Free to Be…You & Me, a recorded album, children’s book, and later ABC special, celebrates its 44th anniversary this month. The brainchild of actress and producer Marlo Thomas (That Girl), the special focused on individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one’s identity. And, most important for young women coming of age in the 70s and 80s, the lesson that they can achieve anything regardless of gender.
Actress and director Gillian Jacobs (Community, Love) credits Thomas—and Free to Be…You & Me—with inspiring her own career trajectory. Here, she talks with Thomas about the battles the latter fought to bring her vision to television and why its message is worth revisiting today.
I’m one of many kids who grew up on Free to Be…You & Me. I listened to the record, read the book, and even performed “Boy Meets Girl” in one of my first acting classes. My mom wanted me to know I was free to be anything I wanted to be, but she was battling traditional gender stereotypes from both society and the media…Marlo Thomas helped drive that message home.
Not long ago I re-listened to the album. As I reflected and laughed, I also felt a twinge of sadness. For as much progress as we’ve made since 1972, children still face a lot of the same issues today. To be totally honest, I still grapple with a lot of the ideas in the album. We need Free to Be to remind us of our potential and commonality.
Gillian Jacobs: Free to Be…You & Me was one of the reasons I became an actor. We did sketches from it when I was a kid, I listened to it all the time, and it was an attempt by my mom to make sure I wasn’t limited by any gender norms or stereotypes.
Marlo Thomas: You were lucky to have such an enlightened mother!
Gillian: Sadly I still fell into some of [those gender norms], but the messages of that album really resonated with me and stayed with me my whole life. But first, let’s talk about That Girl. I didn’t realize you produced the series when you were 24.
Marlo: I got a part in a pilot at Universal called Two’s Company, but it didn’t sell, which is no big surprise because most pilots don’t. But the head of the network called to say they still wanted to find a show for me. They sent me a bunch of scripts, but they were all kind of…not very forward-thinking. In every one of them the girl is either the wife of somebody, the daughter of somebody, the secretary of somebody. So I said, “Have you ever considered a show where the girl was the somebody?” And the network head said, “Would anybody watch a show like that?” I brought him a copy of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, and I said, “You should read this, because this is where it’s going. Women are not going to be their mothers. They want a career. They want to live on their own before they get married.” He wasn’t really sure I was right, but he gambled on it and it was a big success. That was a shock to everybody.
Gillian: I read that there was a debate over the finale episode of That Girl. They wanted it to end with a wedding, and you pushed back on that.
Marlo: Right. By then, I was producing the show, and I felt a wedding would be a real betrayal to all the girls who watched the show to say that the only happy ending is a wedding. And wedding [episodes] do really well as a last show. They begged me to do one, but I wouldn’t do a wedding. The producers wanted a wedding, the network wanted a wedding, advertisers wanted a wedding. I was the only one who didn’t want a wedding.
Gillian: The remarkable thing is that women are still fighting these battles to this day. As much as the culture has shifted, I think that’s still a debate to not have female characters be defined by mens interests in them and to not view marriage as the ultimate goal or a validation of their worth.
Marlo: Well, the good thing about today is that there are more women making decisions. In my day, I was the only woman in the room, so that was harder. And I was happy to have the men that worked with me. But I would often say to them, “A girl wouldn’t say that to her father.” Or, “A girl wouldn’t say that to her boyfriend.” And they would say, “But it’s funny.” And I would say, “But it isn’t true.” In the second year of the series, I got smart [and hired] a female story editor, so then there were two of us. I always said, “One is a pest, two is a team, and three is a coalition. That’s what you need: a coalition.” [Laughs]
Gillian: I often feel I have to push past my own discomfort at work when I feel like something isn’t right. Did speaking up come easy to you?
Marlo: No, it was always hard—especially if you’re the only woman. You always have to have somebody who is on your team. My idea was I wanted to play a girl like myself who graduated from college, who wanted to be an actress, whose parents wanted her to get married, but she wanted to move to the big city. That was what my life was. I didn’t think I would get married. And my parents weren’t ready to hear all of that. My dad wasn’t so rough on it, but my mother was very reluctant to have me move out on my own. I lived in a sorority house in college and was with a house mother and a lot of girls, and now I was wanting to move into an apartment on my own. My mother was terrified.
Gillian: I moved to New York to go to college, and my mom thought I was going to have a curfew like she had because her mother had made her go to essentially a finishing school. When she found out I’d be living in New York City without a curfew, she almost didn’t want me to go! She would say, “So you can come and go as you want and no one is going to know where you are?!”
