Pamela Paul on the breaking of gender stereotypes, and how both Left and Right push back

December 4, 2022 • 12:20 pm

We’ll have another post on gender today, but this time from NYT writer Pamela Paul, formerly editor of the book review but now an opinion columnist.  She mourns a time in her youth when gender stereotypes of male vs. female were suddeny oveturned by the 1972 book and album “Free to Be.  . . You and Me”, a project conceived by Marlo Thomas.  I remember well when it came out, and the criticism by the Right. Here’s a description from Wikipedia:

Free to Be… You and Me is a children’s entertainment project, conceived, created and executive-produced by actress and author Marlo Thomas. Produced in collaboration with the Ms. Foundation for Women, it was a record album and illustrated book first released in November 1972 featuring songs and stories sung or told by celebrities of the day (credited as “Marlo Thomas and Friends”) including Alan Alda, Rosey Grier, Cicely Tyson, Carol Channing, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Shirley Jones, Jack Cassidy, and Diana Ross. An ABC television special, also created by Thomas, using poetry, songs, and sketches, followed sixteen months later in March 1974. The basic concept was to encourage post-1960s gender neutrality, saluting values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one’s identity. A major thematic message is that anyone—whether a boy or a girl—can achieve anything.

In 2021, the album was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry.

Paul rightly celebrates the achievement of the project in, well, making kids free to be gender nonconformists, not just in appearance or behavior but in the jobs people wanted. It was a time when women could contemplate being cops, firefighters, and many of the professions deemed “men’s jobs”.

If you grew up in any remotely liberal enclave of America in the 1970s or 1980s, you grew up believing a few things.

You believed that you lived in a land where the children were free, where it didn’t matter whether you were a boy or a girl because neither could limit your choices — not when you were a kid, not when you grew up. You believed it was perfectly fine for William to want a doll and if you were a girl, you might have been perfectly happy for him to take yours.

You believed these things because of “Free to Be … You and Me.” That landmark album, which had its 50th anniversary last month, and its companion book shaped a generation. It took the idealism and values of the civil rights and the women’s rights movements and packaged them into a treasury of songs, poems and stories that was at once earnest, silly and wholeheartedly sappy. It was the kind of thing a kid felt both devoted to and slightly embarrassed by. The soundtrack got stuck in your head. The book fell apart at the seams.

. . . “Free to Be” unshackled boys and girls from these kinds of gender stereotypes. As Pogrebin wrote in the book’s introduction, “What we have been seeking is a literature of human diversity that celebrates choice and that does not exclude any child from its pleasures because of race or sex, geography or family occupation, religion or temperament.” For what now seems like a brief moment, boys and girls wore the same unflattering turtlenecks and wide-wale corduroys. Parents encouraged daughters to dream about becoming doctors and police officers. Boys were urged to express feelings. Everyone was allowed to cry.

Then Paul describes pushback, first from the Right, which abhorred its message that women didn’t have to know their place. Then from the capitalists, which profited from making gender-specific toys that the project said forced kids into stereotyped play behavior (“socialization” was profitable).

But then Paul, who is an antiwoke liberal like me, indicts “progressivism” as well for the pushback! (my emphasis below).

Some of it stemmed from ongoing conservative resistance to feminism’s gains. Some of it was about money. And some it of it emerged from a strain of progressivism that has repurposed some of the very stereotypes women and men worked so hard to sweep away.

Wait a tick! What strain of progressivism pushes back against gender stereotypes? Even the most progressives of progressives, it seems to me, break the “male/female” stereotypes by assuming one of a hundred or more genders. Isn’t that a form of freedom?

Well, Paul doesn’t think so:

Now we risk losing those advances. In lieu of liberating children from gender, some educators have doubled down, offering children a smorgasbord of labels — gender identity, gender role, gender performance and gender expression — to affix to themselves from a young age. Some go so far as to suggest that not only is gender “assigned” to people at birth but that sex in humans is a spectrum (even though accepted science holds that sex in humans is fundamentally binary, with a tiny number of people having intersex traits). The effect of all this is that today we are defining people — especially children — by gender more than ever before, rather than trying to free both sexes from gender stereotypes.

The first link goes to an Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf criticizing the acculturation of children into “woke” gender dogma before they can think for themselves. And yes, children shouldn’t be forced to adopt gender labels coined by adults. And yes again, Paul is right that sex is binary (and thanks for the link, Ms. Paul!). But I’m not exactly sure what her beef is here. Children who don’t feel they fit the male/female stereotype can assume any sex role they wish, and progressives say we must respect that. You may think that some of those identities, or their acculturation by the young, or the authoritarianism that urges kids into new identities—that all this is bizarre and sometimes irrational. But none if it seems to me to be a restriction of freedom. The message of multiple gender identities seems to be the same as that of Marlo Thomas: “You’re free to be what you want to be.”

Now maybe I’m missing the message here, and it’s unusual for me to defend “progressives” so much, but I’m not sure what’s at issue.

At the end, Paul seems to conflate the “restrictions” that, she says, gender identities impose upon kids with the restricted freedom kids have to roam. And here I agree with her:

As for that land where the children run free, there is little running around now. Despite efforts at free-range parenting, kids tend to be hovered over at all times: In school by surveillance systems like GoGuardian and ClassDojo and the parent portal. In their free time, by the location devices built into their smartwatches and phones. At home, by nanny cams and smart devices. And the children probably are home, socializing on their screens rather than outside riding a bike or playing kick-the-can until someone yells “Dinner!”

We’ve found new ways to box children in.

Yes, when I grew up, after I came home from elementary school, I’d hop on my bike and go meet my friends, with only the restriction that I’d be home for dinner. These days a parent could probably get arrested for that. There is too much hovering, and since free-roaming kids are safer than ever, it’s unnecessary.

At the end Paul urges parents and kids to open the book and listen to the album again, for “winding the clock back a little [to 1972] would actually be a real step forward”.  She’s right about the helicopter parenting, but I don’t get her point about different genders putting kids back in the old gender-stereotype boxes.

22 thoughts on “Pamela Paul on the breaking of gender stereotypes, and how both Left and Right push back

  1. Here’s what I think the issue is.

    If a woman (say) announces “I’m not a ‘woman’, I’m non-binary!”, yet shows no discomfort with her biological nature – doesn’t seek surgery, take hormones or whatever, and is visibly and obviously biologically female (and every “non-binary” person of my acquaintance falls into this category), then what is the “womanness” that she is rejecting? Demonstrably it is not anything biological; so what she is rejecting can only be the socially constructed stereotypes of “womanhood” – wearing pink, dressing like Barbie, or whatever.

    But that is sending the clear message that “womanness” IS to be defined in terms of those stereotypes – because what else can “womanness” be, if it isn’t something biological? Generations of feminists spent their time arguing that a woman who refuses to accept those stereotypes and (e.g.) dresses in jeans and refuses to wear makeup and works on a building site is JUST AS MUCH a woman as a Barbie-style pink-wearer – but the people who claim to be non-binary are saying the opposite: that “womanness” (or “masculinity”, in the case of non-binary biological men) is intrinsically connected with conforming to those stereotypes.

    And this (it is suggested) can have terrible effects on young people in particular, who even under normal circumstances can struggle with questions of self-definition and identity. So a girl who doesn’t like traditionally “girly” things (or a boy who doesn’t like “masculine” things) is being encouraged to say “well, in that case you’re not really a girl/boy at all”. And in extreme cases, the fear is that this CAN (though of course does not have to) lead them to adopt medical solutions to their discomfort with their perceived lack of “femininity” or “masculinity”, and seek to remove the outward biological signs of that identity.

    That, at least, is how I understand the argument.

    1. It certainly describes my personal beef with that ideology. And it’s reflected in the forums/websites where youngsters congregate to discuss these themes. Wanting to wear short hair and/or not being able to identify with almost a caricature of barbie doll or anime femaleness is already reason for doubt whether your gender is female. Maybe I shouldn’t mind because if everyone’s free to be what like they want, why bother how they call it, but even the fixation with the topic is making “gender” as a part of identity seem much more important than it actually is (and less flexible even within individuals who can switch styles of self-presentation depending on social context and life phase). To me, too, it feels like we have regressed. Certainly, in outward presentation, male and female have become more strongly differentiated, and both sides suffer from heavy stereotyping (young males need to be muscular hulks to pass muster, young women artificial instagram beauties).

      1. Agreed. I also think we have regressed and there is too much of an emphasis on labels these days. Maybe the fact that there has been a bigger emphasis on steryotypical appearance and some behaviors since Reagan’s time is part of the reason why people are reacting the way they are. I think Marlo Thomas was really on to something.

    2. I was recently reading through the “when sons become daughters” series on Quilette and one parent describes an interaction with their son (who came out as transgender), asking him why he thought/felt he was transgender. One of the reasons he gave was that he liked romcoms.

      Ah yes, so now we are at a point of “progress” in the gender debate where a boy who likes romcoms is made to believe to the deepest of his core that this must mean he is not actually a boy at all, because no boy could like romcoms. Of course all the intervening health professionals had the same advice to the parents: affirm and start calling your son “daughter”. Because he likes romcoms.

      Freedom my ass.

  2. I have seen some “progressive” attacks on people who do follow traditional gender stereotypes, such as women who choose (that’s the key word there) to be stay at home mothers, or boys who like to play “army” or roughhouse in general, plenty of insults towards men and how they are supposedly so incompetent with raising children, and yet as we’ve seen they also attack the notion of maternal instincts. I’m not sure if that’s sort of what Paul is thinking of, but “progressives” certainly have their own narrow ideas of what is acceptable behavior according to their own ideology, an ideology that they certainly force upon their offspring in ways not too different than the way the religious right always have.

    I had never heard of this album, so I listened to a few tracks on the yootoobs. It’s Alright to Cry isn’t too shabby, the others are charmingly corny in the way that only the 70’s could manage. I can imagine it really pissed off the uptight far right, who also railed against Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street

    1. Yes, it is kind of corny, but also gentle and pretty funny. I especially like the story about the princess who had to race her suitors and marry any one who beat her (I am forgetting her name which is embarrassing – I know a fair amount about Greek mythology!) I especially like the way that story concluded. Yes, Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street were also wise and
      funny. Maybe we will get back to these perspectives when all the screaming is over.

      1. Atalanta! Just ask Stephen Fry. Note as well that Kris Kristofferson makes an appearance, looking like he’d been up for 5 days on coke and weed, which he probably was.

        It’s Alright To Cry was sung by Rosey Grier, an absolute savage of a defensive lineman who made grown men cry (American football), needlepoint and macrame enthusiast, bodyguard (he took Sirhan Sirhan’s gun away and then saved him from mob violence), and Xtian minister. I met him at a book signing years ago and he was so kind and decent and generous, which was reassuring, as to judge from his handshake he could have torn me in two. Instead he autographed a trading card and posed for pics.

  3. > I don’t get her point about different genders putting kids back in the old gender-stereotype boxes.

    I do – and I agree with her. A lot of the trans movement reinforces the idea of gender stereotypes, so that children with characteristics of another sex are being labeled ‘trans’. I would much rather see children being taught that gender and race identities are irrelevant, but the New Left refuses to embrace that. A friend of mine wanted to embrace a trans identity because she wanted to be the one mowing the lawn and engaging in other typical ‘masculine’ behaviors; this is what is happening now. Undermining gender and racial stereotypes is liberating.

  4. Some progressives think that kids that don’t conform to stereotypes (tomboy girls, feminine boys) are “born in the wrong bodies” and need drugs and surgery to correct them. It seems to all boil down to the same 2 genders.

  5. I’ve worked with kids of all ages for longer than I will say here, and I have always opposed gender steryotypes. I agree with Pamela Paul though. I agree that sex is binary and gender is fluid, but I don’t see why people are encouraged to label their gender identities; labels can be a form of steryotypes that restrict your feelings and behavior. FREE TO BE YOU AND ME is about being whoever you are, no matter how weird you are (and I am weird in my own unique ways) and not worrying about it so much. Again, why to we need to define and label ourselves? There was a wonderful kids’ song several decades ago, (I wish I could remember the singers’) name talking about how repressive gender roles are. I won’t quote, I am paranoid about copyrights, but the basic message is let’s all just be as bizarre as we are without labels. Sounds good to me.

    1. Everybody being “bizarre” does not lead to a stable society though. Labels are fine, we need them to make sense of a complex world with our finite brains. We just needed to keep working on the idea that we don’t need to be defined by them. We’d already reached that point a long time ago I think (how many children born in the past 40 years in the West have had strict adherance to traditional gender roles drilled into them by their parents, school, media or society in general? Outside of very conservative religious groups, I’d wager not that many).
      Instead we’ve shot waaaay past the target into uncharted territory where adhering to ANY kind of “normality”, rule, tradition is seen as suspect, backwards and -phobic.
      It seems this fixation with labeling your (gender) identity is a result of several different social issues: extreme individualism, a more fragmented society where many people feel they don’t belong, the fact that in the current culture, being “minority” anything (esp when it comes to gender identity) gives you special rights and social status (it gets you attention) and gives you a lot of power over people (you can call people who criticize you “-phobe” and “-ist”), an increasing focus on “equality”, “inclusion” and “diversity” to the point where pointing out any kind of norm is considerd problematic (or worse, “hateful”) and adhering to any kind of norm makes you an enemy of the Glorious Revolution which will lead us all into the utopia of “freedom” where no norms, roles, or stereotypes exist anymore and therefore no “oppression” based upon those norms or stereotypes can exist either and everyone is just “free” to be their “true”, “bizarre” self that they innately feel themselves to be. In reality, I fear everyone will be left confused, scared, depressed, lonely and possibly mutilated.

  6. I never knew that show/book – maybe it didn’t reach Australia/NZ in the 1970s. Culture was less global then of course. But it fits with the (I think pretty good) ethos at the time. Remember when being a progressive wasn’t regressive, the pre-woke era?
    I do like Pamela Paul a lot.

  7. The message of multiple gender identities seems to be the same as that of Marlo Thomas: “You’re free to be what you want to be.”

    The difference is that then we thought that no one had to mutilate their body and take hormones to be themselves. We could be ourselves in whatever body we were born in. Now we have gender roles back, with children being encouraged to mutilate themselves if they don’t fit in.

  8. I was 6 when the book came out – I remember the record album more than the book. I played with my sister’s Barbie dolls and she played with my trucks and my parents never made a fuss about it. Nowadays the song “William Wants a Doll” would end with him being declared trans and given puberty blockers.

  9. Rejecting gender stereotypes is good. The problem that Pamela Paul is highlighting is related to the transgender issue. While many of us had thought that regressive gender stereotypes were dead and buried, they are being resurrected by gender identity ideology.

    How can a boy “feel” like a girl, without those stereotypes about what boys and girls wear, do, behave like? Many progressive parents are signing up for the “I knew Jane was really a boy because he [sic] never wanted to wear dresses or play with girls’ toys” etc. without seeing how this attitude forces gender stereotypes on gender non-conforming children.

    I find it unbelievable, but this is really happening – some of it seemingly fuelled by homophobia. In fact, gender identity ideology is very homophobic; redefining “same-sex” attraction with “same-gender” attraction literally erases the identifying sexual orientation of lesbians and gay men. Hence transwomen (males who identify as females) holding workshops, like the notorious “Breaking through the Cotton Ceiling” one, about how to persuade lesbians to have sex with them.

    Many of the gender non-conforming young people who in the past would eventually have realised that they are gay are currently being told that they are transgender – so many that clinicians at the soon-to-close Tavistock clinic in London talked about “transing the gay away” and that how soon “there won’t be any gay kids left”.

    I’ve lost count of the number of lesbians (professor Kathleen Stock is just one example) who have expressed the fear that if they were growing up now they would have been persuaded that they were “really” boys and have gone along the path to puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery.

    1. Exactly. The freedoms being looked for in the search for a nonbinary identity are the same one gets by rejecting those stereotypes and recognizing how few of them are demanded of us by our biological sex.

      Gender-identity instead enshrines these stereotypes as irrevocably tied to sex, and requires some degree of denial of be free of them.

      It also allows people to (very annoyingly) elevate themselves into some exalted category for basically doing the same thing nearly everyone they know has done to some degree: reject sex-based stereotypes.

  10. In the olden days, a girl could be a tomboy, especially prior to adolescence, without having to worry that some authority figure would try to bully them into taking testosterone and have a radical mastectomy.

  11. The message of multiple gender identities seems to be the same as that of Marlo Thomas: “You’re free to be what you want to be.”

    It can be hard to understand what is meant by “gender” in the term “gender identity.” Since “gender” (if it’s not just being used as a synonym for “sex”) refers to the culturally-constructed roles, expectations, and assumptions about the sexes, it’s tempting to think that a “gender identity” just means where you are on the masculine-feminine spectrum. “I’m a woman who drives a truck; I’m a man who cries at the movies.” Free to be You and Me.

    That is not what it means.

    The term “gender identity” refers to a supposed deep inner sense that you’re a man, woman, both, or neither. It’s not connected to reproductive sex classification. And despite the word “gender” it’s not supposed to have anything to do with how feminine or masculine you are, either. Gender identity cannot be described. It cannot be diagnosed by any outside means. Attempts to pin it down are as successful as trying to get a high- minded theologian to define God. It can only be experienced; it is knowable to the person who experiences it, and anything a skeptic says about it is wrong.

    What gender identity does is act as a substitute for sex. It replaces sex, which is now supposed to be too vague, complicated, and authoritarian to be used in place of the rock-solid clarity of gender identity. So this is not really Free To Be You and Me because the purpose of that movement was to free boys and girls from stereotypes. This one frees boys and girls from their bodies. Anyone can be a boy; anyone can be a girl. You have to ask them what they are.

    And if people look at your body and think you’re a girl when you’re really a boy — or if they think you’re a girl when you’re really a boy — that is one of the greatest pains imaginable, because nothing else matters as much as being thought of and treated the RIGHT way instead of the WRONG way. There’s a huge difference.

    Sexism, on stilts.

    1. Sastra,

      That perfectly captures my recent conversation with a (very nice) younger person on the woke spectrum who has many non-binary friends and who is very sensitive about this whole issue.

      I asked all those questions, trying to pin down what exactly “identifying as a different gender” means in the New Logic, and it was like trying to capture smog in a kitchen strainer. There was no “there” there, and it just boiled down to “we have to respect what someone feels they are.”

      If it all remained abstract like that I suppose it could be no harm. I certainly want to accept how anyone feels. But in the end we need some grasp on truth and the way post modernism has wormed it’s way in to every corner is awfully worrying and of course can have pernicious consequences in many of the ways people have been citing here.

  12. “You’re free to be what you want to be.”
    I would say, this is simply not true. Progressives have taken this to the extreme, suggesting, insisting or even demanding that we be free of even our biology. This kind of extreme “freedom” doesn’t actually exist. A male is not actually free to be a female, however much they might want it. The best he can do is try to “be like a female”. Which ironically only tends to reinforce the gender stereotypes because what does it mean to “be like a female”? For many transgender women it seems that this is exactly the kind of stereotypical idea of woman/female we’re supposed to be free of.
    The whole idea of being “transgender” makes no sense unless you subscribe to limited ideas of what the two (or more) genders are “supposed to” be like, act like or feel like.

    Our biology in the end limits us, and it heavily influences societal gender roles too. This is why we need quota’s to get women into top positions, or into STEM. This is not because women are not free to do those things (they have been for some time now) but because, given freedom to choose they overwhelmingly choose careers in healthcare, HR, communications/marketing, or teaching. This is now seen as a “problem” that is said to be caused by “oppression”, “sexism”, “the partriarchy” etc. instead of just a natural result of differences in temperament and interests between men and women in general.
    The mistake is thinking that giving men and women more freedom from the traditional gender roles would result in outcomes for men and women basically becoming the same because it’s assumed that the gender roles or just purely social constructs. They’re not. Or at least, social constructs are still preceded by biology, they are not a random occurance nor the result of oppression.

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