Why Target Hits the Mark with Removing Gender Labels in the Toy Aisle

Sometimes I facepalm when I read articles on Twitter.  You know, like this popular meme


I wake up each morning, and instead of drinking my coffee while reading my newspaper, I drink my coffee while checking Facebook and Twitter.  I keep up with friends and family on Facebook and keep up with the world and current events on Twitter.

So, I was surprised earlier this week when I read the latest kerfuffle in the culture wars. Target is bringing about the rise of the Antichrist or something similar by removing gender labels from their toy aisles and children’s bedding. Franklin Graham went on another of his Facebook screeds (and later on Foxnews) about the declining values in American society. Those ever stalwart culture warriors at The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood wrote a scathing critique of this latest business decision from the retail giant Target.

They say things like, “Rather than reinforcing maleness and femaleness, this confuses it.  Instead of helping guide children towards embracing who they actually are, this blurs reality” and ” Ultimately, God has created boys and girls for more than toys. He’s created them for a purpose far greater than Mattel or American Girl Doll. He’s created every boy and girl for himself, to display his image and glory in the world. And he has created them as male and female.”

Yes, God did create us for more than toys. He does have a far greater purpose for us.

But removing gender labeling from bedding and toys in no way confuses that.  And it certainly doesn’t damage a child’s ability to bring glory to God in this world.

If anything Target hits the mark with removing gender labeling from toys and bedding.

Why? Imagination.

Imagination knows no gender boundaries.   Toys are extensions of a child’s imagination.  As a mother of three children (2 daughters and 1 son) and as a former child myself (how many adults forget this?), I can attest that this is true.  My daughters and son play nicely together (sometimes) because they can meld their various interests into a complex imaginative game of sorts. Transformers meet Marvel Superheroes meet Jake and the Neverland Pirates meet Dora.  I’ve seen it happen.  Iron Man Lego sets are built right alongside Lego Friends (the controversial girl centric, pink sets).

As the Pixar Toy Story movies showed us, a toy is a unique character to the child playing with it.  In the earlier movies, Andy played with Woody and Buzz and Jesse and Barbie (even), just as simply as in the latest film and shorts Bonnie can play with those same exact toys. It’s imagination that drives our children, not a label in a toy department.

Developing this imagination with a variety of stimuli is just as beneficial as any classroom lecture.  What would we do if boys and girls imaginations were segregated based on gender?  Mary Shelley, in publishing Frankenstein, is credited with inventing science fiction. Marie Curie was able to think outside the box and discovered radium and polonium. Women such as Ada Lovelace envisioned computers and Grace Hopper developed a backbone of computer programming, the COBOL language. Traditionally female centric careers such as nursing and teaching are seeing a rise in male interest and this is vital in an ever changing workforce. So, these little imaginations we are fostering in the toy aisle will go on to develop the cures and technology of the future and be thinkers of the future.

I’ve made it a point as a mother to walk each aisle in the Target toy section whenever we go (and if I had a dollar for every time we’ve visited the Target toy section, I’d be financially set for life). My son and daughters get to linger and look at all the toys. Not just the gender specific ones. My daughters get as excited over the latest superhero action figure as they do over the latest Tinkerbell fairy. My son for years played with a toy vacuum cleaner.

Jonah at age 3 with his vacuum.

Jonah at age 3 with his vacuum.

Yes, he tends to enjoy more traditional gender based toys now, but my daughters?  They are all over the place. My oldest enjoys her American Girl Doll as much as she enjoys pretending to be a superhero from the latest Marvel movie. My youngest daughter plays with whatever her siblings like, so she’s good with the Hulk or Tinkerbell – but she’s mainly into anything Minions.  At Halloween, we’re all over the place with our costume choices, gender stereotypes thrown out the window.

Katie as Iron Man, Anna as Spiderman, and Jonah as Venom.

Katie as Iron Man, Anna as Spiderman, and Jonah as Venom.

Jonah as Captain America, Katie as Elsa, and Anna as, well, Anna.

Jonah as Captain America, Katie as Elsa, and Anna as, well, Anna.

Ultimately, it isn’t Target’s role to expand my children’s horizons.  That’s my job as a parent. And when it comes to who gets the Spiderman sheets on their bed, I’ve had to settle that argument many times between my son and his little sister.  I think my children are more well rounded, capable of playing with a variety of friends and the new children they meet on a playground because I’ve tried not to enforce the gender specific toy interests.

Seriously, this was my original Optimus Prime from 1985 that I've now given to my son.

Seriously, this was my original Optimus Prime from 1985 that I’ve now given to my son.

