In the news this week, Target has announced that they will eliminate “boys” and “girls” on their signs in the toy and bedding departments.
“We know that shopping in some departments like Toys, Home, or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary,” says a statement on the Target website. In recent years, more and more parents and corporations have started to understand that gendered toy segregation can make children feel needlessly ashamed of their desire for toys that don’t fit their gender stereotypes, such as chemistry sets and monster trucks for girls, or play kitchens and dolls for boys.
Toys are toys. They’re a source for entertainment and joy, and companies like Target that are encouraging children to pick a plaything that will bring them joy — even if it may not enforce traditional gender roles — should be the norm, not the source of controversy.
Because of course there’s controversy over removing obsolete and meaningless signage in a retail store.
Notably, Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the famous Rev. Billy Graham, and president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Graham is calling for a boycott, and like many conservatives has grounded his complaint in his evangelical Christian beliefs, marveling, “They won’t be using pink and blue colors to identify sexes. What’s next? Are they going to try to make people believe that pink or blue baby showers are politically incorrect? I have news for them and for everyone else — God created two different genders.”
Except no, He didn’t. I’m not starting a “where did we come from?” debate, settle down, but the fact is there are more than two genders. Like, a lot more. Gender itself is a social construct, and relatively new in terms of recognition, but to assume it can just be simplified into a binary is wrong and kind of ridiculous. Gender, much like sexuality, is a spectrum, and not everyone falls into neat categories.
Additionally, Graham’s remark of color coding is kind of strange when you put it in context. Everyone knows that “pink=girl” and “blue=boy” because marketing and society are super effective at ingraining these constructs into our brains from a young age. However, it’s a fairly modern phenomenon with absolutely no biblical roots. In fact, historically, the reverse was always true: many religiously devout parents felt blue was feminine due to a long history of association with the Virgin Mary, and pink was considered virile and masculine. Baby boys were dressed in pink until the 1940s, at which point a certain German leader started using little pink triangles to identify gay people (in the same way he used yellow Star of Davids to identify Jewish people). After World War II, pink was considered an effeminate color and designated for girls.
That’s right, the whole of western society decided that pink was girly because Adolf Hitler associated the color with homosexuality.
Infuriatingly bigoted history aside, Graham complaints continued, stating that “gender-neutral people out there” haven’t made Target strong. Others — like Tom Kersting, an actual psychotherapist — expressed concern that the lack of boy-girl labels would lead children to “question what their gender is.”
Contrary to many conservative’s beliefs, gender-neutral marketing doesn’t mean an attempt to make males and females exactly the same, or that Target is going to ban traditionally gendered toys like Barbie and G.I. Joe. It simply means organizing products that children already love according to interest or theme, rather than by boy or by girl. This isn’t exactly radical; gender-based marketing only really became popular in the 1990s when companies realized they could get parents to buy twice as much stuff by introducing products with gender segmentation.
Furthermore, wild accusations of gender confusion don’t square up to the science. Developmental psychologist Christia Brown, a professor at the University of Kentucky and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, has about 30 years of social science on children and gender-labeled toys to back her up.
“We know kids know their gender really early — they know it by about two years old,” said Brown. “The gender-confusion thing is not something parents need to worry about.” She goes on to agree that the decision to remove gender labeling on toys is, in all likelihood, a very good idea. Most research suggests this, as well.
“Social scientists really agree pretty wholeheartedly on the effect of these kinds of gender labels on kids’ choices,” Brown said. “What they find is that the girls don’t want to touch it if it’s labeled a boy’s toy. When the exact same toy is labeled as a girl’s toy, however, the girls are interested.” Similar patterns have been observed in boys, including a study that involved purposely confusing visual cues — for example, when handed a monster truck that had been painted pink, boys were interested as long as it was labeled “for boys”.
Carol Lynn Martin of Arizona State University studied the effects of labels on preschool-aged children. Two sets of children were presented with a variety of gender-neutral toys, like flip-books or magnets, and asked to rate how much they enjoyed the toys. For one set of children, half of the toys were taken from a box labeled “Boys” and the other half from a box labeled “Girls” — all of the boys were more interested in the boys’ toys, and the girls in the girls’ toys. However, the other set of children were presented the exact same toys without labels, and no clear trend emerged concerning the toys the boys liked versus the ones preferred by the girls.
