Taking Mel Brooks literally

David Salmanson has a beautiful takedown of Christina Hoff Sommers’s piece in Time bashing feminism and “Free to be You and Me.”

So let’s look at how Sommers misreads the context of Free To Be.  First there is the assertion that Free to Be’s main goal was to create gender-free children.  For evidence, she points to a dialogue between two babies wherein the boy wants to be a cocktail waitress and the girl a fireman.  Except she neglects to mention that the babies are voiced by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas and the skit is clearly played for laughs.   (Watch it here if you don’t believe me).   She also targets Ladies First, which is not about destroying concepts femininity but about pulling your own weight and acting appropriate in a given context.  And again, played for laughs.  She somehow ignored Carol Channing’s tour de force takedown on housework.  These stories used comedy and exaggeration to challenge stereotypes – not advocate for a genderless world.  Let’s remember what school looked like in 1974. Around 1974, my gym teacher told me girls couldn’t be captains for choosing sides in gym (mom called the principal).  In 1974, most girls had extremely limited opportunities to play sports at all.  In 1971, less than 300,000 girls played sports and comprised less than 1% of varsity athletes.  In 2012-13 over 3 million girls played sports in high school and comprising about 40 percent of high school athletes.   That’s a pretty hefty increase. But hey, that’s just sports, right?  What about the real world?  In 1970, only 10 percent of doctors were women, now it’s a third.  In 1970, only 5 percent of lawyers were women, now it’s a third.  Women, weren’t in those professions in part because of sexism in admissions, but in part because people actively discouraged women from joining those fields.  That’s why we needed Free to Be You and Me.

But but but! Sissy boys! Bossy professional victim girls! Contrarian, maverick, American Enterprise Institute, chances to write hit-pieces in Time.


  1. says

    And in 1974, my then-GF couldn’t enroll in the electronics course at our high school (the instructor was willing but the principal vetoed it). The same GF who went on to get an electrical engineering degree from em-eye-fucking-tee.

  2. jesse says

    Jesus, they are still fighting that battle?

    I was five in 1974. I liked Free to be You and Me, and my friends used it for their kids when they could get a copy (it’s actually not easy to find one that hasn’t been amalgamated with another book about blended families, but whatever, no worries — I just liked the stories in it and wanted all of them! There were some cool ones that got edited out, but maybe they weren’t as relevant anymore or there were copyright issues)

    And I loved the TV special too. So take that, AEI.

    Are they taking about banning Sesame Street too? Burning copies of Alan Steptoe’s books?

  3. leni says

    “Free to Be” is a cautionary example of how an idealistic social fantasy can turn into a blueprint for repression.

    Please, get back to us about that misguided idealistic socialistic fantasy when we actually live in world that doesn’t give one half the population only one career option.

    PS I loved Free to Be.

  4. says

    Ha, that was a good skeptical test, I accidentally clicked on the Hoff article thinking it was the take down. Then read it for quite a while wondering when it would start to get good and how most of what it was saying was rubbish. So many citations of studies that I thought were debunked about toy preference. Did realise eventually, before this bit anyway…

    … almost any parent will attest that most little girls don’t want to play with dump trucks

    Absolute crap, ALL the little girls I know (One daughter, friends daughters and various friends of both) love to play with cars, trains and mechanical toys. In fact I’d say young girls are allowed to play with pretty much any toy and it not be looked down on. Although we have had some comments about my daughters toy swords and guns, which she loves, but that may just be a generic anti-violence thing. Boys playing with dolls and “girly” toys however…. A case of girls being freer in their choices, although at the cost of the things stereotypically called “girly” being seen as lesser than the “boys toys”. I’d caveat this with my experience being up to 5yrs old, after this gender policing may get stronger.

  5. tuibguy says

    I played with dolls when I was a kid, and it was as much fun as playing with the ‘boy” toys until my brother and his friends made fun of me for it. Then social pressure took over and I gave in. This was nearly a decade before “Free to Be…”

    Anecdotes are not data, I know, but my experience helps me to relate to the very real problem of gender specialization in toys.

  6. rq says

    [off topic] I think action figures should come with a range of wardrobe choices. Honestly, how do they expect my sons to learn how to dress themselves fashionably, if their TMNT figures only wear an eye-band and belt??? [/off topic]

    I love those videos. I’ve never seen them before! This calls for further exploration.

  7. patterson says

    My action man certainly did, you could buy different outfits separately. My favourite was a Mountie uniform, though the commando kit was pretty cool too.

  8. Timothy says

    David S. nailed it. Christian Hoff Summers displays no understanding of the 1970’s.

    I was born in the late ’60’s. I loved Free to Be … so much so, apparently, that I was amazed to find that I could still sing along with most of the words. (Thank god for YouTube! :-D).

  9. moarscienceplz says

    I was in 5th grade in 1970 and back then girls were forbidden to wear pants except on Fridays.

  10. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr says

    I think it’s so weird how Hoff and Co. seem to believe that the actual goal of making a safer world for many ways of expressing gender and gender identifications = wanting to abolish gender. Not actually that weird, I suppose, in that they seem to think gender roles based on 1950s media = the only true genders.

  11. says

    So many citations of studies that I thought were debunked about toy preference.

    OK, I had to check. Sure enough…veeeeeeeeeeerveeeeeeeeets! It has become my litmus test, and it’s really the only one you’ll need. Anyone who takes that study – in which among the gendered items the “researchers” give to vervets is a cooking pan – cannot be taken seriously on the subject of gender and should be roundly mocked. (Of course, I knew from previous evidence that Christina Hoff Sommers couldn’t be taken seriously on the subject, but it’s always sort of depressingly amusing to see another person in a respected publication cite it as science.) I would love to see the journal retract it based on its utter stupidity.

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