Target nixes gendered labeling: a sign of changing times?

Target's decision to rid certain departments of signs that designate products as being for girls or boys is drawing praise from certain circles as more fluid notions of gender identity move to the mainstream. But backlash from angry customers demonstrates just how polarizing the issue still is.

Rick Bowmer/AP/File
A Target sign on the front of a Target Store, in Wilsonville, Ore., Tuesday, May 17, 2011.

After catching flak for carrying clothing many critics deemed sexist, retail giant Target garnered praise from gender equality activists Friday by announcing its decision to remove gender-based labeling from its stores. 

Now, Target says it will begin ridding other departments, including toys, bedding, and entertainment, of signs that designate products as being specifically for girls or boys. The move was celebrated by some as an example of how corporations are changing to meet the demands of a population that is increasingly questioning why individuals are expected to conform to strict gender norms. Still, some backlash from angry customers sparked fierce debates across the Internet, demonstrating how polarizing the issue still is.

"This is the dumbest thing I have ever heard," wrote one critic on Target’s Facebook page. "A boy is a boy and a girl is a girl…and products are specifically made for each."

But in an op-ed for Time magazine, parenting journalist Darlena Cunha penned a curt response to these critics.

“It can be utterly deflating for a child to express interest in a toy only to be told that the toy is ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’. Not only could they feel the pain of not being able to play with something they like, they could also feel embarrassed and chastised for who they are,” Ms. Cunha wrote.

“Some of the comments in response to Target’s decision are shocking,” she continued. “Parents: Just because your son wants a My Little Pony bedspread does not mean he’s gay. Just because your daughter wants a bug collecting kit doesn’t mean she’s transgender. And if your children don’t identify with the gender binary, that’s OK. Gender identity has nothing to do with signage in a store.”

The decision by Target was made after one angry Ohio mother tweeted a photo of a sign in a Target store that differentiated between “building sets” and “Girls’ building sets”.

“Don’t do this, @Target”, the mother tweeted. The tweet was shared thousands of times.

In response, Target opted to implement its new policy and issue the following statement:

"As guests have pointed out, in some departments like toys, home or entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary. We heard you, and we agree. Right now, our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance."

"We never want guests or their families to feel frustrated or limited by the way things are presented," the statement continued.

Nevertheless, Target has not always been so amenable to customer complaints. In July, the company was lambasted by angry Internet users after it released a clothing collection that included a t-shirt for young women with the word “trophy” emblazoned across the front. In response, an online petition was launched demanding that Target take the offending item off its shelves.

“Labeling any person as a ‘Trophy’ is demeaning their humanity and objectifying them as a tangible object that can be bought, used, and disposed of,” the petition’s author wrote.

Target defended the shirts, saying in  a statement  that they were "intended as a fun wink," that customers have reacted to positively.

“So the ugly shirt isn’t sexist, it’s just a fun wink! Kind of like how catcalls are just friendly observations,” journalist Bobby Finger shot back in a piece for Jezebel.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misattributed the source of this quote. It is from a Jezebel article by Bobby Finger, not Rebecca Rose.

Last year, Target also came under fire for a collection of kids’ superhero pajamas. The version for boys said “Future Man of Steel”, while the version for girls read “I Only Date Heroes”.

Still, the decision to remove gender-specific signage may be a sign that Target is bending to popular demand and catching up with the times, supporters say.

“It's a huge and necessary step for the retail giant in showing the country that products such as toys, bedding, and decorations can be purchased and loved by any gender, and it's absolutely a change to be celebrated,” wrote Hope Racine for Bustle.

But, she added, “Removing stigmas from children's toys and products is a multistep process”. 

“The first and crucial step, as Target has realized, is removing unnecessary classifications. But the next is providing equality in toys, and removing the stereotype that girls will always want pink dolls as opposed to blue trucks. It requires providing equal opportunities for both genders and creating toys that stimulate education instead of tired gender roles.”

Target also plans to remove pink, blue, yellow, and green paper from the walls of its children’s toy area in order to eliminate any references to gender.   

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.