gender bias

Is Target Trying to “Turn Your Kids Gay”?

The big box store will no longer separate products by “boys” and “girls.” But there are more than a few shoppers who believe gender stereotypes should not be toyed with

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Everyone’s favorite big box store made a big announcement Friday. Target will no longer direct shoppers by gender when it comes to the toys, entertainment, and home furnishing sections. No more “boy toys” and “girl toys”—toys will be shelved according to type (“dolls,” “building sets,” etc.)—and no more implicit judgment on whether you ought to want that princess movie or blue camo sheet set. According to Target’s own press release, the change comes in response to customer feedback, and will be rolled out over a period of the next few months.

Target’s tone is straightforward, pleasant, refreshingly plainspoken:

We never want guests or their families to feel frustrated or limited by the way things are presented. Over the past year, guests have raised important questions about a handful of signs in our stores that offer product suggestions based on gender … We know that shopping preferences and needs change and, as guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home, or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary.

Fox News was all over it, though at least two of its guests failed to hew to the alarmist party line. “I think we’re going a little bit overboard with this,” said Tom Kersting, a therapist who consults with reality television shows. Kersting warned that the lack of gender labels might “confuse kids,” who might end up like some of his clients who “don’t really know what gender they are.” Thankfully, the two other Fox & Friends guests disagreed, one pointing out that kids don’t choose toys based on gender signs, and the other that kids do best when they “explore across gender-neutral aisles.”

Comments on Target’s business and Facebook pages revealed angry shoppers who threatened to boycott what they see as foolish pandering to a minority (gays, feminists, “pussified” men) or politically correct social engineering; self-appointed gender experts argue that boys and girls are just irrevocably different and ought to prefer different toys; and the truly hard-core paranoiac rant that this is just the first step toward a gender-neutral society in which everyone will be gay or trans or what have you.

A lot of commenters seem to think Target will be mixing all their products together in a random mishmash (“Are you going to start putting the frozen pizza in the auto parts department?”), or that Target will do away with single-gender bathrooms (it’s always the bathrooms with these guys, right?). The level of confusion among those infuriated by the policy grew so great that hoax-debunking site Snopes had to investigate.

One particularly virulent rant against the new Target policy—which, by the way, comes after and is similar to new policies announced by Amazon and other retailers—was on Young Conservatives, a website whose clarity of focus is admirable, if regrettable. “Modern American culture is slowly succumbing to the madness of progressivism, and it’s infecting every aspect of our lives you can think of, including, apparently, the toy aisle in Target stores,” the piece begins, and goes on to assert that “boys and girls are physically and emotionally designed to carry out specific roles in society, and when the lines are blurred between the two, chaos ensues and things fall apart.”

Back on the Target website, a lot of people are worried God will be displeased: “Target, you have just angered the Christian community once again,” wrote one, while another went on at crazy length about the importance of gender to God’s plan:

“God created two different genders. 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. And I am perfectly willing to shop where the genders God created are appreciated. And I’m sure others will follow. whether you care or not, I’m here to say it’s not accepted as “the norm.” Thank you for you time.”

A tweet from one Ohio woman, Abi Bechdel, is widely seen as the catalyst for Target’s changes, but she was neither the first nor only person to ask the store to stop dividing toys by gender. Back in April, two months before Bechdel’s tweet, a 9-year-old girl in upstate New York sat down and wrote Target a letter. Jillian Sager, now 10, loves Minecraft and Legos. “Dear Target,” her letter began, “I would like to say I love the things you sell but not the way you arrange them.” In particular she objected to the way Lego sets were divided: “I know Lego Friends are put with girl things. Also, Lego City is put with the boy things. I love all Legos, even “boy” ones.” (She ends with an adorable mic drop shout-out to her cousin: “I have a cousin who happens to love My Little Pony and he is a boy.”)

Jillian’s mother, Jeanne Eschenberg Sager, tweeted the letter and then blogged about it, but she never heard back from Target. Still, she says her daughter is thrilled. “When I told her about the change, she said, ‘Yay! Now boys won’t get laughed at if they like things that are in the ‘girl’ aisle, and girls won’t get laughed at if they like things that are in the ‘boy’ aisle.’”

That’s really what it comes down to, for me—and I suspect for most of us who either cheered or shrugged when Target announced their new policy (I pretty much did cartwheels in the middle of the kitchen, but I’ve hated over-gendering for a long time). The bottom line is this: separating toys for no reason other than to conform to some of our culture’s most dangerous stereotypes (and the corporate entities that exploit them) is bad corporate policy, bad for children, and arguably, bad business. Remember Jillian, who merely wants to get as many Lego sets as her parents will buy her? Making it easier for her to find and acquire them, and removing the ridiculous signs that might make her feel embarrassed or ashamed about her toy choices, is good for everyone: kids, parents, and big business alike.

Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Some of the most upsetting reactions to the new Target policy are those that demonstrate the entwined pathologies that spawn homophobia, misogyny, and rigid societal understanding of gender roles. These are the people who worried that Target’s change came too close on the heels of marriage equality to be a coincidence. “If you didn’t want to appear to be “pleasing” the gay and lesbians you picked a very poor time to make the change,” wrote one. Another added, “amazing this comes up now with the acceptance of gay marriages. I think it is important to distinguish all things!! Won’t shop there anymore.”

Another woman wrote that she’s worried about her kids. “So, now they will be ‘shamed’ if they want to buy the toys that they like and/or parents will be accused of being homophobes or whatever else has been said on this blog? Heaven forbid, a girl want a Barbie and a boy want a tool set. Sounds like bullying to me.”

In a world in which we know full well that bullying falls most heavily on kids whose sexuality and/or gender expression stray even one inch from the mainstream, this is an alarming bit of projection. Nobody is being victimized by a corporate policy that might help keep kids from feeling odd or different or wrong, or may begin to nudge, just a little, a society stubbornly set on defining an ever-narrowing definition of “normal.”

Remember when crazy people claimed there was a War on Christmas? They were wrong, but they inadvertently highlighted a good thing: The country is getting less homogeneous, and increasingly people recognize that with small gestures, like not assuming everyone you meet celebrates Christmas. It was a small good thing that hurt nobody and likely helped some.

Same with the current War on Conformity. Target’s change isn’t the sign of the gender-bendy, gay-friendly sea change its critics fear (I wish it were!). But it could be another small good thing: a nudge in the direction of openness, of expanded possibility, of little girls who adore Minecraft and young boys who love My Little Pony.

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