Where The Children Are Free To Be…

My Beloved Album

My Beloved Album

In 1976 a remarkable woman named Gloria Griffin was the DFL endorsed candidate for U.S. Congress in the Second District here in Minnesota.  She was an artist, a feminist, and an activist.   I didn’t vote for her as I was only five (going on six) at the time.  I would have voted for her though, if I had been old enough.   Gloria Griffin did not win the election, but she still had a profound influence on politics and women.  My grandparents and mother were ardent democrats and great fans of Gloria.  That summer of ‘76 I tagged along with Gram, Grandpa Leo and Mom to a campaign fundraiser held at the Griffin’s home in Minnetonka.  What made that day memorable for me was not a political speech, but an item on which my mother bid during the silent auction.  This item was precious for two reasons.  Firstly, even at five I knew my single mom didn’t have the discretionary funds for an extravagant fundraising bid, so that she bid at all, let alone that she outbid everyone else, made an impression.  Secondly, the item in question captured my imagination and came to shape my world view.  On that day, I became the proud owner of a brand new copy of Free To Be…You And Me book and album.  Free To Be was the brain child of Marlo Thomas and friends.  Their vision was to create engaging stories and music that spoke to children about all their possibilities in the world, “totally free of stereotypes of sex, class, and race” (read more about that here).  I loved everything about Free To Be…You And Me, from the quirky illustrated stories like “Ladies First” by Shel Silverstein to the totally goofy dialogue between two newborn babies, voiced by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas, in “Boy Meets Girl.”  One of my favorite songs on the album was When We Grow Up sung by Diana Ross’ rich, lilting voice.

When we grow up, will I be pretty?
Will you be big and strong?
Will I wear dresses that show off my knees?
Will you wear trousers twice as long?
Well, I don’t care if I’m pretty at all.
And I don’t care if you never get tall.
I like what I look like, and you’re nice small.
We don’t have to change at all. 

Hey!
When we grow up, will I be a lady?
Will you be an engineer?
Will I have to wear things like perfume and gloves?
I can still pull the whistle while you steer.
Well, I don’t care if I’m pretty at all.
And I don’t care if you never get tall.
I like what I look like, and you’re nice small.
We don’t have to change at all.

When I grow up, I’m gonna be happy and do what I like to do,
Like making noise and making faces and making friends like you.
And when we grow up, do you think we’ll see
That I’m still like you and you’re still like me?
I might be pretty; you might grow tall.
But we don’t have to change at all.

I don’t want to change, see, ’cause I still want to be your friend, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever.

Between Gloria Griffin’s gutsy campaign and Free To Be’s message, I came to believe that I truly could grow into whoever I wanted to be regardless of sex and race.  This belief was so compelling that I announced to anyone who would listen that I planned to become a prima ballerina and the first African American, female president of the United States of America.   The ballerina part would be just a hobby.  It was an admirable goal, but unlikely, and not because I didn’t believe a female could be president or an African American could be president (Go Obama!).  My hopes were only thwarted by the fact that I am a hodge podge of fair-skinned European DNA.  The point is that a child’s mind is not fettered by these sorts of culturally defined obstacles.  My copy of the Free To Be book is long gone, but I still have the album in its iconic pink cover with bold puffy lettering.  I no longer have a record player, but I keep the album in a frame on wall, just to the left of my writing desk.