Interestingly enough, this gender labeling thing is personal to me. I grew up in the 80’s. My childhood should have been dominated by Barbie and Cabbage Patch Dolls.  Instead, I gravitated toward Star Wars toys, Transformers, and GI Joe.  I remember feeling like I was odd and sometimes being made fun of growing up. I remember adults in my life refusing to buy me “boy toys” for presents (wow, the judgment my parents must have felt in those instances). I learned to smile politely when yet another adult bought me a doll in their weird little hope I would suddenly embrace the pink fashion dolls I was “supposed” to like (Did those adults ever think about the message they were sending me that I was broken?). When one well meaning adult insisted buying me Cabbage Patch dolls, I made sure one was in a jogging suit and the other was an Astronaut doll (who I named after Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnick, the woman on the Challenger).

My parents didn’t care I was a “tomboy” – they encouraged me to pursue the passions I had. My mom played cars and trucks with me, and my dad and I had elaborate GI Joe battles. They even let me play preacher to them in my living room (despite attending a rather fundamental church that frowns on women ministers).

But schoolmates weren’t always so nice and I remember them telling me I was weird. I remember it stinging. I tried to brush it off, but it was there in the back of my mind, that I was an oddball. That’s why I hid my somewhat obsessive love of science fiction as a teenager. I was geeking out and crushing on Wil Wheaton, not any of the Coreys or Ralph Macchio or Robert Downey Jr (I grew to appreciate RDJ as an adult, thank you very much).  I had to hide a part of myself from those I was in school with, aside from my closest of friends. See, kids words hurt and make you second guess who you are and make you uncomfortable in your own skin.

Worse than the occasional ribbing I got, I remember a boy who was mercilessly made fun of by other kids because he had a Strawberry Shortcake birthday party. Even in our little fundagelical school, kids whispered he must be “queer” and he was called names like girly and sissy. He was a pariah and only a handful of us were nice to him. Elementary school must have been hell to him, and all because his interests were different than traditionally expected.

Maybe removing gender tags from the toy aisle might mean that in the coming years, fewer kids will get targeted for bullying. Adults will learn to accept children’s interests. And imaginations everywhere might flourish as kids adopt the Toy Story model of play.  Barbie can play with Buzz Lightyear.  GI Joe can have a female general. And Marvel might very well include Black Widow in the Avengers action figure set.

A girl can hope, right? I know my daughters certainly are.

3 responses to “Why Target Hits the Mark with Removing Gender Labels in the Toy Aisle

  1. I totally get the thinking behind removing the gender labels on toys. I didn’t grow up with brothers, but I was the kind of kid who would definitely go back and forth between Barbie and trucks πŸ˜‰ But, I feel like this generation of girls are able to play with toys that are considered stereotypical “boy” and people don’t really bat an eye. So, I have to flip the coin, being a mom of boys. Hypothetically, if Jonah came up to you around Halloween with a princess costume he picked out at Target, and said he wanted to wear it trick or treating what would you do? How would you handle that?

    • I think this generation of girls is better off than we were, but it still isn’t great. I’ve had friends who’ve been told something is wrong because their little girls like Batman. Or their little boy wanted an easy bake oven.

      Now, if Jonah asked for a princess costume, I’d take his temperature and ask if he hit his head. Because he doesn’t roll like that at all.

      But, the boy I grew up with, it wouldn’t have been out of the norm. I bet he really wanted to be Strawberry Shortcake for Halloween. (FYI, he grew up and married a beautiful girl and they have kids and are happy). If I had a son like that, I’d probably let him… I’d warn him about the ribbing he might take from other kids. I’m sure today a boy dressed as Elsa would receive quite a bit of childish barbs thrown his way. And I’d probably wonder if something more wasn’t going on under the surface.

      But in some fashion, is it any different than when Katie wanted to be iron man one year and a gamecock football player the next year? Is there a double standard there? We let her. I guess it is more acceptable for a girl to be a “boy” figure than a boy to be a “girl” figure in some areas of life.

      Interesting question for sure that I’ll be mulling over for a while.

  2. Exactly! It’s a double standard. I’m sure Jonah wouldn’t ask to wear a princess costume, that’s why it was hypothetical πŸ˜‰ But, like you said, if a boy went around wearing a “girls” costume, people would wonder what’s going on there. But for girls to wear Spider-Man, ironman, etc it is more accepted. I think it’s great when I see girls dressed as their favorite superhero! I think their parents are pretty great too πŸ˜‰ So, really it seems that taking away these gender labels will only make the girls feel more accepted, not necessarily boys. Again, not disagreeing with this change at Target, but it definitely got me thinking.

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