Gender-neutral toy sections are good for boys, too

It encourages boys who wouldn’t be caught dead in the pink aisle to pursue a wider range of interests

August 21, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Aug. 7, big-box retailer Target announced that it would no longer be using gendered signage in their toy and bedding sections, citing customers who “raised important questions about a handful of signs in our stores that offer product suggestions based on gender.” The move, which came after a Tweet by Ohio mom Abi Bechdel criticized the store for distinguishing between “Building Sets” and “Girls’ Building Sets,” has angered some parents who think the decision is simply political correctness run amok.

But by and large, it has been praised. Much of the coverage focuses on the benefits that will accrue to girls. After all, signs such as the one Bechdel noticed are, in her words, “a good example of the way our culture tends to view boys and men as the default, normal option and girls and women as the specialized exception.” The same criticisms were leveled at LEGO, the world’s biggest toy maker and the undisputed king of building sets such as the ones the Target sign highlights, when it debuted its LEGO Friends sets marketed specifically to girls. Critics say that these pink and purple sets are a huge step backwards from the kind of gender-neutral marketing LEGO deployed in the early 1980s that encouraged both girls and boys, in the case of one ad, to build “things they’ve never seen before,” rather than steering girls toward playing within the confines of a gender-coded fantasy of what they are supposed to want.

LEGO Friends sets marketed specifically to girls.

However, I argue that boys are the ones who will benefit the most from gender-neutral signage in toy stores. Girls, despite facing a barrage of marketing directing them toward princesses and cooking sets, already have some incentive to cross the gender divide. In some cases, for instance, there are social rewards for girls who reject the pink and sparkly and go for more masculine-coded toys. According to Psychology Today, tomboys who “want to differentiate themselves — to not be a ‘typical girl’ or get otherwise pigeonholed into one category” — reject the markers of “typical” femininity such as make-up and fashion. Because activities that are traditionally labeled as feminine are often undervalued in our culture, girls who reject girly toys are in fact rejecting the frivolousness and shallowness that we attribute to the typical girl.  

Boys currently have little incentive to cross the toy aisle.
In the early 1980s, LEGO deployed gender-neutral marketing that encouraged both girls and boys, in the case of one ad, to build “things they’ve never seen before,”

On the other hand, boys currently have little incentive to cross the aisle. Those who show an interest in products that are marketed to girls face intense social pressure to take up more masculine pursuits. The developmental psychologist Deborah Tolman has said that boys are more likely to be bullied for playing with dolls than girls are for playing with cars. Bates College sociology professor Emily Kane agrees. In a series of interviews with non-gender-conforming children, Kane found that most parents “felt accountable to an ideal of masculinity that was defined by limited emotionality, activity rather than passivity and rejection of material markers of femininity.” In other words, they feared that boys who did not express disdain towards girly things would wind up failing in their expression of straight masculinity when they grew up. And neuroscientist Cordelia Fine warns that gendered marketing is encouraging boys to shun activities such as “reading or art or nurturing,” which have come to be labeled as girly and thus become “stigmatized for boys.” This stigmatization can have tragic consequences, as in the case of 11-year-old Michael Morones, who attempted suicide after being relentlessly bullied for wearing a “My Little Pony” backpack to school, or 12-year-old Ronin Shimizu, who killed himself after bullies taunted him for being the only boy on the school cheerleading team.

Target isn’t the first big retailer to eliminate the division between boys’ and girls’ toys. In 2012, Harrods, Britain’s biggest department store, announced it would organize children’s toys by themes — or example, the circus, or space — rather than by gender. While these stores’ decisions to change their signage will not immediately reverse the attitudes of an entire culture, it’s an encouraging first step. Target’s move is making it safer for little boys who wouldn’t be caught dead in the pink-goods aisle to pursue a wider range of interests.

Megan Condis got her Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the fall she will be joining the faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She writes about masculinity and sexuality in gaming culture. A video game version of her dissertation is available to play for free at her website.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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