Off Script: A better society starts with socially conscious children’s media

Alex Schwartz, Columnist

One of my favorite CDs as a kid was “Free to Be…You and Me,” recorded by Marlo Thomas and featuring other famous actors and musicians from the 1970s. I rarely listened to anything else, and soon I knew most of the songs by heart –– I still remember them today. What I didn’t realize back then was how important it was to listen to such accepting and compassionate language at such a young age.

“Free to Be…You and Me” was originally released as an effort to combat gender inequality; it features songs about boys playing with dolls and princesses not wanting to get married. From listening to the soundtrack, I soon learned that crying should not be seen as weak and that both mothers and fathers should have any job they want. While the soundtrack’s second-wave feminist origins meant its language didn’t go as far as to combat the existence of the gender binary, “Free to Be…You and Me” still made me question gender norms. I began to think about situations in which I was told that boys did one thing and girls did something else. Without even knowing it, listening made me more conscious of societal sexism at a young age.

Without the influence of “Free to Be…You and Me,” I might have needed to make a lot more effort to become accepting of and empathetic toward experiences that weren’t mine. Regardless of how many times I came into contact with, and in some cases derived privilege from, systems that perpetuated gender inequality, I had the mental capacity to understand what I was experiencing from a very young age.

Music like “Free to Be…You and Me” is much more than just lullabies and nursery rhymes. It’s a vital step in creating more accepting children and, by result, a more accepting society in the future. There has been much discussion on Northwestern’s campus recently about how to combat pervasive rape culture and the patriarchy in general, and much of it focuses on teaching college students more about toxic masculinity and consent. Educating adults is important for a short-term solution to patriarchal problems, but we should also focus on engaging in dialogues about equality at much younger ages.

Progressive media has increasingly adopted this idea recently, particularly through children’s movies. “Zootopia” introduced characters with complicated identities and the notion of fear politics; “Moana” features a teenage woman of color without a love interest as its protagonist; and “Inside Out” worked to destigmatize mental health. There was even a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 created by a woman who is writing an album of intersectional feminist children’s songs. Creating children’s media that is accepting and socially conscious changes society for the better.

It takes a lot for people to change the beliefs they developed as children, so providing them with progressive media at a young age means the worldviews they develop will be ones of acceptance and empathy for all people instead of rigid glorifications of backward cultural norms. This kind of media also has a place on college campuses. Though people our age may not be the target audience, we can still appreciate the messages in movies like “Moana” and records like “Free to Be…You and Me.”

Songs about gender equality and movies about acceptance aren’t meant to tell us how we should combat each instance of social injustice; their goal is to teach people how to be human.
For children and adults alike, that’s the start of a better world.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.