When We Were Free To Be: Revisiting A Classic w/Deesha Philyaw

Dec. 18, 2012 This year marks not only the 40th Anniversary of Title IX changing women’s sports forever, it’s also the 40th Anniversary of the cycle-breaking, movement-making pop culture childrens’ classic Free to Be, You and Me created by one of my very first childhood ‘sheroes’ Marlo Thomas.

Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be Gold record and ’70s era bestseller flipped the script on sexist stereotypes and reversed media messages that pigeon-holed kids…Now the legacy lives on, through the children of the era now parents themselves in Lori Rotskoff  and Laura Lovett’s edited anthology titled, “When We Were Free to Be.” 

Thirty-two contributors (including some colleagues/pals of mine) shared their stories about how Free to Be impacted their lives growing up and not only changed the lens within families to a panorama view, but raised the bar of critical thinking with media analysis as a constant.

For me, ’70s TV show favorites like That Girl, Mary Tyler Moore, and the ’80s Murphy Brown easily served as role models for little girls like me who looked up to independent, free-thinking, career-minded characters portrayed with multidimensional depth and a blend of vulnerability and moxie. I actually started out in TV journalism, convinced I could do anything I set my mind to…apparently a far cry from the abysmal career paths depicted in current media from these key findings from the recent Geena Davis Institute for Gender Research study. Which begs a much larger media question…

Are kids today “Free to Be” anything but “hot” in the 21st century cultural credo? Regardless of their race, creed, size, shape or color?

As I think back on the ‘Free to Be’ era of diversity appreciation and a time when play was for everyone, (Legos were universally ‘beautiful’ with no need to assemble kits and prompts, sidelining brain plasticity) it gives me pause wondering how we got to this very weird 21st century place of pink and blue segregated toy aisles, people of color in lead family roles relegated primarily to cable channels, and narrowcasting and tokenism peppering ‘diversity’ through children’s programming yet really cast as vapid cookie cutter characters. (kind of like the magazine models and Barbie dolls who may be different ethnicities but all look the same)

In ’70s sitcom programming for example, African American leads in popular shows like The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son made it readily apparent that laughter doesn’t limit itself to color lines (and Norman Lear boldly colored outside the lines as often as he could!) The ’80s emergence of classics like The Cosby Show and sitcoms like A Diff’rent World, makes me wonder how we ended up in a multicultural desert with tumbleweeds when we had a frontier ablaze once upon a time.

Are today’s kids truly ‘Free to Be’ who they are in terms of creating their own identities or are they media induced fragmentations of picture perfect Facebook poses, can you top this drama of Reality TV, and Born This Way Lady Gaga anthems?

Granted, in the primetime media landscape we’ve made some huge leaps in civil rights and civility with social commentary running the gamut from Norman Lear to Ryan Murphy, but when we add the relentlessly steady drumbeat of early sexualization, predominance of appearance cues for both sexes, and misogynistic misfires and racial gaffes from music to mainstream, sometimes it feels like it’s time for a ‘do over’ on this Free to Be playground.

It’s like a 40 year game of hopscotch where we’ve moved forward in some forms of progression, only to skip over or step on some really important elements that set us back a few paces in how we’re raising families today.

Though several colleagues are featured in the When We Were Free to Be anthology, (including affiliations like Nancy Gruver of New Moon Girls, Peggy Orenstein of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, etc.) today I’m interviewing contributor and colleague Deesha Philyaw, as Deesha offers a wide range of insights as co-founder of Co-Parenting 101 (coming out with her book in spring 2013 Helping Your Children Thrive After Divorce) and has written for Shaping Youth before in this great post about GirlChild Press.

Deesha’s pop culture critiques and media literacy analysis have been spot on in terms of how our culture devolves to sensationalism for ratings shock and awe, twisting ‘realities’ into dirty laundry, even when co-parents are doing right by doing well (see her feature on Hollywood Exes and the Will Smith story)

The subject for her chapter in When We Were Free to Be intrigued me, it’s titled “When Michael Jackson Grew Up: A Mother’s Reflections on Race, Pop Culture, and Self-Acceptance” as it rolls race, body image, pop culture, gender, identity all into one topical essay. Here’s my chat with Deesha Philyaw, leading off with the Free to Be video that opened up her essay via a conversation with her own children.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth:  I read in a UNC Press author interview with the editors  that those of you contributing to the new anthology were selected for strong personal or professional connections to Free to Be…what were your specific ties to the book and editors? How did you choose your particular essay and reflection, and what unique point of view did you bring to the crew?

Deesha Philyaw: If I recall correctly, the editors became interested in having me contribute after seeing something I wrote on race and parenting…a topic I’ve written on pretty frequently, so I’m not sure exactly what they read of mine.  They reached out and asked if I would submit an essay for consideration with a focus on parenting in the post-Free to Be era.

