By Anna Ilona Mussmann
Target is planning to make a few in-store changes. Instead of a blue aisle for action figures and a pink aisle for princess dress-up sets, toys will soon be displayed without gender specification. The alteration was precipitated by a customer who tweeted a photo of aisle signage in Target that listed both “Building sets” and “Girls’ building sets.” The internet was not impressed by the implications of the division. Target has responded to these and other complaints by agreeing that fewer of their products ought to be labeled and divided by the sex of the intended recipient. In future, children will be able to choose playthings and bedding without the ostensible pressure of conforming to gender stereotypes.
Some conservatives are angered by what they see as yet another capitulation to liberal ideology. I have to admit that the conflict leaves me wondering if, as a good Lutheran, I ought to be more disturbed than I am. Does it matter if the aisle for superhero bedding is labeled “boys bedding?” Should I care whether or not the pink Duplos are segregated from the traditionally-tinted ones? Most of those products are simply examples of commercial excess anyway. Dividing such items by sex is a way to motivate families to buy twice as much (because now their boys and girls can’t share). My children of both sexes will be required to content themselves with sharing a multi-colored bin of Duplos, thank you very much. Besides, I trust that their identities as male and female will be robust enough to withstand seeing intermixed swords and princess wands in the aisles of our favorite red and white store.
Yet commentators from both sides seem to view Target’s signs and labels as capable of influencing culture. Some delighted individuals speak of Target’s decision as one more step along the journey to eliminate a “binary model” of gender. Others declare furiously that they will boycott the retailer for bowing to liberal pressure and attempting to rob boys and girls of their natural identity. To all of these people, Target’s decision really matters.
Their fervor forces me to realize that in one way, they are right. They recognize that in the fever-pitch of today’s cultural turmoil, even little things like corporate shelving decisions are potent symbols. It may not matter to me personally how much “gendered merchandise” is available, but the status of this merchandise does demonstrate the comparative power and dominance of different systems of morality. One system would like to say that defining boys as beings who wear blue is fine and dandy, and the other would like to say that trying to define boys at all is immoral (and that perhaps boyhood itself is a figment of our antiquated imagination). As this question is fought out, companies like Target (who have no wish to run afoul of the majority) keep a wary eye on the winds of change.
Yet I think we make a mistake if we wade into the battle as if we must necessarily defend segregated toy aisles in order to uphold traditional beliefs about the sexes. Incendiary conservative blogger Matt Walsh has responded to the issue with a post entitled, “Yes, Target, I Do Want My Daughter to Conform to Her Gender,” but even though I want my daughter’s identity to be shaped by her uniquely female vocations, I don’t want her to conform to the vision of femininity that is presented in Target’s blindingly pink toy aisle. I do not want her to think that being womanly is dependent on wearing cheaply produced princess high heels, slavishly following commercial trends, or automatically rejecting all toys not emblazoned with characters from Frozen (which can’t hold a candle to Tangled, anyway). As a child plays, so is she in her heart.
It is important to me that my children see the toy aisle (and the culture) as something with which they may engage but never blindly consume. In fact, I want them to be a little too weird to realize that they are “supposed” to like certain trends or to choose certain products. I would rather see my girl enjoy a spaceship bedspread than see her select the pink one just because it won’t embarrass her in front of her friends. Better yet, I would love to see my children’s tastes so deeply influenced by the truly beautiful imagery in art, old books, and historic handicrafts that they are relatively unmoved by Disney’s plastic and polyester. This avowal might seem like a mere parenting quirk--the influence of having read too much Little House in the Big Woods at a vulnerable age--but to me it is connected to something far bigger than personal taste.
The thing is, our identities and sense of what is desirable in life ought not to be shaped by even the most family-friendly mass culture. Human culture is created by sinful mankind and will therefore always be flawed. This means that Christians of any era must be OK with being weird and different. As Lutheran parents, we wish to catechize our children and teach them about the identity that they have received from Christ. One small way to support this work is to protect our kids from conforming to any commercial brand, message, or product line out of unconscious habit.
It is not that pink polyester is evil or that I will judge you for giving your child a Disney-Princess-themed birthday party. Let’s have all the parties we want. Let’s just do it in our own, weird, non-commercial way, complete with whatever mishmash we desire of swords, crowns, and wands; but ultimately defined by ourselves and our understanding of Scripture rather than someone at the corporate head office. I think we would do better to build family cultures of our own instead of acting as if, by winning a culture war, we can preserve a mass culture that will properly raise our children.
After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's personal blog isDon't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.