“Atalanta” and self-determination

So, this isn’t nostalgia for me, since I wouldn’t be born for another couple decades, but it might be for some people. This is an excerpt from a 1974 TV special called Free to Be… You and Me. Attributed to “Marlo Thomas and Friends” (other participants include Mel Brooks, Rosey Grier, and little Michael Jackson), Free to Be… is basically a series of songs and skits in the vein of Schoolhouse Rock or Sesame Street attempting to teach children about gender roles, tolerance, and the fact that they were indeed “free to be” identified with whichever gendered behaviors they chose. On the whole, it’s pretty cute, if sometimes a little nauseating or unintentionally hilarious. But the best part, without doubt, is “Atalanta,” a fairy tale cartoon voiced by Thomas and Alan Alda. Watch it for yourself.

It’s not the best-made cartoon of all time  – the animation style is low-rent and reminiscent of cheap storybooks, the music is dated, and the voicework sounds like Alda and Thomas are reading through and enjoying themselves. But it’s not bad for part of a TV special, and that’s the point anyway: it’s the moral. After decades (centuries?) of being told stories where a woman/princess is only an object of desire, caught between forces into which she can have no input, only able to hope that a handsome prince will win her hand, this is finally a fable about gender equity.

It’s an adorable fairy tale with three likeable characters (no requisite villain to be seen) that allows its protagonist’s self-determination. Among the most heartening moments: Atalanta’s correcting of her father’s decrees; John’s respect for Atalanta’s wishes; and of course the ending, when everybody really does end up happily ever after. No one is funneled into an enforced, specific type of “happiness” like that under fairy tale marriages. (E.g., what happens when Cinderella finds out that the Prince – who she’d only had a few hours’ worth of contact with before committing herself for life – has a few bad habits of his own?)

Instead, Atalanta and John get to choose their lives for themselves. They don’t blindly pigeonhole themselves into one single life choice that will decide everything else for them. The cartoon accepts that people change over time and that when you’re pretty young probably isn’t the time to make quick decisions with lifelong repercussions. It’s important to be able to go out, explore the world, discover new alternatives, beliefs, lifestyles, etc. Maybe they’ll end up settling on a more traditional mode of life. Maybe they’ll find their own way to go, distinct from all established ways of living. And maybe they’ll realize that they’re too dissimilar and pursue other people instead. As the cartoon wisely concludes, who knows?

So I highly recommend showing this cartoon to any young children or older children or really anyone you know who could still learn a thing or two about relationships and life decisions. Sometimes it’s astonishing how ignorant people can be about all the choices they have; when I can, I try to tell children, Different people can do different things. Not everyone needs to follow the same track of college, marriage, job, kids, house, etc. Some people can, and good for them, but not everybody. And maybe not Atalanta, even if she is a princess. Our birth ranks – like our genitals, chromosomes, bank accounts, and skin colors – should not determine where we end up in life. The only ones who should preside over that decision are us.

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Filed under art, Media, relationships, Sexuality

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