they might discover as they grow up. And they could be contributing to a culture that tells girls and women our bodies are not “right” unless they are plucked, waxed and shaved.

And while Emily McComb’s article in XOJane mirrors The Feminist Cupcake in that it doesn’t matter and we have better work to do, I have to disagree.  The policing of women’s bodies, in whatever way it is policed, is a problem that is directly connected to sexual violence.  As long as there is any policing of women’s bodies, there will also be men who think they have the right to do what they want with them.  To say that it’s ok as long as you know why you do it is too simplistic.  It’s too simple because so many young women, particularly, do not know why they do it.  They just do it because their friends do it and it’s what they see in magazines and porn.

One of the best moments of the this class I taught was when a group of students decided to do their final presentation on images of porn from 1970 to today.  One young woman was lucky enough to have a father who had saved all his old playboys.  I was blown away by the beauty of the women’s body in her own form, no fake boobs, no shaved or waxed pubic hair.  Below is a NSFW example.

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If you open any Penthouse or Playboy today, all you have to do is replace the head and you’re pretty much looking at the same body, no pubic hair and breasts that will never fall into their armpits when the model is laying down.  It’s boring.  It does not reflect the diversity of women’s bodies.  And most sadly, it reinforces a culture of body policing that requires we are all thin, big boobed and alike.

Contradictions in Living

Halloween is my favorite holiday.  But Thanksgiving follows close behind for second, even though it is wrought with historical yuck.  I recently tried to explain to a student, who is from Lebanon, why it’s such a nice holiday while she was talking about the historical fallacies of the American Indians and the Pilgrims having a lovely meal together.

She’s right.  Just like Columbus Day, we celebrate a day based in colonialism.  How does one reconcile this history?

For me, what is nice is that my husband and I invite friends and family to our house for a home cooked meal.  My husband is an amazing and generous cook and his love and ability to make food, like an artist, really brings people together.  We’ve always invited friends for Thanksgiving since we first started having them and those Thanksgivings are much more memorable than the ones with just family.  So how does a radical feminist reconcile colonialism with what has now become a day to reflect on gratitude?  All I can say is I don’t know.  I just know that we try to take a moment and be grateful for what we have.  And I try to include a diversity of people around my table.

There are other contradictions like this.  Thanksgiving is quickly followed by the corporate sponsored holiday, Christmas, which was once a christian sponsored holiday.  The commercialization is nauseating.  In fact, I’m so overwhelmed by it, I try to just tune it out to the best of my ability and work hard to avoid wanting anything I see on tv, like the new kindle fire!  I don’t even have a kindle, even though I have been asking for years. (Hint Hint, Jefferey Gonsalves!)

Last year I made a concerted effort to buy gifts on Small Business Saturday. But even that is sponsored by American Express.  And I love shopping online, which of course means going to Amazon, and more recently Etsy.  I wish I had the time and energy I had in my 20s when my partner and I would make presents for everyone.  We had so much fun figuring out what to make and then mass producing them for family and friends.  We made chimes out of recycled materials, block prints of peace signs, homemade kahlua, homemade sambuca.  Then we started earning a better living and got too busy, or was it just lazy?

On the in-law side of the family, we try to do a Yankee Swap so it is fun and each person can bring just one gift.  And it is fun, if everyone participates.  This year, I bought two of the same things we are going to give to a lot of different people.  Both of these items fall under the tool category and are really helpful.  I want to give present’s that make people’s lives easier.

My husband and I stopped giving each other Christmas gifts a few years ago.  We usually do a stocking and a card.  Our birthday’s fall in February so it seemed silly to spend money on each other with a month in between.  This year we will buy new hiking shoes for our trip to Hawaii in January.  But no matter what, and no matter where I shop, it will be overwhelming and stressful and a lot of money.  This is the piece that stays with me as I tune out all the commercials for Christmas.  And that is the emotion I want to remove from the holidays.  And that is probably why Thanksgiving is so nice, because it’s not about giving, it’s just about being present.  And isn’t that enough?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  Maybe while we’re eating our Turkey we should talk about how we’re trying to end commercialism and racism and all those “isms” that make our world such an icky place.  This year, instead of sharing something we are thankful for, or sharing gratitude, maybe we will share a way we are trying to make this a better world.  For everyone.

my feminist praxis

critical reflections on my feminist praxis: activism, motherhood, and life

Ashley.Bendiksen.

The official blog: My personal manifesto on living your best life, every day.

The Feminist Critic

Providing weekly critiques of theatre, film, books, politics and pop culture from a feminist perspective.