War, famine, pestilence, gender-neutral toy aisles—all signs of the apocalypse, apparently.
In an August 7 post on its corporate website, Target announced that it would respond to customer feedback by phasing out “gender-based signage” from the children’s bedding and toy aisles. Despite the fact that the toys themselves aren’t moving—only the aisle signs and the color of the backing paper will change—the announcement has already sparked thousands of outraged comments from conservative customers who are vowing to boycott the store’s “political correctness.”
Target hasn’t even announced the change on its Facebook page but angry customers are already protesting the decision on the company’s recent posts about doughnuts, record players, and Dr. Seuss.
And after Breitbart falsely reported that Target would be “getting rid of the words ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ on clothing” in addition to toys, many on Facebook are under the impression that the company will be removing all gender-based signs from its stores. The original post made it clear that keeping gender-based signage for apparel sections “makes sense” due to “fit and sizing differences.” Target has since reiterated to several customers: “We are not making any changes to our Men’s, Women’s, Boys’, Girls’, or Baby sections.”
No one is taking the bras out of the women’s section and the jock straps out of the men’s. And if you want a Monster High doll or a Transformer, they’re not going anywhere—they just won’t be declared to be “boys’” or “girls’” toys, nor will they be set against pink and blue backdrops to reinforce our culture’s arbitrary and relatively recent gendering of those two colors.
But that hasn’t stopped the anti-PC consumer uprising. Reverend Franklin Graham, president of The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, urged his followers on Facebook to call Target’s customer service number and voice their displeasure.
“I have news for [Target] and for everyone else,” he wrote. “God created two different genders.”
Fox & Friends found a psychotherapist who said that the decision went “overboard” and implied that children might “question what their gender is” if they were taken into a Target store without gender-based signage. The caption on the segment: “‘Sign’ of the Times.” Nothing like some light Second Coming humor to kick off your morning.
Blaze contributor and self-declared “professional truth sayer” Mike Walsh blamed Target’s decision on “a few hypersensitive, hyperliberal parents” in a provocative post headlined, “Yes, Target, I Do Want My Daughter to Conform to Her Gender.”
Wrote Walsh: “I won’t attempt to defend every gender stereotype or ‘gender norm,’ but I do subscribe to the radical theory that boys and girls are different and distinct from one another in complex, concrete, and important ways, and many of the dreaded ‘norms’ are, well, normal and biological.”
Walsh conveniently lays bare the fundamental internal contradiction in the anti-Target outcry: If gender is a universal, biological, and God-ordained constant, then why do children need cultural reinforcement from a retail chain to figure it out? In the bizarro world of far-right logic, gender is at once the strongest force on the planet and the most fragile. The God of Genesis may have created male and female but unless Target puts these words on signs for action figures and Barbie dolls, all of His hard work will be undone. The protests seem to be motivated by the paradoxical fear that children will grow up genderless without Target’s help even though their biology should supposedly guide them into pink and blue aisles without any intervention.
But Target is not attacking gender itself, only the outdated idea that girls and boys should play with certain shapes and colors of molded plastic and not others.
On Wednesday’s edition of the O’Reilly Factor, Reverend Graham accused Target of ignoring “hard-working families with children—and they’re not gender-neutral children, these are boys and girls the way God made us.” Then he joked that Target was “off target” before committing the cardinal sin of laughing at his own bad pun.
To be clear: Target is not replacing its toy section with amorphous blobs of androgynous gray putty. And if a higher power ordained that your baby boy should play with toy monster trucks, those are still available and you can still obtain one in exchange for legal tender, as is your God-given right in a capitalist society. But the argument made by Graham and O’Reilly Factor guest host Eric Bolling that Target’s move is an attempt to appeal to some sort of anti-gender LGBT fringe is completely off base—not “off target” because please, we’re not animals.
Branding experts interviewed by AdWeek said that Target’s announcement was “the right move” and that it was “not about political correctness” but rather savvy customer response.
"Ultimately the main drivers of this change are today’s customers,” Mary Beth Keetly, chief marketing officer of PM Digital, told AdWeek. “they’ve demonstrated to the brand that certain values and experiences are of high importance to them, and by answering that need, Target is further shifting the focus to its customer.”
In the past few months, Target has come under increasing scrutiny for signs like this one that reinforce the idea that spatial toys like Legos are inherently masculine:
And kids themselves—and not just the “gender-neutral children” of Graham’s nightmares—are often not amused by signs that imply that the toys they want are not for them. Last fall, for example, a 7-year-old girl named Maggie Cole—armed with the power of her scowl—prompted UK retailer Tesco to remove a sign that called a Marvel alarm clock a “fun gift for boys.”
If kids are smart enough to figure out what toys they want on their own, surely parents are savvy enough to find some Hello Kitty sheets in a children’s bedding section. But rather than have them suffer the indignity of locating toys without gender-based signage, Reverend Graham went so far as to suggest in his O’Reilly Factor appearance that parents “just might want to take their business somewhere else.”
It’s not clear, however, where parents who find themselves unable to prescribe gender roles for their children without the help of a large retail chain can go to escape Target’s “gender-neutral” tyranny. Wal-Mart and Toys R Us have both already moved away from gender-based labels for toys. Online retailer Amazon sorts its toys by age range and detailed categories like “Dress Up & Pretend Play” or “Building Toys.”
But perhaps that’s why Target’s announcement has drawn so much protest: For some parents, those aisles were more than just shelves full of toys, they were monuments to a bygone era when boys could be boys, girls could be girls, and meaningless tautologies could be meaningless tautologies. These aren’t the end times but it is the end for that time.