Last week, in response to customer feedback, Target announced their decision to reduce the amount of gender-based signage for kids’ products in their stores. “For example, in the kids’ Bedding area, signs will no longer feature suggestions for boys or girls, just kids,” reads the Target press release. “In the Toys aisles, we’ll also remove reference to gender, including the use of pink, blue, yellow or green paper on the back walls of our shelves.”
This is a smart move that simplifies things. Customers can categorize Barbies and Hot Wheels perfectly well without a store assigning gender to them. Plenty of toys, from bikes to building blocks to stuffed animals to art sets, are generally gender-neutral. Why, for instance, should this striped bedspread be considered a “boy’s” bedspread?
“I don’t see what this does for kids having labels for boys and girls because to mix it all together is to deny that there’s differences between the sexes,” Andrea Tantaros argued. “I also think, and I think you’d agree with me that, boys and girls are different,” Tammy Bruce said in another segment. “And that there are naturally different interests.”
Unsurprisingly, the teeming masses of conservative America responded with knee-jerk outrage, as well. As AdWeek chronicled, one comically inspired hero named Mike Melgaard posed as Target customer service on Facebook to taunt those who were expressing their what-is-this-country-coming-to-boys-are-born-loving-toy-trucks umbrage.
Reading the outpouring of anger at fake-Target, it’s clear that the two arguments against this are rooted in “nature” (“God created males and females differently,” one man grouses) and “tradition” (“MORE PUSSIFICATION of America,” decries another). But if gender preferences are inborn and natural, then they should sort themselves out, even if Target has fewer signs that say “boys” and “girls.” The only reason to relentlessly gender everything is to teach and enforce gender roles, which you would not have to do if gender preferences were as “natural” as these folks would like to think.
While there have always been some toys meant for one sex more than another, heavily gendering toys is a practice that waxes and wanes. As Elizabeth Sweet explained in the New York Times in 2012, “Gender was remarkably absent from the toy ads at the turn of the 20th century”—an era, presumably, of rampant “PUSSIFICATION”—and it wasn’t until World War II and the postwar era that separate marketing of boys and girls really came into vogue. Then the tide turned again; by 1975, “very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever.” That reversed again in the 1990s, when gender-based marketing started creeping up to today’s ridiculous levels.
And yet, as Hanna Rosin detailed in Slate in 2012, even studies that show gender differences in toy preference find that most popular toys, such as Lincoln Logs or stuffed animals, are gender-neutral.
Oddly, many of the people who are so angry about Target’s decision grew up in the era when toy gendering wasn’t much of a thing. My childhood blanket was covered with pictures of Peter Rabbit, and my favorite toy was a record player. I played with Barbies, sure, but most of my toys were not “girl” toys or “boy” toys—just toys. I imagine lots of the people losing their minds about gender-neutral toys have similar memories. What they’re defending is neither nature or tradition, but an ideology—one that doesn’t reflect the diverse desires of kids, who should be treated like individuals instead of as little boxes marked “Boy” and “Girl.”