Jennifer Maher’s 6-year-old son, Jack, doesn’t read yet, but he does know his colors. He knows what a Barbie doll is and he knows what colors are typically associated with the toy.
“My son, with me as a mother, won’t even go down the pink aisle,” Maher said. “We won’t even turn there.”
Maher, a gender studies professor at IU, said she often offers to take her son down the pink aisle when shopping for toys.
“No, that’s girls,” Jack typically answers.
According to Maher, her son’s response is an example of how children are frequently slotted into various gender norms.
She said beginning at an early age, children are exposed to typecast toys meant to prepare young boys and girls for the future roles in society.
Toy vacuum cleaners, kitchen sets and baby dolls are generally marketed for girls, where as toys like baseballs and toy cars are geared toward little boys.
Maher said she believes gender norming in this sense has begun even sooner for kids than in the past.
“When I was little, you couldn’t buy princess costumes,” Maher said. “Not as a given. There would maybe be at Halloween a couple of things, but now they’re everywhere. They’re ubiquitous.”
However, after recent customer complaints, Target stores nationwide took an unprecedented step in addressing changing attitudes on gender norms.
In early August, Target announced plans to remove gender-based labels in specific departments throughout their stores, specifically the toy department.
Signage on the end of aisles that once designated boys and girls toys, now simply describe what type of toys can be found. Pink and blue decor has been replaced with neutral colors.
Angie Hayes, a store team leader at Target’s Bloomington location, said that before the switch she was directed to focus attention on color schemes when working within the toy department.
While none of the colored wall backers contained written distinctions between boys’ and girls’ toys, Hayes said she thought the pink and blue backing paper allowed for assumptions to be drawn easily.
“I don’t personally have a problem if it is gender specific,” Hayes said. “Sometimes I make those assumptions in my own mind that a Barbie is for a girl because I don’t really think of a boy as playing with a Barbie, but sometimes they do. I think anybody can play with whatever they want to.”
Despite having received mixed responses on the corporate level, Hayes said she likes the change and that she has not received any overwhelmingly positive or negative feedback in her own store.
“It was just kind of like business as usual,” Hayes said. “Just the people being open to it, it just helps me understand the community a little bit.”
She said the changes have not affected sales at the Bloomington Target, and that it had been four years since colored backing paper in the store’s toy section had been replaced.
“I think it’s here to stay,” Hayes said. “I think the way that things are transitioning in the world, I think that’s kind of the way that we’re moving so I don’t really see a reason that we would need to go back.”
Maher said she hasn’t seen any other stores nationwide make a change similar to Target’s, but that the store’s new gender-neutral design is similar to that of Scandinavian culture where more primary colors are used.
“It’s certainly cool,” Maher said. “It would be nice to take a boy and say these are all just toys. Pick from whatever you want, but I still don’t know how much it will change the world. It’s still about shopping.”
Maher said she is skeptical of what impact it may make on a global scale and while she thinks Target is making a good step, she doubts it will have any effect on her own son.
“I’m not necessarily sure it’s going to change his mind, because it’s so endemic,” Maher said. “It’s so in the water. When Jack was two he probably would have been more gender neutral. It happens in school. It happens around their peers. It’s not so much going to occur in a store.”