NEWS FLASH: Gender is Not About Things – On Target & Toys & Girls & Boys
Target: first of all, I’d like to say thank you for the small but significant change you have made to remove unnecessary gendered signage from the toy aisles in your stores. Amazon recently made similar changes online, and slowly but slowly, we are starting to see important changes being made to better equip our children as humans in this complicated, confusing world they find themselves in.
And this is the point that I want to make to all the reasonable human adults out there who seem to be upset about this change: Don’t get it twisted. If you are concerned that the sudden disappearance of a few toy aisle labels is going to throw your child into a full-on identity crisis (as you’d think is likely to be the case if you listen to the shock-jocks and pundits, who, let’s be honest, are just looking for some controversy that isn’t about the upcoming election in this news cycle), you need to check yourself.
I don’t think anybody looking to procure a particular toy for a particular child will have issues. The change is significant because it signals a shift at the operational level, and we desperately, desperately need those. There is a very simple truth underlying this drama that is right at the heart of the matter. Here it is. Are you ready?
GENDER IS NOT ABOUT THINGS.
The thing about this that dumbfounds me about the conversation happening around this announcement is that what matters here is not about gender roles at all, or norms.
The underlying reason we need this change and to CELEBRATE it is simple: ACCESS & PERMISSION.
And access and permission and mindset and acculturation are inescapably, unavoidably intertwined in our intensely consumer-driven society.
We are on a dangerous precipice in which we are (unintentionally? unknowingly?) teaching our children that what defines a very significant portion of themselves (not just gender, but oh so many aspects) is THINGS.
This is a lie, a dangerous, dangerous lie. (And I’ll be honest, as a grown-up, I struggle with defining myself outside of things enough as it is. So I’m passionate about equipping my daughter with the right skills to combat this. The pressure is all too real.)
The Story of the Pink Candy Machine
I’ll give you a mind-blowing example of why the question of access and permission matters so much in terms of genderization, that sadly will likely sound all too familiar to you if you happen to be a parent, or around small children.
This week, my two year old daughter discovered a delightful, bright pink candy machine at a local dining establishment after dinner. Has she used candy machine before? I don’t know, and it certainly felt like one of those charming “firsts,” but I do know it’s the first time we’ve engaged in a conversation around one.
She ran over to it, and with me close behind, she turned around and looked up at me. I waited and watched, curious. What she said next surprised me.
“Is that for girls?” she asked, eyes wide. Not, “Can I have some, please?” No “What’s that?” or “How do I get the candy out?” The first words out of her mouth when encountering a new, interesting thing FULL OF CANDY was around gender and access. About who is in on the gig and who is out. I was shocked. Taken aback, I thought for a second before determining how to reply. I decided on an enthusiastic: “Yes! It’s for all children!” To which she beamed up at me with delight and then approached the machine to figure out how it worked. Whew. There’s another story there, but here’s where I want to take this:
As a parent, I had been more concerned about the inevitable sugar-rush-drama this adventure was likely to ensue than a conversation about gender access. I would never have imagined in a million billion years that gender would come up at all when encountering candy, nor would pretty much anybody. That part of the sad, terrible point.
Before my child even interacted with or, I daresay, APPROACHED the candy-filled, awesome, beautiful, engineered-to-appeal-to-children-and-suck-money-from-their-parents-one-sugar-filled-turn-at-a-time, she wanted to know:
“IS THIS FOR ME?”
And the way in which she knew to ask this question was through the construct of gender. And that was because this machine was bright, bright pink. (And pink, as you may have heard some assert, is “for” girls.) It was labeled, it was identified, it was gendered. (It was pink because it supported Breast Cancer Awareness fundraising, but she’s two, and she can’t read the English language yet, so she read what was there in the cultural context she can understand right now instead).
What in the world? I mean, really. WHAT IN THE WORLD? We are talking about candy, here, my friends. And my child was first worried about this issue: Access.
