Channing with a glitzy showbiz colleague (and possibly her only worthy rival)
Free to Be… You and Me was second-wave feminist consciousness-raising at its simplest, and at its finest. The brainchild of Marlo Thomas (yes, the Marlo Thomas of That Girl fame) the 1972 album and accompanying book was produced in conjunction with the Ms. Foundation for Women with the express purpose of giving children some gender-neutral, identity-affirming entertainment. A lot of FTBYAM’s success could be attributed to the many high-profile celebrities who participated in the project. The kids might not have known who they were, but it probably made their parents more comfortable with it.
For example, former NFL defensive tackle Rosey Grier sang a song called “It’s All Right to Cry.” Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda (who directed much of the album) sang “William’s Doll,” the surprisingly emotional tale of a little boy who wants to play with dolls. Thomas actually had to fight to keep “William’s Doll” in the 1974 FTBYAM television special because ABC expressed concern that playing with dolls could make little boys gay (if only!). She also had to fight to keep her duet with Calypso legend and black activist Harry Belafonte, as ABC was worried Southern viewers would see an interracial couple and all hell would break loose. (We’d like to think things have changed, but…)
But my favorite segment of FTBYAM is the contribution of the immortal Carol Channing. Below you can hear Dolly herself talking the sweetest line of smack on advertisements, bullshit depictions of Hollywood femininity, and the very idea of housework as “women’s work.” It’s not patronizing or preachy, but it’s perfectly sweet and subtly clever.
Channing may seem like a left-field candidate for a project like FTBYAM, but I assure you, she’s an inspired choice. Think about it.
Who better than the glamorous Carol Channing to remind kids that housework isn’t glamorous? And who better than Carol Channing (a lady so feminine that only the most talented of women, Muppets, and drag queens can even attempt to emulate her), to tell little girls that femininity isn’t contingent on a perpetually sunny disposition and a dutiful commitment to drudge-work? Gender is something that you can navigate and mold to your liking—to put it in terms a child could understand—gender should be fun. And no one has more fun being a girl than the great Carol Channing!
Bonus clip: Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack sing “When We Grow Up” in the 1974 FTBYAM television special: