I guess it’s the 40th anniversary of Free to Be…You and Me. No, Free is not a tribute to the Western societies in which we’re ostensibly able to pursue happiness without extensive regulatory oversight. Instead, it’s a celebration of our ability to overthrow the shackles of traditional gender roles.
Geared towards children, it was a television special that was rerun ad infinitum, spawning a record album and book. Keep in mind that in 1974, nobody had access to two hundred and fifty channels. Seven or eight was about the max, meaning that if something was shown repeatedly, just about everybody saw it.
Kyle Smith and Dr. Helen focus their analyses on the emasculating effect it must have had on young boys of the time. I don’t disagree with their assessments, for the “William Wants a Doll” segment isn’t exactly a call to valor.
But the segment that really struck me for its prescience was “Princess Atalanta”. In just over five minutes not only do we see encapsulated almost exactly what feminists want girls to think, it’s almost exactly what they actually do think now that feminist ideology has usurped traditional culture over the ensuing decades.
Granted, Atalanta is a mythological androgene, but not unlike how Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger co-opted traditional American music to promote wholly un-American ends, this segment uses the characters of myth and the structure of a fairy tale to create another kind of myth altogether: not the “myth” that reflects Eternal Truth through ancient storytelling, but “myth” in the sense of wishful thinking.
It’s downright astounding how many feminist tropes they manage to squeeze into five minutes. First, she’s a princess who’s obsessed with building and fixing things. Not only is she a brilliant budding scientist, her tinkering is the reason that every man wants to marry her (ladies, if you can’t install a toilet you are not the girl for me). However, Atalanta sees marriage as merely another lifestyle choice she may or may not select, someday. Her father is portrayed as a complete doofus for wanting her to marry, much less wanting any say in whom she chooses.
There seems to be somewhat of a disconnect in that a father who believes he has the right to determine his daughter’s spouse usually isn’t the kind to take kindly to his daughter telling him to pound sand. In any case, patriarchal authority is not particularly respected in this household, the traditionalist requests of the “king” notwithstanding.
Atalanta wants to “see the world” before deciding if she’ll marry or not. Even though this cartoon doesn’t even obliquely hint at anything sexual, we know from observing our modern sisters that “seeing the world” is often a euphemism for “riding exotic men in far off lands so as not to soil one’s reputation at home”. Even if the girls watching this didn’t explicitly think “that’s a great way to bang random men!”, if they decide to “see the world” like Atalanta, guess what kind of “adventures” they’ll be having when they do.
Am I reading too much into things if I theorize that there’s some sort of parallel between Atalanta’s desire to run the race herself and consent to marry only the man who can beat her with the modern power-girl who wants to be the best lawyer in the world but will only marry the man who’s an even better one? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Atalanta seems to make the mistake of the modern career woman who improves her SMV by doing what men do to improve their SMV, only to find herself out-manning every potential suitor. Never mind. It’s just a story.
Whatever paternal authority the king might have over his daughter is subverted by her sneaking out at night to train for the race, but that’s obviously for the best.
Young John trains very hard in secret for the race, too. He does so well that “he ran as her equal, side by side with her” and finished the race at the exact same time as the Princess.
The king offers Atalanta’s hand to him in marriage, but just like every other physically dominant man alive, John merely wants the chance to talk with Atalanta and to shake her hand. What could possibly be more rewarding for a hard-fought athletic bout than stimulating conversation about telescopes.
Undoubtedly due to Atalanta’s thirst for scientific inquiry, she heads off to “great cities”, the perfect places from which to view the stars with her precious telescope (can you transport an early telescope on a horse?).
No word on who pays for Atalanta’s travels. Maybe it was that useless old king that progress left behind.
There’s no way of knowing exactly how much this particular segment had on American culture, but I can’t help but notice how closely the mindset it advocated actually came to fruition. Was it influential, merely a drop in a cultural tidal wave, or just a bellwether demonstrating how much we had already changed? I can’t be certain.
But I do know that art, especially children’s art, matters. Far too much child-rearing is being done by television sets themselves, for far too many parents are too damn exhausted to exert the requisite energy to fight the nearly infinite little hints and suggestions that girls all want to be action heroes and scientists, that boys will get what they want from women by being “respectful”.
Of course, nature does fight back against the hints, but sadly millions of kids don’t wake up until they’ve wasted years of their lives either “being nice” or “seeing the world”. They believe the TV shows and buy into the wrong kinds of myth, wasting precious time and life in the process.
Despite the “happily ever after” of “Princess Atalanta”, the Atalantas of reality find themselves alone and unhappily childless after “seeing the world” and John never seems to get anything more from a woman than quality conversation and a handshake.
If only we could make some cartoons to show that.