No more pink and blue toy aisles based on customer demand, says Target.
But is this a good idea or a bad idea? My inclination is to say it’s a good idea, not just because I like Target since it’s a good Minnesota-based company, but because anytime there is one less degree of prescribed roles put forth by a for-profit entity, I get along better with my left-leaning colleagues, I get great fodder for discussion of how our values and roles are socially constructed, and I sleep better at night. That’s just me. Even though I believe that biology matters, a point made most clear to me when I was pregnant and lactated and figured out that I am a mammal, I’ve been writing to toy companies for years asking them to please show more girls playing with engineering toys and please show more boys playing with nurturing toys in their advertisements. I do this because the availability of roles offered in kids’ marketing materials has an effect on kids’ future aspirations. What kids (and parents) see has an effect on what they (and their parents) think they may do. As most clickbait articles say, “Science says so.” If kids don’t see it, or see themselves in it, figuring out future adult life outside of “it” can be pretty tough. And since we know there is more variation in aspirations, bodies, and many other characteristics within genders than between them, messing with the dichotomy of boy and girl is not only interesting, it reflects the reality of children’s lives.
And now, evidently, it’s good business practice.
The imagined chaos that might ensue from Target’s decision has folks offering input all across the land of social media. Images of boys in princess costumes, girls with swords rescuing the boy-princesses, tearful parents, and baby dolls next to robots fill the minds of parents and gender-watchers. Some people find these images to be horrifying. Others are giddy with happiness. In both cases, people’s conceptions of whether girlland and boyland have militarized borders or blurry boundaries are being messed with.
And you know that anytime people’s conceptions of borders and roles are being messed with, a sociologist gets her wings.
Perhaps we are wondering about something that is really not a big change, though, even though people from both ends of our political binary could find this change to be positive. After all, toy packaging itself has yet to become gender neutral. Nonetheless, I suspect an important continued step for those parents who keep wishing they could attend a Bernie Sanders rally is to affirm Target’s move and work hard to try to remove the dichotomized imagery on toy packaging in addition to the aisles (in one store) where the toys are displayed. I suppose an important consideration for those parents who found parts of last weeks’ Republican debates smart and useful is that one could be happy that gendered signage was removed from the store, because: a) that means the values associated with gender role assignment are left up to families more than before, which right-leaning folks have used for other arguments like sex education; and b) it’s still all about capitalism, since the toy companies are quite savvy about marketing to kids for profit and removing the gendered display allows for the products to speak for themselves, perhaps even more strongly than before. These considerations may or may not work in your mind, but it’s fun to play with a positive spin from the socially-constructed binary of U.S. based liberal and conservative politics in order to show where even those lines are blurred. (Note to self: write letter to Target to suggest replacing gendered aisle signage with “Republican Underwear” and “Democrat Underwear” signs in the now gender-mixed undergarment section).
This summer I went to a great exhibit in Copenhagen on children’s toy, furniture, and clothing design in Nordic countries. Among the displays of Lego and high chairs and Finnish maternity packages were kids’ pajamas with horizontal stripes and bright colors from the Swedish company named Polarn O. Pyret. The marketing and manufacturing of these intentionally unisex pajamas (still around today, with a handful of stores in the U.S.) began in the 1970s, and the primary aim was to use natural fabrics in garments that allowed free movement in colors that any boy or girl would want to wear. Fast forward to affluent Americans’ love of Swedish-American kids’ clothes, and you can see that the idea has stuck, even though the store I have in mind is very clearly divided into sections of boy stripes (Blue! Orange! Green!) and girl stripes (Pink! Purple! Light pink! Light purple!). Sometimes I like to tell shoppers in that store about the history of the Swedish pajama company that was likely the inspiration for the kids’ striped PJ craze, which was started by a traveling salesman named Nils whose first stint as company head pre-pajamas included illegally selling German condoms in Sweden in the early 1900s, brief imprisonment, and then adding baby items to the list of the reimagined company’s manufactured items. But then I usually get kicked out of the store.
So all of you striped kiddo PJ fans out there can rest assured that the idea could have begun with the illegal sales of birth control by a traveling Swedish salesman who needed a new product to make money after he went to prison (maybe from the families whose condoms didn’t work and now they needed pajamas for all their unplanned kids).
Why this story matters is that the idea of gender neutral anything for kids has, for a long time, been about allowing freedom, exploration, and movement regardless of gender. Gender is useful, to be sure (less work to navigate in polite conversation), but it is limiting (more work for people not experiencing the gender binary in polite conversation), and it seems to limit from an earlier and earlier age.
This is why my son’s path through toy aisles began looking more like the letter L than the letter S starting around age 4. Just before kindergarten, he walked straight for the blue aisle, turned right, and that was that. Swords, trains, Lego spaceships. Before that he’d go in every aisle, snaking back and forth and looking at toys and games without assigning them (at least out loud) as suitable or unsuitable for his own play plans. He had his preferences, which were gendered from earlier than age 4, but the shopping and looking for the wider array of toys was not stifled when he was a toddler. Dolls, toy guns, pirate ships, kid-sized kitchens. And it didn’t matter to him if there were girls or boys in the aisles. He didn’t see that he was “polluting” the girl aisle with his little boy body, and he didn’t see girls looking at swords as “cootie-inducing.” But that didn’t last, and it rarely does for kids. Now that he’s starting sixth grade, we will see the creative forms of pollution that he’ll be exposed to beyond the toy aisle. I say this with confidence, since his comment after visiting the boys bathroom during middle school orientation was, “Hey Mommy, were there boogers on the girls’ bathroom mirror, too?”
One of the most vivid memories of my sixth grade year was when my mom took me to the local JCPenney department store to buy a training bra. The path we navigated amidst the fluorescent lighting in the store started with the entry doors, then shifted towards the right where the Wranglers and plaid shirts for the farmer boys were, down the dimly lit stairs, around a corner past the dance tights, and then to a wall where the postcard-sized plastic packages of folded white training bras hung like little flower petals ready to be plucked.
I didn’t grow up in a unisex horizontal children’s pajamas culture, so for me the separation of the training bra section from the Wranglers was not only more comfortable, it was crucial. This was a private matter for girls, and doggone-it, it’s okay if we had to go to the dark basement to get there. I didn’t want to see my boy classmates when I shopped for the device that would socialize my breasts into submission.
But wouldn’t it be nice if the discussion and perusing of training bras by growing bodies was something that didn’t carry with it the feelings of shame and secrecy that are more likely to be found in a basement? What if they were next to the Wranglers, front and center, hung with pride like little folded flags ready to be displayed proudly? What if it was the case that boys learned about girls and girls learned about boys, and they didn’t feel that that entering these dichotomized spaces constituted gender polluting? What if boys and girls and all the in betweens could go anywhere in the store and ask questions, try things on, and get what they need without the baggage of wondering whether they’re supposed to buy this thing or that thing? If that happened, I see the only harm being that kids would feel better about themselves. The grownups wouldn’t, but that doesn’t matter as much to me.
Now, I’m not proposing that boys should go out and buy training bras. Nor am I proposing that bras are absolutely necessary, given that they are really torture devices whose only worthy quality is the amazing feeling of relief in the evening when they are taken off (see? even a sociologist can admit physiological effects). But I am proposing that removing one more degree of signage and direction from the spaces where children explore and shop and wonder about themselves and their futures may actually offer our kiddos some of the most important relief they’ll ever get to feel.