Is This the End of Gender-Based Labeling in Retail?



Girls play with dolls. Boys play with superheroes. Girls like pink, while boys like blue. These are some of the common stereotypes of each gender, but some feel that these labels are unnecessary and wish to remove them for the sake of creating a more progressive society. Recently, Target has announced that its team is working on removing announced that its team is working on removing gender-based signs to create balance and eliminate constricting labels. This includes anything that denotes which aisles or areas cater specifically to certain genders. It’s a bold move—but these labels are not necessarily as confining as many may believe, and removing them as part of a push towards making the two genders as similar as possible is harmful to our society.

Amy Severtsen Stanwood, a supporter of the move, stated in a USA Today article that “Target is not saying that genders don’t exist. They are simply recognizing that toys and bedding do not have genders.” But what is the real underlying problem of toys having ‘genders?’ It is not as if girls are prevented from playing or purchasing a Batman or Superman action figure. And boys are not stopped from dressing up their teddy bears. Some may believe that teasing and bullying may ensue because of this, but if bullying contributes to the removal of gender-based labeling, that in and of itself should be the real target of concern by producers and consumers. Early intervention and prevalent anti-bullying campaigns are just some of the many possible ways we can promote tolerance, which is what we should be doing, rather than hurriedly removing publicly displayed references to gender–it doesn’t do anything besides hide the key problems under a rug.

There is nothing wrong with having separate toys, bedding or equipment made for either gender. Companies do this because they, as a business, have a target demographic they want to make sure they hit. I think our society, though progressive, is also becoming highly sensitive to certain topics. Gender, as I witness in magazines, television and conversations that arise among friends, is becoming one such topic. We shift uncomfortably in our seats while discussing homosexuality and transgender issues, lowering our eyes and avoiding questions which may help shed light for those yearning to ask questions and learn more. We are afraid to say something wrong and be labeled as homophobic or anti-LGBTQ, and it seems that because of this fear we are quickly attacking social norms that don’t necessarily need to be changed.

But if a girl knows she is a girl and wants to express herself in feminine ways, then she should not be reprimanded–and likewise for a boy expressing his masculinity. Gender-based labeling should be embraced, so that girls and boys can appreciate their differences. The “sameness” that can develop from the removal of gender-based labeling is uncalled for, and possibly even harmful. If girls and boys grow accustomed to the idea that gender has no role in toys, bedding or furniture, as Target suggests will happen, it means that the differences between the genders will minimize. Gender will become meaningless. One possible reason some may see this as a good thing is because they want to close the gender gap in society. But labels aren’t the problem; gender inequality has to do with how we raise our kids, the values we teach them, and their experiences as young adults that shape their personalities. I was never raised to assume that I can’t play with race-cars and superhero figures, wear dark colors or participate in anything that may seem too masculine.

As for toys that are placed in aisles labeled “gifts for boys,” the implication is that yes, these toys were initially created for boys–but there is no sign preventing a girl from showing interest in them. As this girl grows older, she will realize for herself that she may visit the race-car aisle if she wants to and may begin to explore any other interests she so chooses. Labels are suggestive, not restrictive. Girls believing that they are just as good as boys has nothing to do with gender labels found in retail stores. These labels can be abolished tomorrow, but a girl will never believe she can succeed on the same path as a boy if the constant feedback from her peers or family is negative and undermines her positive abilities. Establishing differences does not inherently imply that one category is superior to the other. We should embrace our differences, and accept that neutralizing these labels will be a hindrance to social progress.