This topic will be spread out over a series of articles. The first part will be a general overview of what is happening with Target and why. Subsequent articles will focus on other aspects such as critical reception, my own thoughts, reactions on social media platforms, and how it can impact the movement.
Just a few weeks ago the chain department store Target decided to respond to Social Justice Advocacy and remove gender labels from children’s sections of the store. In a PSA released on August 7th, titled “What’s In Store: Moving Away From Gender-based Signs,” Target announced their decision. The full text of Target’s statement can be found here.
Typically, segregating children’s’ products by gender has been the “norm,” so it’s understandable that some people have found the move strange, and even unnecessary. Gender-based advertising is harmful, though. Target states that not all departments will be de-segregated, as “in some cases, where there are fitting and size differences, like apparel it makes sense” to not separate by gender. (This is correct, to a point.) Target does acknowledge that “some departments, like Toys, Home, or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary.”
Gender roles are pushed on us at an age where we don’t even have the capacity to know what gender roles are; marketing by gender draws the rigid binary we’re not supposed to step out of as we grow older, makes children think that certain things are “for boys,” certain things are “for girls;” boys play with GI Joes and girls play with Barbies, and heavens forbid you call Barbie and action figure, or GI Joe a doll. When a kiddo wants an Elsa bedspread instead of a Transformers one, it’s alienating to hear messages from all sides that boys aren’t supposed to like Elsa, or Ana, or Frozen. It also opens up room for parents or guardians and other important adults in a child’s life to push those gender roles whether or not the child wants to conform. “Oh, you don’t really want that Batman costume, do you? Wouldn’t you rather be a pretty princess?”
Children are just beginning to bloom into full autonomously-minded little human beings; this is the time when their minds are most malleable, and that—among other things—is what makes it particularly harmful. When a girl wants to play-pretend shoot ‘em up cowboys instead of princesses, when a boy wants to play Easy Bake Oven instead of GI Joe, it’s alienating. Mass-market advertising makes it alienating. The boundaries faced, the repression of creative expression, limits in choice and play, all have the very strong potential to carry over from childhood to adulthood.
In addition to changes like “in the kids’ bedding area, signs will no longer feature suggestions for boys or girls, just kids,” Target will be altering the marketing of toy aisles, moving to “remove reference to gender, including the use of pink, blue, yellow or green paper on the backs of our shelves.” Instead, toy aisles will be categorized by product type (i.e. playsets, arts and crafts, action figures, and so on).
When voices are listened to and changes are made, it is progress. Progress is slow—sometimes painfully slow—but progress is paving the road towards a better world for our children, one that won’t need to be a struggle to escape boundaries forced on us that we never even asked for in the first place. Even the very smallest of changes are cobblestones laid on that road. As long as we keep pushing towards gender equity (as just one facet in a larger social justice movement), those cobblestones accumulate to pave that path for the next generation, and the generation after them—and the generation after that, too.
Target says that we can expect the changes to begin happening “over the next few months.” Target could be paving the way for other department stores and toy sellers to join in the promotion of gender equity, the nurturing of young peoples’ minds without feeling the need to limit their play and stifle expression by promoting oppressive social categories.