“Is this for me?” [And, as those with toddlers well know, is this NOT for THEM?]
Now, let me ask you, adults. Is there something, specifically, about this candy makes it distinct, or unique, or particularly girly? Is there an important lesson for her to learn about girls and candy that I am missing? Is there anything about its function that offers additional nutritional components that are valuable specifically to girls? (Hint: There are exactly 000 nutritional components of candy that are uniquely beneficial to any humans. Easy math.) How is this question she has been trained to see the world with through the pink-colored lens of gendered color norms a USEFUL HUMAN SKILL? How does it protect her, help her, guide her, grow her, to believe that because it’s pink it is for girls?
The answer is, it is not, and it does not.
The real answer is, this whole problem is a simple trick of marketing.
And oh my goodness, how we have been duped.
Genderization & Consumerism
Now, I am a marketer. I work in marketing. I have studied it and apply it and write about it. I am not here to attack marketing as a discipline or anyone whose job it is to market products. But, the reality is, the (recent) radical and unnecessary genderization of products is a marketing gimmick to persuade us to buy more of everything:
Legos x 2 [1 for Her & 1 for Him!] What do we get?
+1 Consumerism, -1 Common Sense. [And too much stuff!]
As parents, we can look at this for what it is, and we get to decide whether or not to play along with this game. But our children are not quite so sophisticated. The do not understand the man behind the curtain, or even know that he is there. That’s our job. And it matters.
The point I want to make is this: our culture has bought, hook line and sinker, an evil lie about things that has one real benefit: increasing consumer spending.
There is no inherent value in any toys or objects being assigned to a specific gender, unless they have particular attributes or functions related to that gender. And trust me, the feminine hygiene aisle is doing just fine. (And also, it’s a rabbit trail, and really completely unrelated, but please, please can I just have an aside on all the children — boys and girls — out there who have strewn their mom’s hygiene products across the floor because those suckers make awesome beds for G-I Joe, Barbie, etc.? They fit just right. Seriously. +1 Imagination.)
So why the uproar over removing gendered labels — from a STORE? More importantly, why are kids asking: Is this toy for me? Before ever playing with it? Why are they stopping their own personal curiosity (CANDY, GUYS, CANDY), to confirm gender bias before figuring out, hey, do I actually like or enjoy or want this thing?
Because we created, marketed, regurgitated, and celebrated a construct that idolizes these things. And I’m sorry, but that is terribly wrong-headed and a grand exercise in missing the point of parenting. It’s downright lazy and embarrassing and wrong.
Parents, Hear Me Now
Adults: Children need us to protect the space for them to explore the world, discover their own interests.
It’s nothing to do with gender, and that’s the point.
If your daughter has a natural love of dolls and kitchens, great! But if she only had access to those, or cultural “permission” to play with them, how would she know whether or not she also likes action figures or trucks or tools? I don’t care what she likes, that’s up to her. I do care about access and permission and play. And yes, labels inform our cultural ideas about these. I also don’t care what colors she loves. But I do care about the fact that colors are for everyone who can see them. God made them all, for all of us to enjoy. This is a simple fact of life and of this beautiful, wonderful, amazing world we inhabit. It has nothing to do with gender.
As parents, we need to shape a world that lets our children have the pure discovery of childhood and play and imagination and strip away things like this that only serve at this stage in life to get in the way. And how we have constructed gender, too often, just gets in the way.
Gender is not about the things I do or like or enjoy.
Repeat after me: GENDER IS NOT ABOUT THINGS.
We know this, grown-ups, but somehow, we get it twisted when it comes to our kids. And that’s dangerous. Gender has an important role to play in life, yes, but when we confuse the messages of gender with totally unrelated consumerist driven things, we send a confusing message at best, a destructive one at worst.
So let’s celebrate every single milestone we make as a culture in divorcing the idea that our identity is about things, and every single time a child gets access to more of what opens up their imaginations and their worlds of possibility.