A 10-year-old girl was shopping with her mother one day when she asked a question.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Saturday signed Low’s legislation, Assembly Bill 1084, which will force large retailers to have non-gendered toy sections starting in 2024. Proponents said the requirement will help consumers comparison shop and also tamp down on gender stereotypes that hurt children who play with toys marketed to a different gender. Detractors said the law infringes on business owners’ freedom to market their products and lay out their stores as they see fit.
The new law, introduced by Democratic lawmakers Low and Cristina Garcia, won’t prohibit stores from having traditional boys’ and girls’ sections, but will require them to have “a reasonable selection” of toys and items in a “gender neutral section … regardless of whether they have been traditionally marketed for either girls or boys.” The requirement will apply to retailers with 500 or more employees in California. Those failing to meet it starting on Jan. 1, 2024, will face a $250 fine for a first offense and $500 for any after that.
“Keeping similar items that are traditionally marketed either for girls or for boys separated makes it more difficult for the consumer to compare the products and incorrectly implies that their use by one gender is inappropriate,” the new law reads.
Low was more blunt in a statement he provided to the assembly’s judiciary committee.
“Traditionally children’s toys and products have been categorized by a child’s gender. In retail this has led to the proliferation of [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]-geared toys in a ‘boys’ section and toys that direct girls to pursuits such as caring for a baby, fashion, and domestic life,” the lawmaker wrote. “The segregation of toys by a social construct of what is appropriate for which gender is the antithesis of modern thinking.”
The Consumer Federation of California, a nonprofit advocating for customer rights, supported the bill. The upcoming requirement will let buyers compare products more easily by grouping similar items, the federation said.
Several business and conservative groups fought the bill becoming law. A shared refrain was that business owners have it hard enough and should not be burdened with another government requirement that impedes their abilities to adapt to the free market.
“Retail stores are very attuned to the supply and demand of their merchandise, and they are very aware of the clientele they serve,” wrote the Capitol Resource Institute, a public policy organization “advocating for Judeo-Christian values.” “We do not believe it is the role of the California Legislature to overstep the natural process of the free market.”
Others homed in on the subject of the bill: gender.
“[A]ctivists and state legislators have no right to force retailers to espouse government-approved messages about gender. It’s a violation of free speech and it’s just plain wrong,” Jonathan Keller, president of the conservative California Family Council lobbying group, said in a statement.
The Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal defense nonprofit based in Sacramento, said Low’s legislation will “impose a de-gendered ideology and viewpoint on retailers.”
“This approach is both paternalistic and also communicates to Californians a disconnect with the real-world challenges of parenting in an increasingly dangerous and less free society,” the institute said.
Earlier this year, Low told the Sacramento Bee he was inspired when he learned of Target’s 2015 decision to get rid of some gendered sections. The retail behemoth is among a wave of companies making decisions in recent years based on a broader understanding of gender. Some are getting rid of men’s and women’s departments in favor of gender-neutral shopping spaces. And many clothing manufacturers are narrowing the gap between men’s and women’s fashion when it comes to the garments themselves as more shoppers opt for a “unisex” look. In November, Vogue — acknowledging the fashion world had up to that point been driven by “the gender binary” — ran an article titled with a simple declaration: “The Future of Retail Is Genderless.”
“Retailers and brands should be looking at gender-fluid apparel as an opportunity,” Erin Schmidt, senior analyst at Coresight Research, a firm specializing in retail and technology research, told CNBC. “It absolutely can’t be ignored. It will definitely be impacting the fashion trends of the future. And the retailers and brands that are doing it now are really going to be ahead of the curve.”
Low acknowledged as much when speaking about his legislation.
“As much as I’d like to think of this as watershed legislation, this is something the industry is already doing. We’re just trying to play catch up,” Low told the Bee.
California lawmakers have tried to pass such legislation at least three times, with past iterations of the bill failing in 2019 and 2020, the Associated Press reported.