Target’s decision to eliminate “boys” and “girls” signs from its toys and bedding departments makes a bold statement: Gender stereotypes and gendered marketing are passé. Many parents have spent years calling for the desegregation of children’s products, and this decision from the second-largest discount retailer in the U.S. signals a real cultural shift.
The announcement has met both high praise and extreme outrage in the past week. For every progressive parent celebrating the demise of the pink and blue aisles, a conservative parent is furious that Target has taken the other side in this culture war. Their outrage seems to stem from a widespread misunderstanding of the concept of “gender neutral” in a marketing context.
For example, a recent statement from Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, echoes many conservatives’ comments on Target’s Facebook page. Graham is calling for consumers to boycott. He called Target to complain about its decision, because, he says, “It’s not gender-neutral people out there” who led to Target’s success. Graham added, “Jesus said, ‘Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female (Matthew 19:4). You can’t get any clearer than that.”
“Gender-neutral marketing” doesn’t signify an attempt to make males and females the same, however, or to ban traditionally gendered toys like Barbie and G.I. Joe, as some allege. Rather, as I have explained on “Fox and Friends” and in the Boston Globe Magazine, it simply means organizing products children already love according to interest or theme — not by boy or girl. It’s actually a throwback to a bygone era that many critics of the practice grew up with: Gender-based marketing only came into vogue in the 1990s, when companies realized they could convince parents of children of both sexes to buy twice as much stuff by introducing gender segmentation to kids’ products.
In fact, toys used to be sold to kids in broad categories and organized by type, not by who would use them, according to Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of California at Davis who has researched how the gendered marketing of children’s products has evolved since 1905. “So this move by Target is neither radical nor unprecedented,” Sweet says.
So, why this change, and why now? Some media outlets have reported that Target’s decision was the result of one woman’s tweet that went viral in June. That tweet featured a photo of a Target toy aisle labeled “building sets” and “girls’ building sets,” implying the retailer’s default assumption is that building toys are for boys.
In reality, though, Target’s decision is not about one person’s efforts. Rather, it’s the culmination of the activism of countless parents, educators and critics.
International parent-led grassroots organizations such as Let Toys Be Toys and No Gender December have helped parents and corporations understand in recent years that gendered toy segregation can make boys and girls feel needlessly ashamed of their desire for unstereotypical toys, like chemistry sets and LEGO toys for girls, or play kitchens and dolls for boys. Books such as Peggy Orenstein’s “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” and my own book, “The Princess Problem,” have also articulated the issue with care. Target’s decision is part of this overall zeitgeist.
Like many conservatives, Graham grounded his complaint in his evangelical Christian beliefs. “[T]hey won’t be using pink and blue colors to identify sexes,” he marveled. “What’s next? Are they going to try to make people believe that pink or blue baby showers are politically incorrect? I have news for them and for everyone else — God created two different genders.”
That’s a strange remark. The coding of “pink=girl” and “blue=boy” is, like gender-based marketing, a relatively recent phenomenon with no biblical roots. Jo Paoletti, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America,” notes that historically, the reverse was true: many religiously devout parents felt blue was feminine and pink was masculine. “Blue has a long history of association with the Virgin Mary,” Paoletti says, “which is why it was the preferred color for girls in Belgium, Catholic regions of Switzerland and Germany, and German Catholic settlements in North American until the current pink-blue marketing replaced the religious symbolism in the last thirty years.”
As Maria Montessori famously stated, play is the work of the child. Through play, children make sense of their place in the world around them and the future roles available to them. Why shouldn’t girls feel free to play with STEM-related toys? Why shouldn’t boys feel free to play at caregiving and nurturing? As a society, we no longer believe women should be restricted to certain jobs or that fathers are ill-suited to tending babies. So children’s play should reflect modern cultural norms, rather than be boxed into 1950s-era stereotypes driven by marketers’ desire to segment the child audience for maximum profit.
This makes Target’s decision to follow the precedent set by major retailers internationally a good thing for consumers and stores alike, and hopefully, more companies will follow.
Change is slow, however. Cultural shifts happen in stages, not overnight — hence the pushback. It’s an interesting culture war to watch: In the future, gender stereotyping could indeed be rolled back even further, into areas such as the clothing department. Recent efforts to break down stereotypes in children’s clothing have included the work of grassroots organization Let Clothes Be Clothes, which calls for an end to the gender stereotypes found in the design and marketing of kids’ clothing, and indie brands like Princess Awesome (purveyors of STEM-themed dresses) and Suit Her (a proposed line of dressy suits for girls).
As new back-to-school campaign called #ClothesWithoutLimits notes: “Kids definitely notice when retailers divide clothing so starkly into ‘boys’ vs. ‘girls’ colors, themes, and styles; and that sends a limited message about what they are supposed to like and who they are supposed to be.”
The same is true of other products, like toys and home decor. Kudos to Target for acting in children’s best interests.