When we grow up

Frameline 2009: '70s relic Free to Be ... You and Me still resonates
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a&eletters@sfbg.com

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!

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