At the beginning of this August, major retail chain Target announced that it would be phasing out explicit gender labelling for children in certain departments. The corporation’s public statement cited their reasoning that “signs that sort by brand, age or gender help [customers] get ideas and find things faster” but that “in some departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary.”
Here are actual responses taken from Target’s Facebook page:
“I have always shopped at Target, but as today I will not step foot in their stores, I have grandchildren I always bought for, and I will not be forced to turn them gay.”
“I think your decision to not identify girls with pink and boys with blue is ridiculous. A girl is a girl and a boy is a boy. Tradition doesn’t always have to turn into a politically correct dispute.”
“What ??????where will I find my tampons at oh no I’m so confused.”
The backlash against Target’s decision on various public forums has ranged from rational and level-headed to loaded with profanity and grammatical errors, but a common theme emerges from the opposition: gender as a concept exists and gender neutrality is illogical because it denies the obvious institution of gender that we have worked so hard to define.
The only problem with this is that our modern ideas of gender-specific, mass-marketed toys have existed for only two generations at most.
In the early 1900s, pink was considered a boys’ color because it was considered “more decided and stronger,” according to the 1918 trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department. Pink didn’t take on a female personality until the early postwar years, but when it did, it quickly separated almost every consumer good marketed to children of any age into “boy” and “girl” by content matter, i.e., the “young cowboy” and “little homemaker” toys we see in vintage magazine and television advertisements, and by color.
Division of gender by color turned out to be one of the most successful marketing ploys of the twentieth century because it created a cycle of self-reinforcing behavior. During the comeback of gender-separated marketing in the 1980s, a series of behavioral studies showed that by age five, children opted for gender-stereotyped toys, but parents reinforced this behavior by assuming that their children wanted these toys to begin with. The gender split between toys accelerated going into the 1990s, leaving us with highly contrasted girls’ and boys’ aisles.
Gender-typed toys are marketed to the adults long before they are marketed to the children. Color coding and trademarked imaging paint the product as relatable, appropriate and more likely to be accepted by the child, but behavioral scientist Stephen Kline points out that “new media and expanding leisure time have not necessarily produced enlightened, fulfilled and creative children.” If we give in to the gender cues even before the children do, then it’s we who are allowing the financial gain of others to define our ideas of gender.
Recently, a Twitter user took a picture of an aisle at Target labelled “Building Sets” and “Girls’ Building Sets,” which quickly went viral. The statement that Target makes with their decision to get rid of these labels is that the corporation should be able to make money from children of both groups because fundamentally, this is what Target is: a for-profit corporation.
In the words of play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, toys have the paradoxical role of serving as a mode of expression for children and shaping their self-expression in the years to come. If we assign our children to their respective modes of self-expression based on recent marketing trends within the past fifty years, we are succumbing to a culture where boys and girls are handed their identities and feel threatened in their sexual roles whenever their images are challenged.
Hyper-sexualizing an otherwise neutral building set by painting it in “girls’ colors” limits the toy’s market to just half of the children’s population. Looking at the same toy, we would be falling for a marketing trap by preventing a little boy from playing with it or fearing that he will somehow catch the pink and turn gay if he uses it even though it could just as easily be marketed as masculine. Likewise, the building set without the label “girl’s building set” will not turn your little girl into a lesbian, but insisting that the boy’s section is designed only for children who grow up to kiss girls might do it for you.
Kids naturally build things, of course. Children are incredibly innovative: they learn how to entertain themselves with what they are given, even when there is no trademarked character or gender-specific color on what they create, unlike the expensive toys we tend to give to them. If we have such enormous faith in our children being inherently different because of their genders, then we need not use marketing to reinforce these differences.
Like Target, I am not making any statements on whether gender is binary or on a spectrum. What I am advocating for is reevaluation of branding for boys and girls and the content of the toys themselves. Entertaining a child with television will not be any more beneficial just because it happens to be gender-specific.
I was raised on a combination of building blocks, Barbies and gender-neutral Sesame Street. But today as a female engineer, I still encounter plenty of little boys who were conditioned to believe that I should be leaving them to play with the boys’ blocks.
Let the kids be kids. “Boy” and “girl” are not merely familiar brand names but just one wonderful aspect of children’s identities. By getting rid of the pink and blue signs, we allow them to use their imaginations to create beyond what can be sold to their parents.