We were told to be whomever we wanted. And now we’re suffering the consequences.
I blame Free to Be…You And Me. The children’s book and song collection, which many upper middle-class Gen Xers absorbed with their mother’s milk—or formula, I don’t take sides in mommy wars—recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The well-intentioned, feel-good compilation taught children that they can be anything they want to be, provided that they reject sex and racial stereotypes.
Now seen as a mainstream if slightly outdated educational tool, Free to Be was recently celebrated by the New York Times columnist Pamela Paul. “For a certain generation, ‘Free to Be’ was childhood,” she explained, adding:
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.
She continued arguing that the hard-won freedom from sex stereotypes is now jeopardized by the trans agenda:
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. […] 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.
But what if Free to Be actually paved the way to our trans moment?
Let us start with the fact the album is highly didactic. Unlike, for instance, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which shows a rebellious boy at play, Free to Be doesn’t as much celebrate freedom as it tells children to be “free”—and by “free” it means rejecting sex (and racial) stereotypes. And it puts a premium on acting in ways that are not expected of one’s biological sex.
What Free to Be did was make sexual characteristics conspicuous. Having arrived in the United States at the age of seventeen, I found it odd that so many local girls were uncomfortable with femininity and mindful to project masculine qualities—like the pop star Joan Jett, who was one of the models of the over-the-top, tough chick persona for Generation X. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jett very much and it’s an amusing shtick she chose for herself: I just don’t want to be her.
A conscious rejection of stereotypes doesn’t change the fact that most men are masculine and most women are feminine. To be truly free is to be a man or a woman one chooses to be, not to present a socially sanctioned amalgam of masculine and feminine qualities. It is one thing to tell a mother that if her daughter wants to be a mechanic when she grows up, support her. It is something quite different to keep steering children toward playing with the other sex’s toys. To a child, it indicates parental intent to sway her innocent ideals. Since children are eager to please, she learns to go against her instinct and constructs a novel “gender-neutral” personality.
For Gen X women, femininity became not a normal state of being but an object that could only be treated ironically. In the 1990s, with the arrival of the third-wave “sex positive” feminism, right-thinking young women decided to make themselves attractive to men. That gave birth to the “pink is the new black” trend, or women dressing in over-the-top feminine garbs. For the time, it worked out perfectly: gentlemen got chicks in rose-colored stilettos and ladies signaled to each other that femininity is a spectacle.
But the idea behind “pink is the new black” is not so very different from those that animate drag and trans. In fact, the ’90s feminists were very much aware of the ironic femininity of drag. Rhinestones were affixed, tongue-in-cheek, to every formal dress, and RuPaul sold us Mac cosmetics. We performed womanface long before the mainstreaming of transgender identity; it’s just that we were natural and cute, while Dylan Mulvaney is a bad actor. In both cases femininity is not something carriers of XX chromosomes embody in themselves but an identity to be performed. Women were taught to use it with reserve and now today men can have a free hand.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
Otherizing femininity was all fun and games to women in their 20s, but looking at all the single 40-something American girls raised on promises, I see a lot of alienation today. No, she can’t be anything she wants to be. People are limited by their abilities, and that has a lot to do with one’s sex. No, women can’t serve in the frontlines without jeopardizing the effectiveness of our fighting force and, all things being equal, men will outperform us in STEM.
Middle-class American women often talk of family as performative womanhood. They won’t tell you “my children will be my legacy." Instead, they say, “I want to experience childbirth,” and then make parturition the focal point of their feminism. It shouldn’t be difficult for the Gen X woman to admit to herself she wanted kids, except that it requires getting in touch with the long repressed authentic femininity. An elaborate justification becomes necessary to validate the very human desire for family.
On the other hand, middle-class Gen X men grew up largely indifferent to the pressure to behave in a gender-neutral manner. Free ranged boys still got into fights and weren’t inclined to cry like sissies. They were, however, made aware that women do more housework, which is unfair when she, too, is employed outside the home. And American men value fairness. Middle-class American women shaped a generation of very marriageable men, but they are Free to Be too neurotic to get them.