Further research found that not only does gender labeling impact the toys that children like, it impacts the way they play with the toys, as well. In one study, American children were presented with a Canadian toy they’d never seen before, which involved throwing discs into a target. Half the children were told the game was meant for boys, while the other half were told it was intended for girls. The result was boys scoring better at the game when they believed the toy was for boys, and the girls doing better when they thought it was a game meant for them.
Where this becomes an issue is when the toys labeled for specific genders are toys that mimic traditional gender roles and are deemed the only appropriate or acceptable toys for children of that gender. Another study completed last year by Dr. Maria do Mar Pareira of the University of Warwick found that raising children to adhere to rigid gender roles can be detrimental to their physical and mental health.
Pereira drew her conclusions after spending three months observing a class of teenagers in Lisbon, Portugal. The teens knew they were being observed by Pereira in all aspects of their everyday lives — attending classes, eating lunch in the cafeteria, playing on the playground, and joining them on trips to the mall after school — but they didn’t know her specific area of focus.
In addition to one-on-one interviews with each teen, her observations allowed her to track the ways they interacted with their ideas about masculinity and femininity, and noted that both boys and girls were regulating their behavior in potentially harmful ways in order to adhere to gender norms. For instance, even girls who enjoyed sports often avoided physical activity at school because they assumed it wouldn’t be a feminine thing to do, they worried they might look unattractive while running, or they were mocked by their male peers for not being good enough.
The girls also put themselves on diets because they believed desirable women have to be skinny. “All of the girls were within very healthy weights, but they were all restricting their intake of food in some way,” said Pereira. “What we’re really talking about here is 14-year-old girls, whose bodies are changing and developing, depriving themselves at every meal. In the extreme, that can lead to things like eating disorders, but even for the women who don’t reach the extreme, it can be very unhealthy for them.”
Meanwhile, the male participants in the study all faced intense pressure to demonstrate the extent of their manliness which led to everyday low-level violence and destructive behaviors: slapping and hitting each other, inflicting pain on other boys’ genitals, encouragement to physically fight each other if they were ever mocked or offended, and feeling like they had to drink unhealthy amounts of alcohol because that’s “what a man would do”. Additionally, they were under certain mental health strains. Many were struggling with anxiety about proving themselves and suppressing their feelings, all while lacking a strong emotional support system.
Pereira ultimately concluded that, “this constant effort to manage one’s everyday life in line with gender norms produces significant anxiety, insecurity, stress, and low self-esteem for both boys and girls, and both for ‘popular’ young people and those who have lower status in school.”
Although Pereria’s observations took place at a school in Lisbon, she believes her results have widespread implications for Western nations that are subject to similar cultural messages about gender. In fact, previous research in British and American schools has reached many of the same conclusions as her study.
Sociologists agree that children “learn gender” from being subjected to society’s expectation, despite the fact that pressuring children to conform to rigid gender roles can result in serious mental health consequences for the children whose parents try to “correct” their behavior. Additionally, there are countless examples of schools being environments where gender stereotypes are strongly enforced and strictly policed, and children can be sent home for wearing the “wrong” type of clothing.
The findings of these studies could serve as hope about the possibility of creating a different kind of approach to these issues. Children and teenagers are still shaping their attitudes about what it means to be a man or a woman, and while some adults may think it’s impossible to change gender norms, it’s important to remember that such norms are much more entrenched in adults than they are in young people.
Change is slow, however. Cultural shifts happen in stages, which is why there’s been such backlash towards Target. In the future, gender stereotyping could be eradicated in other areas, such as clothing departments, which are currently starkly divided into “boys vs. girls” colors, themes, and styles — sending the same limited messages as toy labels about what boys and girls are supposed to like and who they are supposed to be.
I look forward to writing about the blowback from a clothing department that contains both sparkly dresses and football jersey.
Bottom line: if your child is happy and healthy, does it really matter what their favorite toy is?
Leave any questions or comments below, and see you next week!