Boys Play With Dolls And Girls Want To Be Firemen: Growing Up With Free To Be…You And Me

by Erika W. Smith


Imagine a land where boys play with dolls and girls want to grow up to be firemen – and nobody makes fun of them for it. A land where girls don’t worry about being pretty and happily proclaim, “I like what I look like.” A land where boys know that it’s alright to cry. A land where “you’ll do what you like, and be who you are.”

This is the land imagined in the album, book, and TV special Free To Be…You And Me, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in November. Conceived by actress and social activist Marlo Thomas with help from the Ms. Foundation For Women (“I called my friend Gloria Steinem and told her what I was about to do,” Marlo Thomas remembers on the Free To Be Foundation website), Free To Be…You And Me is a collection of feminist songs and stories sung, told, written, and acted by celebrities such as Thomas, Michael Jackson, Alan Alda, Diana Ross, Rosey Grier, and Shel Silverstein.


Marlo Thomas in a Free To Be…You And Me publicity photo


“Every boy in this land grows to be his own man. In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman,” the New Seekers sing in the theme song.

A generation of children grew up with Free To Be…You And Me and its vision of gender equality. My mother was part of that generation, and she passed her love of Free To Be…You And Me on to my brothers and me (with plenty of help from her sisters, who saw Free To Be…You And Me as the perfect Christmas gift). (It kind of was.)


Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack in Free To Be…You And Me

Thanks to Free To Be…You And Me, my brothers and I grew up knowing catchy songs and fun stories that subtly taught us gender equality. Although he didn’t play with it much, my brother had a doll, just like the song “William’s Doll.” (He was fonder of My Little Ponies, which often had shared adventures with our Star Wars action figures.) Like in the story “Atalanta,” I wanted to be a princess – but a princess who saved herself and traveled the world, prince totally optional. “It’s alright to cry” was a frequent, half-sung reminder in our house.

I listened to Free To Be…You And Me so much that I assumed everybody knew it, and was confused when none of my classmates did. Even in college, I couldn’t resist referencing Free To Be…You And Me – “Like the ‘Housework’ poem in Free To Be!” I said when we learned about Betty Friedan. Not even my professor knew it. 


“William’s  Doll”

With its 40th anniversary nearing, it’s time for Free To Be…You And Me retrospectives, including a book of essays. Slate has published a series on the making and legacy of Free To Be…You And Me, which I highly recommend reading (my mom emailed me a link this morning with the note, “Now you can sing the theme song in your head all day!”) 

Slate writer Dan Kois and the various feminists he interviewed have a “come so far, have so far to go” attitude to Free To Be…You And Me. Kois wonders what Free To Be …You And Me would look like if it were made today. He writes:

So could Free To Be happen today? And, if so, what injustice would it tackle, exactly? Guests at our party suggested gay rights, economic inequality, and body image. Marlo Thomas suggested bullying.  …  For her part, though, Gloria Steinem doesn’t think it’s time yet to go casting about for a new wrong to right. Steinem, who lately has been actively advocating for domestic workers and paid sick leave—both gender rights issues at their core—responded instantly when I asked her if the 21st century could use a new Free To Be. “I think so,” she said. “I think the greatest inhibitor is the myth that we don’t need it.”


Even though I was born almost 20 years after it was originally released, I’m glad that I had Free To Be…You And Me growing up, and I think I did need it. You could even say that Free To Be…You And Me is why I’m interning at BUST, and why my 19-year-old brother responded “Hahaha of course” when I asked him if I could tell the Internet that he played with dolls and ponies as a kid. It’s not so much that I wish there was a new Free To Be…You And Me – it’s that I wish more people knew the old one, in all it’s 70s glory.

So if you’ve never heard of Free To Be…You And Me, check it out. Read the Slate series. Pre-order the new book. Listen to the album on Spotify. Watch clips on YouTube (my favorites are “It’s All Right To Cry,” “Atalanta,” “William’s Doll,” and “Ladies First”). And remember, like the song says, “You and me are free to be…you and me.”




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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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