Today, I try to emulate the Free To Be values in my parenting.  The kidlets have a big wooden costume box that overflows with dress up opportunities.  We’ve hard hats and police hats and firefighter hats.  We’ve the makings for any combination of royal or rascally character from the middle ages – bright yellow tabards with iron-on crests, faux leather quivers, linen tunics, crowns, wands and armor.  There are multi-colored scarves that serve as dresses, turbans, slings or whatever Bear and Goose can think up. There are cowpoke hats, farmer hats, and dragon hats.  I’ve stitched shiny silver robot costumes, dog ears on sweat suits, and red satin capes.  The newest addition to the heaping costume box is the Holmes-ian deer stalker and magnifying glass.  Goose got it for her birthday last month.  She’s been hot on the trail of a rogue monster ever since.  Apparently the monster left a sloppy trail of clues the length and breadth of our home.  She’s become a proper little sleuth, keeping notes of her findings in her Hello Kitty notebook.  We even have a fairy dress and wings in the costume box, but the one costume we have tried to avoid is the princess.  It’s not that I bear a grudge against the British monarchy for their poor treatment of our colonial ancestors.  My complaint is more to do with the toy and film industries’ take on princesses over the years – beautiful confections of little substance, worth only as much as their beauty can fetch in gold or a prince’s hand in marriage.  Please know that I do love Disney, but look to their classic Snow White and you see a beautiful princess who is kind, but neither strong enough nor smart enough to save herself.  Even in death, her beauty is displayed in a glass coffin and it is her beauty that ultimately entices the prince to kiss her and thereby bring her to life once more.  What does Snow White do?  What are her talents?  Of what is she capable?  Her kindness is laudable and certainly a quality worth cultivating in a child, but that message about kindness is undeniably overwhelmed by the other messages in her story.  In all of our expansive costume collection there is only one pink and shiny princess skirt.  Goose has recently come to adore it.  She wears it pulled all the way up to her armpits like a strapless muumuu and announces that she is a princess.  That’s as far as the story seems to go.  Even the princesses in Goose’s imagination don’t seem to do much other than wear pretty dresses.  To be fair, the movie industry has been doing a better job of creating stronger and more dynamic princesses – Fiona from Shrek, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Rapunzel from Tangled, and the best of the recent bunch, Merida from BraveTangled happens to be one of Goose’s favorite movies, though she more often pretends to be Flynn Ryder than Rapunzel.

It’s not that I don’t want Goose to be pretty in pink.  It’s just not all I want for her.  I want more for Bear Boy too.  The damsel in distress archetype does him no favors either.  Does he need to grow up with the message that a princess is his for the winning?  Should he grow up believing it is his daunting responsibility to save all of the helpless females he meets?  Does the stoic and manly prince stereotype teach him that his emotions are unimportant compared to his might?  I fully understand that males and females have some distinctly different qualities and much of it is simply in their nature.   After all, Bear is pretty entrenched in the whole knight and soldier thing, even if Dear Hubby and I never consciously promoted weaponry or other warlike toys.  But he is also the boy who asked for Bitty Baby like the one his little sister has and he is the boy who likes to put on lipstick when he sees me wearing makeup.  Someone once told him that boys don’t wear lipstick, to which I replied that they don’t often wear lipstick, but they can if these choose.  He did come home from school recently and announce that pink was a girl color.  I asked him why he thought this and he couldn’t really say.  I asked him if there was a boy color.  He told me red was a boy color because it was his favorite color.  If his favorite color was red and he was a boy and this made red a boy color, I told him, that would mean that green and blue would be girl colors, because those were Mommy’s and Goose’s favorite colors.

I guess what it all boils down to is that I don’t want gender stereotypes to limit my kidlets’ creative play and learning.   Certainly I can engage them, even at 6 and 4 years old, in some meaty discussions about this.  I can even tell them that boys can play with dolls and girls can play with light sabers, but they aren’t going to get the same message from many toy companies or stores.  What I’m seeing in advertising and in toy aisles is feels constrained.  It’s become a hot topic on the internet.  I was talking to my friend Bobbie about my frustration with this.  Bobbie has two girls and a boy.  Her eldest daughter likes purple and fashion and things generally deemed more feminine…she is also whip smart and strong.  The second daughter’s favorite color is neon green.  She prefers clothing from the boys’ department and she is a wicked good hockey goalie.  Bobbie’s son is a pretty typical boy.  Give him a baseball and he’s a happy camper, but he is likely the most sensitive and in touch with his feelings of all Bobbie’s children.  So, Bobbie was quick to commiserate with me over what seems to be the regressive marketing strategies of toy companies and big box stores.  I asked her if she would join me in a letter writing campaign to make our voices heard.  I figured we could start with two of the most disappointing culprits: Lego and Target.  In the age of Free To Be…You And Me, Brother Mine and I played with Lego building bricks with a focus that was nigh on a religious devotion.  I tended to build lighthouses or castles and construct a storyline to go with my creations.  Brother Mine was a wizard with vehicles, building motorcycles with functional steering shafts and shock absorbers made from those little springs found inside pens.  Our Lego collection was made up of multiple primary colors and didn’t come with ready-made scenarios, like those marketed by Lego now.  Not only are many of today’s Lego sets affiliated with current movies, many of the sets come with ready-made storylines tied to cartoons and books created by Lego.  Open ended creative building is no longer the goal it seems.  The 2012 launch of the girl-specific Lego Friends line put me over the top.   Lego has long been the standard bearer for gender neutral, intelligent, creative play.  What happened to Lego?  My beef with Target is that their toy aisles are color coded.  Granted, the packaging for most stereotypically girl toys is pink, but do the aisles need to be pink too?  In the “girl” aisles with dolls and houses and such are displayed are bright pink pegboard.  The shelving is pink.  Everything is pink.  All of the other toys, be they “boy” toys or gender neutral toys, are in blue aisles.  Seriously, is this necessary?

