Friday, November 9, 2012

Free to Be... A Feminist

I was musing the other day, wondering when it was that I first became a feminist. It must have been in college, I guessed, after first taking a course in Women's Studies and being introduced to the central ideas of the second wave feminist movement. But my memory is remarkably bad, something brought home to me yet again after reading these great posts by Dan Kois on Slate about the 40th anniversary of the making of the record album Free to Be... You and Me, which was first released in November 1972. Marlo Thomas and the myriad talented authors, songwriters, actors, and musicians that she recruited to create this groundbreaking album never used the word "feminist" in any of the songs or skits on the record. Yet the examples they set before these (at the time) seven-year-old ears clearly had a lasting effect, allowing me not just to dream of a world where I could "be almost anything [I] want to be," but to take it for granted that such a world would exist when I became a grown-up. Yes, I first became a feminist not in college, but after listening to "Parents Are People," "My Dog is a Plumber," "The Sun and the Moon," and all the other stories, poems, and songs on Free to Be...

The record album is long gone (did one of my younger sisters score it during one of the many "please move your stuff out of our house, we're not your offsite storage" kicks my parents went through over the years?). But I still have a copy of the book, originally published in March of 1974 as an expanded companion volume to the album. Interestingly, the copyright page of my edition reads "Bantam edition/December 1987," dating not from my childhood but from the months right after I graduated from college. Was it a nostalgic purchase, a last glance back at childhood before I moved definitively into the working world of grown-up-ness? Or was it simply a recognition of my roots as a feminist?

Given that the Free to Be project aimed, in the words of one of its co-creators, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, to "dispel myths that distort reality—like pretty-equals-good, and all-mothers-stay-in-the-kitchen, and big-boys-don't cry," to "challenge stereotypes that have imprisoned children's imaginations [and] stunted their emotional development," it's hardly surprising that romance stories are hardly to be found amongst the album's track or the book's pages (12). Yet the story that first comes to mind when I think back to Free to Be... is a romance, at least a romance of sorts: Betty Miles' retelling of the Greek myth of Atalanta.

Second-wave feminists began arguing that folk and fairy tales socialized young children into patriarchal ideology around the same time that Marlo Thomas was putting together the original Free to Be... album. Marcia Lieberman's " 'Some Day My Prince Will Come': Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale" (College English 1972) first took issue with the sexism in many familiar fairy tales, and many feminists debated the role such stories should play in childrearing throughout the 1970s and 80s. Some wished to toss out folklore and its outdated sex roles altogether, sex roles that taught girls that beauty and passivity were the highest feminine virtues. Others, arguing for the psychological importance of this literature, decided instead to collect relatively unfamiliar tales that featured stronger, more active female characters (for example, Rosemary Minard's 1975 Womenfolk and Fairy Tales). Still others chose to rewrite the "classic" tales in ways that challenged conventional views of gender socialization and sex roles (Jay Williams' The Practical Princess, published in 1969, and Jack Zipes' 1986 collection, Don't Bet on the Prince).

Hippomenes and Atalanta at the Louvre
Betty Miles proved herself at the forefront of this trend with her retelling of the story of Atalanta for the original Free to Be... album. In the Greek myth, Atalanta, who has taken a vow of chastity in the name of the huntress goddess Artemis, has no wish to marry. After her father pressures her to do so, she agrees, but with one condition: she will only marry a man who can best her in a footrace. Many men try, and many men lose, forfeiting not only Atalanta, but their own lives. Until one young man, Hippomenes, calls on Aphrodite for aid. The goddess of love gives Hippomenes golden apples, which he throws at Atalanta's feet each time she pulls ahead of him during their race. Distracted by the irresistible apples, Atalanta veers off course to retrieve them, ultimately allowing Hippomenes to win the race and her hand in marriage.

