I remember how old I felt when I first noticed that I could start a sentence with "Twenty years ago..." and speak from first hand experience. Now that I'm on the cusp of forty, I can easily tell you about stuff from thirty years ago, and it's only getting worse...
Right up there with Schoolhouse Rock, Free to Be... You and Me totally captures (for me) the messages to kids in the '70's. According to the wikipedia article, "Free to Be has become a cult classic across the United States amongst many who were children of New Age parents in the 1970s" -- which I find kind of funny because my parents back in the '70's were pretty far from "New Age" (they were conservative Mormon Republicans). And yet I still think it's a [cult?] classic.
My parents aren't the ones who played it for me -- I don't remember exactly where I first heard it. But I bought a record album of it myself (for fun) as an adolescent in the '80's, and my mom (despite having opposed the ERA like a good Mormon), didn't appear to object to it. I recently found a CD of it, and I've been listening to it to see what I think of it now.
If you're not familiar with the album, it's a collection of clever and fun songs and skits that challenge traditional gender expectations. One central point to keep in mind is that essentially all of the messages in the album were countering other messages that kids were also hearing quite loudly. So every time you hear a song on it whose theme makes you go, "Well, duh, everybody knows that" -- then you've found a point where this album (and other voices from that time) had an impact and changed cultural assumptions.
The song that sounded (to me) the most dated was the one telling boys "It's all right to cry." I have two little boys, I watch tons of media directed at them, I read popular parenting advice, and I talk to lots of other moms in Europe and in the US, online and in person. I haven't done a formal study, but the gendered message I remember from my childhood -- that it's shameful for a boy to cry -- has fallen out of favor, and it's not just Glenn Beck. ;^)
It's my impression that our cultural expectations have changed on at least three fronts: (1) getting your feelings out instead of holding them in is viewed today as healthy and not exclusively feminine, (2) It's somewhat more acceptable for boys to express feminine traits and interests, and (3) Childhood bullying in general is no longer seen as inevitable or acceptable. Keep in mind, folks, that "Free to Be..." came out a mere three years after the popular Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue, in which it's presented as a more-or-less reasonable act of love for a father to name his son "Sue" specifically for the purpose of ensuring he'd be bullied, and hence come out a tougher man in the end.
Part of the spoken text says that crying boys aren't "sissies," but instead boys who are afraid to cry (and hence risk being called "sissies") are the "sissies" [implying that being a 'sissy' is still bad]. Naturally, that way of deflecting-yet-reinforcing the label "sissy" wouldn't be considered OK among liberal parents today. That said, I'd be pretty surprised if our gender awareness hadn't improved at all beyond what was on the cutting-edge-of-mainstream forty years ago.
The whole album is quite heteronormative (to anachronistically use a term that has come into ordinary public discourse fairly recently). That is, the album assumes that girls grow up to be mommies, boys grow up to be daddies, and (if they get married) mommies are married to daddies, period. Again, keep in mind that this was a mere three years after Stonewall, so mainstream awareness of LGBT issues was a fair distance in the future. The message that both girls and boys can grow up to be whatever they want to be was already pretty controversial. And teaching one generation of kids not to be limited by gender expectations helped set the stage for them to question gender roles even further -- in ways that many people in the previous generation didn't think of.
A track that hardly seems dated at all is the tale of Princess Atalanta. Female characters in kids' movies and television have sadly made a lot less progress than many parents (like me!) would hope (see, for example, The Hathor Legacy). Most parents of little girls I know are powerless against the lure of the Disney Princess pink ghetto (though I've heard some creative strategies for dealing with it). But I really like the way Atalanta's own autonomy takes center stage in bringing about her "happily ever after". [If you read the wikipedia entry, they explain how "Free to be" took some major liberties compared to the original story, but, really, no worse than Disney does.]
So, which song do I like/remember best after all these years? Probably the title track. Anyone else have memories (fond or otherwise) of this album?