I was born in 1971, but I didn’t hear of Free to Be until the mid-90s when I was teaching elementary school and I saw the title song referenced in a book my 5th grade was reading, Bridge to Terabithia.

I was curious about the origins, so I did some research and found a clip of Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack performing  “When We Grow Up.”  They were dressed like young children and the set was this funky playroom—very ‘70s—and that image stuck with me. So a few years ago, when Lori Rotskoff, one of the editors, asked me to submit something, that clip came to mind.

In the song “When We Grow Up,” Michael Jackson is singing about how when he grows up, he’s never going to change and how he likes himself just the way he is.  Immediately I knew I wanted to write something about the irony of that, given how he did go on to change himself in real life.

I started writing the essay after his death when my children (then ages 12 and 7), like many of their generation, were just discovering Michael and his music.  They were also aware of his changing appearance over the years.  So I had the idea to write about our conversation when I showed them the clip of him singing “When We Grow Up.” I anticipated that they would get the irony, but I didn’t anticipate the really revealing conversation about race and self-acceptance that we ended up having.  And that’s what my essay, “When Michael Jackson Grew Up: A Mother’s Reflections on Race, Pop Culture, and Self-Acceptance” is about.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: The ’70s era of groundbreaking TV (particularly Norman Lear sitcoms shining the spotlight on stereotypes of race, gender, family and diversity) upended the status quo with a strong ‘Free to Be’ anthem…Do you think today’s TV has gone backwards or forwards in that arena of progress? Which shows and why?

Deesha Philyaw: Full disclosure: I don’t watch much TV these days, but thanks to social media, I’m aware of a lot of current programming.  I think we’re breaking ground with shows like Modern Family, The New Normal, and even the quirky The Neighbors, in terms of family types and dynamics, but I don’t feel we’re anywhere near as progressive on race and gender, and certainly not with regard to programming for children.

Age and generation-marketing and segregation was probably one of the worse things to happen to television.  Creating niche programming for kids and teens has led to a dumbing down of the programming that kids watch, compared to the stuff I was watching as a kid.  In my day—now I’m sounding really old!—both adults and kids enjoyed sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes, One Day at a Time, Alice, Good Times, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Facts of Life, and even though their treatment of race and gender issues was simplistic at times, it was thoughtful and intentional.  The shows’ writers included jokes of a sociopolitical nature, so they must have assumed kid viewers had a degree of intelligence and awareness of social issues and current events, if they were thinking about us as a market segment at all.

By comparison—if I may paint with a broad brush for a moment—today’s shows marketed exclusively to tweens and teens tend to be more campy, more reliant on physical and slapstick humor, more superficial.  But I don’t which came first, the chicken or the egg, the dumbed-down shows or a young viewership that isn’t interested in shows with more substance.

And looking at diversity broadly, the child actors on today’s shows are pretty cookie cutter in terms of appearance.  They’re pretty much all ripped out of photo spreads in a fashion mags, whereas the kids in sitcoms in the ‘70s and ‘80s looked like us for the most part.  They had a range of body types; they had acne, basic hairstyles, and imperfect teeth.  TV now is more about selling a fantasy of what marketers have deemed popular and attractive, tapping into the audience’s aspirations to be like or look like the characters on the screen.  So in this regard, I’ve say we’ve definitely regressed.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: As founder of Co-Parenting 101, could you comment on the Free to Be era depictions of single parents, divorce, and blended families vs today’s media? (e.g. Diahann Carroll in Julia as a nurse/widow/single-head of household, Courtship of Eddy’s Father, the Brady Bunch, One Day at a Time, Alice, Maude—all 70s precursors to today’s Modern Family, Glee, etc)

Deesha Philyaw: I’ll pick on the Brady Bunch.  We never had a Very Special Episode where Marcia screamed, “You’re not my mother!” at Carol Brady.  In many ways, the “blending” of that blended family was focused primarily on the blending of the kids, the boys and the girls.  If memory serves, the adults became “Mom” and “Dad” to all six kids fairly quickly.  The girls’ last name was Brady.  So except for one mention that I recall in an early episode, the other biological parents were erased, conveniently deceased.

The Brady Bunch looks like a fantasy to today’s blended families for whom it can take on average of seven years for blending and bonding to occur—if it occurs.  Current media featuring blended families is more realistic, more messy in part because both biological parents are likely still in the picture, as with Modern Family.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth:  The last decade’s sexualization/hottie factor marketing has impacted young children significantly (girls/boys’ body image, self-worth, socioemotional health) it feels like messaging was often healthier THEN vs now… Your thoughts on solutions-based thinking to ‘get back to where we once belonged’?  How can industry help reverse this cycle?