The opening of Betty Miles' version of the story tells a similar tale, with small but telling tweaks. Atalanta is desired not for her looks, or for her bloodlines, but because she is "so bright, and so clever, and could build things and fix things so wonderfully" (128). Atalanta's father, a king, is constructed not as simply domineering, but rather as "a very ordinary king; that is, he was powerful and used to having his own way"(128). It is the father, not Atalanta, who comes up with the idea of the footrace, choosing it not only because of his daughter's resistance to marriage, but also because of his own inability to decide who will be the best suitor. In these opening paragraphs, it is not the king, but Atalanta who strikes the reader as the competent and confident participant in this joust over marital prospects.

As the story progresses, Miles makes even larger changes to Atalanta's story. First she re-imagine its hero. It is not Hippomenes, who claims the blood of Poisedon, but the far more prosaic "Young John, who lived in the town" who proves to be Atalanta's chief competitor. While Hippomenes desires Atalanta at first sight, the highly enlightened Young John wishes to meet the princess after seeing her "day by day as she bought nails and wood to make a pigeon house, or choose parts for her telescope, or laughed with her friends" (131). And while Hippomenes does not question the wisdom of winning a mate via footrace, Young John believes it "not right for Atalanta's father to give her away to the winner of the race. Atalanta herself must choose the person she wants to marry, or whether she wishes to marry at all" (131). He races not to win her hand in marriage, but rather for the chance to talk with her, to get to know her, to ask the bright, clever girl if she will be his friend. (On the album, both the patriarchal King and the feminist  Young John were voiced by Alan Alda, suggesting not just difference, but continuity between the two characters. A hopeful sign that the conventional view could easily be transformed into the progressive? Or an ironic warning that Young John might all too easily slip back into the role of dominating patriarch?)

Illustration by Barbara Bascove from Free to Be... You and Me
Miles also rewrites the outcome of Atalanta's footrace. It is not through the intervention of a goddess that John becomes the victor, but instead through his own hard work, running every night after his studies are finished. And Atalanta is not distracted by gaudy fruit, nor is she defeated. For she, too, has practiced every day until she, just like John, "could run the course more quickly than anyone had ever run it before" (131). Instead, John "ran as her equal, side by side with her" until "smiling with the pleasure of the race, Atalanta and Young John reached the finish line together" (135). The memory of Marlo Thomas' and Alan Alda's voices, joined in joyful celebration of their characters' mutual triumph, rings with pleasure in my head to this day.

Miles ends her story not with a wedding, but with adventure. After the two spend the day together, sharing their ideas and interests, each leaves home: "John sailed off to discover new lands. And Atalanta set off to visit the great cities" (135).

Yet the possibility of marriage, of a romantic relationship that develops out of shared admiration and shared interests, remains temptingly open between these two friends: "Perhaps some day they will be married, and perhaps they will not," the narrator teases. The openness of that ending offers young listeners, and young readers, the opportunity to envision either possibility, without insisting they choose one or the other. The story ends by assuring us that no matter which we chose, Atalanta and John would both be "living happily ever after." A feminist fairy tale conclusion indeed.

Do you have any Free to Be... memories? And can you remember when you first considered yourself a feminist?

Photo/illustration credits:
Atalanta and Hippomenes statues: Oregon Live

Next time on RNFF:
Subverting romance conventions in Eloisa James' Your Wicked Ways


  1. What a wonderful post! I grew up on "Free to Be," too--some of my happiest memories of grade school are of singing songs from it in chorus, back in the early 70s. (We also sang "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar--what were they thinking??)

    My students sometimes seem to me to have grown up in a much less open time, where gender is concerned. (Maybe especially the boys?) On reflection, things are more complicated; after all, they're quite comfortable with out LGBTQ classmates, in a way that I don't recall. But I miss the optimism and the revisionist energy of that Free to Be cultural moment. Thanks for bringing it to mind!

  2. Interesting comments about your students, Eric. They're comfortable with different sexualities, but not with less fixed constructions of gender? Or at least of masculinity?

  3. Interesting comments about your students, Eric. They're comfortable with different sexualities, but not with less fixed constructions of gender? Or at least of masculinity?