Marlo: Oh, I’m sure! It’s hard for them. They’re very worried about us!
Gillian: And I was very good, she had nothing to worry about!
Marlo: Me either! I was always a good kid. That’s the thing about mothers, they’re in your head all the time.
Gillian: Speaking of, there are so many messages from Free to Be…You & Me that have stuck with me, like the re-telling of the story of Atalanta, which in your version does not end in marriage. It’s about a girl taking agency over her own life and making decisions for herself.
Marlo: She fought for her rights. When we were putting that album together, I said, “If we could re-write our childhoods, what would we like to know? What would we have like to heard?” And my friend Herb Gardner said, “I would have liked to have known that it’s OK for a boy to cry.” And Carol Hall wrote that wonderful song, “It’s All Right to Cry.” I said, “I would have liked to have one fairytale to end where the princess does not marry the prince. And she’s not a blonde!” So we got Betty Miles to re-write Atalanta so Atalanta ran in the race and made the decision herself. And, as you know, Atalanta was a brunette. So many women wrote me to say thank you for not copping out at the end of Atalanta. By the way, not copping out at the end of Atalanta is very much like not copping out at the end of That Girl. My character on That Girl didn’t get married, and Atalanta didn’t get married because that’s not the only happy ending. It was important for me to say that. I mean, I’m married now for 38 years, and I’m crazy about my husband. It is my happy ending, but it isn’t what I needed for a happy ending. It became a happy event that I found a man that I loved and wanted to live with forever. But I don’t think that should be the goal of every girl.
Gillian: I agree.
Marlo: And every story doesn’t have to end that way, because that’s a terrible pressure to put on every girl…that the only way to be happy is to be married. That’s crazy.
Gillian: My mom really wanted me to hear that it was important for me to have something that I’m passionate about and have my own career. She didn’t want me to have the message that she grew up with, which was not only do you get married, but you find a man who is going to take care of you. Because if it doesn’t work out, you have to start over, and a lot of times you were dependent on your husband. So that was a message that I heard strongly in my childhood.
Marlo: Exactly. I’m glad it meant so much to you. That makes me feel great.
Gillian: That’s why in the last few years, if I have an impulse to do something or a curiosity about something, I’m trying to pursue it rather than dismiss it. So I’m interviewing people, I’m writing essays, I’m starting to direct. I am learning to push past my own feelings of inadequacy. Did you have that same feeling that if you have an interest in something, you’re just going to make it happen?
Marlo: I don’t know the answer to that question. Probably for me, I never really had a career plan, which I probably should have. I’m kind of like a kid where if you wave something shiny in front of them that’s what attracts them. I did an interview show on AOL for five years called Mondays with Marlo, and I interviewed over 200 people from Jennifer Aniston to Suze Orman. I wanted to do something where I could help women figure out their own lives. It was really interesting to learn things I never would have known, whether it was about 401Ks from Suze Orman or something else. It was providing a service, and it really turned me on.
Gillian: It seems that being of service has been very important to you.
Marlo: It’s more about noticing stuff. I notice things. I think I got that from my parents, especially my father. He noticed people and gaps in things that weren’t working. He built St. Jude Research Hospital because as a child he never went to a doctor, neither did any of his nine siblings. Kids in his neighborhood died from [conditions they shouldn’t have] like appendicitis and influenza, so he wanted to do something that would take care of that for people. [He built a] hospital where nobody paid. I think, in a way, my sister and brother and I all have that. We notice if somebody is hurting. I don’t know if I’m a do-gooder as much as a noticer.
Gillian: Well, I’m going to call you a do-gooder. I admire what I’ve seen you do over the decades. Speaking of which, let’s talk about the Thanks and Giving program that St. Jude does during the holidays.
Marlo: The Thanks and Giving program goes from now until Christmas. My brother and sister and I created this program 15 years ago; by the end of this campaign year, we will have raised one billion dollars in 15 years. The whole idea was to give thanks for the healthy kids in your life and give to those who are not. It costs $2.8 million a day to run St. Jude’s because nobody pays for anything. They don’t pay to travel there. They don’t pay for treatment or medicine. They don’t pay for food or housing. That was my father’s promise in 1962, and we’ve kept that promise all these years.
Ed Note: You can donate to St. Jude by adding on any amount to your final bill at these stores during the holiday season.