So, in doing a bit of internet research for a letter writing campaign to Lego and Target, I discovered a plethora of articles and interviews on this very issue.   One of the more interesting posts I saw came from The Achilles Effect (read it here).    Several months ago, the author of the blog, Crystal Smith, wrote a post about the Lego Friends line, which her son enjoys a good deal.  Clearly she has taught her son to look beyond stereotyped marketing.  It’s a well written post and is worth the read.  She includes a letter to the Lego company, encouraging them to consider a more gender neutral marketing of the Friends Line, for the benefit of boys and girls alike.  I also found an online petition from Nancy Gruver (read it here).  It is aimed at getting Target to stop segregating toys based on gendered stereotypes.  I encourage you to read both Achilles Effects’ letter to Lego and Gruver’s message to Target.  I also encourage you to sign the petition, write your own letters to Lego or Target, and make your thoughts heard.  I’m not proposing that boys and girls are one in the same or that they should be, but I do challenge marketers to rethink gendered stereotypes.  I’d like my children to be free from the boundaries that gendered marketing creates, free from the perception that they will be judged based on the color of the toy they choose, free from the notion that building is best left to boys and nurturing is best left to girls.  Honestly, I just want my little golden nuggets to be free.  Free to be.

 

 

Contact information for Lego
In Denmark:
LEGO Group Headquarters
Corporate Information & Public Relations
DK-7190 Billund
Denmark

In the United States:
LEGO Systems, Inc.
555 Taylor Road
P.O. Box 1138
Enfield, CT 06083-1138
USA

Jørgen Vig Knudstorp
CEO/Chief Executive Officer
 
Mads Nipper
CMO/Chief Marketing Officer
Executive Vice President – Marketing
 
Bali Padda
COO/Chief Operations Officer
Executive Vice President – Operations

Contact Information for Target Corporation
Target Corporate Office Headquarters
1000 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, MN 55403 USA

Gregg W. Steinhafel
Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer
 
Jeffrey J. Jones II
Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer

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6 Responses to Where The Children Are Free To Be…

  1. Val says:

    Good for you Jessie for not giving up! When I was pregnant with Breelie I refused to tell anyone she was a girl because I didn’t want everyone to start gendertyping her before she was even born! And as hard as I tried society formed her into a girlie girl and I just gave up. I do still insist there are no such things as boys toys and girls toys though. Shaylie pointed to a man with long hair yesterday and said “I don’t like his hair, it’s not suppose to be kinky.” I promptly reminded her that isn’t it a wonderful thing that we all get to choose for ourselves what our hair looks like. Then she says “but he’s a boy, he’s suppose to have short hair.” And I said “well, ‘Mama’s a girls and I have short hair. You wouldn’t like it if someone told you what your hair had to look like would you?” She thought about this for awhile and said “Grandpa would look funny with long hair.” Not sure if I got the message throughto her or not, but I tried, LOL!

  2. Bobbie says:

    Amen Sister!!!! Thanks for the lovely shout out about my kiddos, as well.

  3. Hey Library & Garden sister,

    I love reading a blog by someone so deeply impacted by Free to Be You and Me. I was too! I started an entire clothing line called Handsome in Pink (www.handsomeinpink.com) when my son fell in love with pink and purple. And I, too, have a blog about Free To Be You and Me. Check it out here: http://handsomeinpink.com/blog/2011/07/14/the-mixed-messages-of-my-youth-the-brady-bunch-versus-free-to-be-you-and-me/

    We should be in touch! Take care and keep up your great blogging! 🙂

    Jo Hadley, owner of Handsome in Pink

    • Thanks for taking the time to read what I had to say. I look forward to checking out your blog soon. There’s nothing more handsome than a boy who is confident in pink and purple. My husband wore a pink, hibiscus-printed bowtie at our wedding. 😀

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