Earlier this week, Target announced that they’ll be removing unnecessarily gender-specific signs and color-coded decorations from some departments, including the toy aisles and children’s bedding. Seems like a small change that shouldn’t be cause for any outrage, right? Alas, no. Target’s Facebook page is full of angry (and largely ungrammatical) posts from people vowing to never shop there again because they’re bowing to political correctness and ruining America. But is your shopping experience really going to change? Because I know I’ve never needed to look at the signs to figure out which bedding was being marketed toward girls vs. boys, and I doubt that most of the people protesting would have even noticed the changed signs if they hadn’t put out a press release.
Why change the signs in the first place?
Target’s change seems to have been prompted by tweets like this one by Abi Bechtel, where she pointed out that they shouldn’t distinguish between “Building Sets” and “Girls’ Building Sets.”
— Abi Bechtel (@abianne) June 1, 2015
As she explained after the change was announced,
It seemed to imply that if “building sets” are for kids, and “girls’ building sets” are for girls, then “girls” is a distinct category from “kids.” Here was one more piece of visual rhetoric telling my sons that boys are normative, and girls are other.
Exactly. Girls can play with building sets that make airplanes just like boys can play with sets that make cupcake cafes. It’s redundant, and along with othering girls, it also reinforces the belief that it’s super bad for boys to play with girly toys. The outraged reaction shows just how deeply entrenched these beliefs are; many parents are completely apoplectic that this might confuse their children or, worse yet, completely warp their developing minds.
News flash: Toys cannot make your child turn gay or transgender.
The biggest concern the purported boycotters seem to have is that removing explicitly gendered signs is the first step onto the slippery slope of gayness and gender confusion. First, let’s brush up on how you can tell if a toy is for boys or girls.
Kids just like to play with toys, and until they start picking up on social cues about what they’re “supposed” to like due to their assumed gender, most kids will happily play with a mix of stereotypically boy and girl toys if their caretakers allow them to choose what interests them. You can’t predict anything about a young child’s future sexual orientation or gender identity by the toys they choose. Yes, some boys who like dolls and some girls who like trucks will turn out to fall under the LGBTQ* umbrella, but plenty of others will be straight and cis-gender. And some of the boys who like trucks and girls who like dolls won’t be cis/hetero. You can’t change a child’s identity by allowing them access to a wider variety of toys… and you also can’t make them fit into the boxes you want them to fill by restricting their toy choices. The underlying assumption these parents have is that it’s awful to have a kid who might eventually question their sexuality or gender, and those beliefs cause far more damage than any toy could ever do.
It’s political correctness run amok! Don’t they have better things to worry about!
“Political correctness” is just coded language for “My long-held beliefs about how the world should be are being challenged! I don’t like it and I refuse to change my ways! Just shut up! ShutupshutupSHUTUP!!” Multiple psychological studies in recent years have found that people who identify as conservatives tend to have strong fear-based reactions to situations they perceive as negative. Change is quite literally terrifying, so they lash out at the people who dare to tell them that maybe the ways things are isn’t the way things should be. While understanding this can help us frame their reactions, it doesn’t mean that we should stop pushing for change. More often than not, what’s politically correct also happens to be morally and ethically correct, and eventually people will realize there’s really nothing to fear, especially about something as trivial as whether the fucking LEGO Friends sit on a pink shelf or not.
And yes, there are bigger problems in the world. That doesn’t mean we can’t make little changes too. Small changes add up over time to become big changes, and with very little effort. Honestly, how much effort really went into this campaign? Bechtel’s “viral” tweet got a grand total of just over 3,000 retweets since she posted the picture on June 1st. That’s not a lot, and took people almost no time to do. Maybe some people signed online petitions or made other posts to Target’s social media. Target execs probably had a few meetings to discuss the possible change, and of course it’ll take some work to physically change things within the stores, but stores are constantly moving stock around anyway so it’s not really a big deal or a reason to argue that things shouldn’t change. It doesn’t mean activists aren’t also working toward fixing the bigger problems.
But how will I find the items I’m looking for?
It’ll take a while to fully roll out the changes and there will probably be a bit of variation between stores based on their sizes and layouts, but it sounds like they’ll be pretty minimal. In stores where the pink Megablox are already next to the primary color Megablox, they’ll just have to take down the “Girls” sign at the end of the aisle and maybe change some decorations around (which again, they do that periodically anyway). If they used to be separate, won’t it be easier and less confusing to have them all in one place? Everything will still be grouped logically, which means that for the most part, the toys will still be grouped according to the groups they’re marketed toward. Barbie will still be near Bratz and Hot Wheels will still be next to Matchbox cars. But maybe all the Disney Jr. toys will be grouped together; plenty of boys like Olaf and Doc McStuffins and plenty of girls like the Octonauts and Jake, and they could probably sell more items if kids could find toys from all the shows they love in one aisle. After all, Target’s only doing this because they figured out they can make money from it. The toys themselves won’t really change, so parents who are dead set on maintaining strict gender roles for their kids will still be able to figure out that the toy in the pink box is for girls even if there’s not an explicit sign above it.
Other sections likely won’t change at all aside from the signs. My local Target has two aisles for kids’ bedding; one has the licensed character merchandise and the other has their Circo brand sheets and decorations; pink/purple on one side and blue on the other. They only way they could rearrange them would be to make a “boy” aisle and a “girl” aisle, which I don’t see happening (if for no other reason than that it wouldn’t look as nice to mix the kinda gaudy character sheets with their prettier designs). If you can’t look at the items for sale and figure out which one they’re marketing to which group, you’re either hopelessly naïve or willfully obtuse. Or here’s an idea! Take your kids shopping with you and let them pick out what they like. Target also explicitly said they aren’t changing the clothing sections since items are sized differently, so that should be a complete non-issue.
If nothing’s really going to change, why bother?
Because it’s the right thing to do. Honestly, removing gendered labels from toys might eventually lead to less confusion for kids. Lots of childhood and adolescent bullying involves calling kids gay, girly, or tomboys if they dare to admit liking different things or enjoy playing with friends who aren’t the same gender as themselves. It can be confusing and upsetting to feel like maybe you’re wrong about how you perceive your own identity because others keep pushing their assumptions on you based on ridiculous stereotypes. It’s even more frightening to know that they might hurt you if they find out that they’re right. Kids who realize it’s ok for them to enjoy different things won’t be as likely to insult other kids who are different. Everyone wins.
Target’s signage alone isn’t really all that earth-shattering (and it’s kind of depressing that it feels like a Really Big Deal), but it’s a small part of a larger movement with enormous implications. It’s not a stretch to say that removing a source of microaggressions and bullying will quite literally save some kids’ lives, since the LGBTQ* community is more likely to be victims of violence and has a higher rate of suicide attempts. Now tell me again how this is oppressing you?