Target missing the mark with gender sign changes

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As summer draws to a close, moms are making back-to-school lists for new clothes and school supplies. But when they get to the store, they may find that things are organized a little differently than in years past. This month, Target (every mom’s favorite everything-under-one-roof retailer) has announced it will end “gender-based signage.”

In other words, the store will no longer have signs such as “girls clothing” or “boys bedding,” in what they say is an effort to “strike a better balance” for their customers.

The pressure to eliminate gender distinctions in retail has been building for several years. In 2012, the radical feminist group Spark launched a campaign to eliminate the pink and purple “Friends” Legos, which were offered to appeal to girls. Around the same time, ran a video appeal to put a boy on the box of Hasbro’s Easy Bake Oven. In the UK, the activist group Let Toys Be Toys won a sizable victory when UK chain Debenhams announced it would remove all gender signage from its stores. And, recently, Toys R US has made a commitment to ensure that the way it markets toys is “gender-inclusive.”

Toy display inside a Debenhams. Courtesy of Flickr

An old toy display inside a Debenhams. Courtesy of Flickr

The assumption behind each of these efforts is that gender norms are inherently oppressive — that they discriminatorily limit children’s potential.

Of course, gender signage doesn’t preclude girls from buying remote-controlled cars or boys from playing in the kitchen aisle. It just recognizes that boys and girls are, in fact, intrinsically different and tend to have distinct interests, preferences, and aptitudes.

And as Target acknowledges, they have long relied on signs simply “to help guests navigate” their stores — to help them easily find the products for which they are looking. And most shoppers find this guidance useful.

Still, feminists and gender activists continue to insist that equality means ignoring differences between the sexes. In the eyes of some activists, girls won’t really be “equal” to boys until we keep girls from acting like girls.

As the mother of two daughters and a son, I want a healthy balance for all my children. I want my girls to recognize that they can pursue anything — from sports to science — that my son can. I love watching them play fairy dress-up as much as I love watching them aggressively play defense on the lacrosse field. And I try to make sure that it’s their preferences, not preconceived notions about gender, that guide how they spend their time.

But, for many traditional feminists, this balance is no longer sufficient. A hysteria has erupted over any kind of gender identification, and a pernicious belief that true equality requires stripping labels from clothing and toys has taken hold.

Of course, one can’t help but wonder if feminists aren’t increasingly trying to find a solution to a problem that is rapidly fading away. At a time when women don’t think twice about putting off marriage and children in favor of their education and careers; at a time when women are outpacing men educationally, professionally, and even financially at different points in their lives, it seems hard to claim that the gender-based toys are impinging on female success.

Conflating equality with uniformity won’t help young people navigate complicated gender issues. And changing a few signs won’t stop parents from finding the clothing or school supplies their kids actually want. It’s a shame that we can’t just let girls and boys be themselves without fear of their differences.

Sabrina L. Schaeffer is Executive Director of the Independent Women’s Forum.