Deesha Philyaw: I don’t know if we can reasonably expect industry to reverse this trend.  Businesses aren’t primarily motivated to affirm our children’s sense of self and well-being despite what their marketing copy says.  Their primary motivation is to stay in business and make money, so in order for parents to get businesses to align their interests with our interests, we have to vote with our dollars.  And until we have a groundswell of parents who reject marketing that undermines our children’s healthy self-image  (i.e. a groundswell of purchasing power and the ability to generate a significant wave of bad pr), businesses will continue to market stereotypical and highly sexualized products.  But those aren’t the only products on the market.

Parents who care about these issues should support companies whose product lines align with how they’re raising their kids.  And we have to dialogue with our children about the marketing messages they encounter; we have to raise them to be savvy, thoughtful, discriminating consumers.  Going  a step further, let’s teach them to challenge the big role that consumerism plays in our lives. But of course that would require us to take a hard and possibly uncomfortable look at our own behavior as consumers.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth:  Is it possible to ‘reprise’ a Free to Be marketing message to ditch the polarity/profiteering and narrowcasting in favor of humane education for collaborative play? What do you think that could look like media/marketing wise?

Deesha Philyaw: Free to Be was a cultural touchstone, a cultural moment that has reverberated through the decades.  But for a Free to Be-type marketing message to supplant the status quo would require a small scale cultural revolution.  I’m not saying that couldn’t happen; I’d certainly like to see a marketing message that promotes collaborative play and non-stereotypical products, and I’d like to see a big market for these kinds of products and play.

The problem isn’t that parents don’t care about their kids’ self-esteem and self-image; it’s that we’re also products of the environment that creates demand for these stereotypical and sexualized products in the first place.  So to challenge or promote an alternative to the prevailing marketing message, we have to confront deep-rooted issues related to inequality, patriarchy, and all kinds of –isms.  And not all concerned parents are interested in picking up this mantle, but certainly it can begin at a grassroots level with those of us who are willing.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: How has reality TV impacted pop culture’s sense of self, stereotypes on race, gender, socio-economic class? Has it helped? Hindered? Uncorked convos? (An American Family w/the Louds circa ’73 was historically said to be the first ‘reality tv experiment’ did you ever watch it? How does it differ from today’s Reality TV genre?)

Deesha Philyaw: I’ve not seen An American Family, so I can’t make a comparison. But I feel that the most popular current reality TV shows traffic in and reinforce negative stereotypes such as The Angry Black Woman and The Catty Gold-Digger.  Women are consistently portrayed as all style and no substance.  And are we laughing with Honey Boo Boo’s family…or at them?

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: As an African American, what irks you most about media/marketing and race?

Deesha Philyaw: What irks me most is that African Americans are amongst the biggest consumers of reality TV media that traffics in stereotypes about us.  And I don’t say that from a high horse; I can personally relate to the trainwreck/roadkill appeal of it.  It’s like junk food.  And with regard to scripted shows, after The Cosby Show, the trend seemed to be toward other black male comedians in lead/Dad roles (Bernie Mac, Damon Wayans) but these shows were edgier than Cosby–I think that was intentional and organic–and they didn’t enjoy the same level of broad appeal.  I’m hoping that into the current void we’ll soon see a revival, a more expansive representation of people of color, but I don’t believe it’ll be a Cosby Show redux.   I anticipate more comedy, more star vehicles (for example, in the spirit of Everybody Hates Chris) and more diverse, ensemble casting.  Think any Shonda Rimes show and also The Neighbors.  The Neighbors features a diverse cast, but the “joke” is that the alien characters have taken on a multiracial set of human forms and live as a “mixed” family, so the show comes at race sideways.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth:  What are your top 3 favorite shows you co-view/enjoy talking about with your kids? Why?

Deesha Philyaw: We don’t watch a lot of current TV together. At my house, they tend to watch DVDs of sitcoms from the ‘70s and ‘80s.  They see more current shows at their dad’s house, and they have introduced me to The Neighbors, The Middle, and Once Upon a Time and we’ve watched those on occasion.  For the comedies, I have a lot of fun explaining some of the jokes and double entendres to them when they say, “Wait…what?”

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: I can’t wait to read the whole anthology and hear from other ‘literary mamas’ that were ‘Free to Be’ kids, as I strongly feel we’re amidst a major ‘market correction’ with many ready to storm the shores to help end the ludicrous ratcheting up of the rush through childhood as mini-adults and age-compressed consumers.

Whether in the form of purchasing power, Targeted petitions, or programming, parents like me are leery of media and marketing intent to sell off childhood and hurry up and grow-up, pair-off, date, compete and excel in some twisted ‘Race to Nowhere’ leaving the tenderness and innocence of critical development in childhood years a mere whoosh and a blur.

That drive-by dynamic will no doubt take its toll on a generation of kids with a very different kind of socio-emotional whiplash if we don’t knock it off and quit squeezing childhood into nano-segments to market womb to tomb. Clearly, it wasn’t always this way.

Who better to lead the way ‘back to the future’ than those who know firsthand that once upon a time kids were simply ‘Free to Be?’ 



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