Darlena Cunha is a contributor to TIME
Since my daughters were little tots, they’ve gravitated toward building blocks, science kits, and bows-and-arrows. We hardly ever saw them with a doll in hand. In fact, now 7, they received Barbies at their recent birthday party. By the time we made it home, one of the toys was missing her leg. “She seemed so bendy,” my daughter exclaimed. “I thought her legs were supposed to do that.” Far from demure, gentle spirits, the twins often wrestle in the yard, after digging for worms, of course.
But they also love princesses. They’ll dress up in my fanciest clothes and don lip gloss, and blush and braid each other’s hair. They’ll act out scenes from Princess Sofia and spend hours meticulously placing beads on a string in a pattern so they can wear their own necklaces.
Basically, they’re kids.
Our family has never distinguished between “girl” and “boy” pastimes, so to me, this move by Target is a simple reflection of the better direction in which our culture is moving. But what took them so long?
For children, learning what society expects of them is an important part of their journey. They are aware of each cultural cue, adding it to their blossoming knowledge of the world around them. Kids are also by nature incredibly self-centered. Their minds relate everything they see and hear back to themselves. They use these hints to distinguish who they are as a person, and whether that definition is in line with what the world says it should be.
It can be utterly deflating for a child to express interest in a toy only to be told that the toy is “for girls” or “for boys.” Not only could they feel the pain of not being able to play with something they like, they could also feel embarrassed and chastised for who they are.
Even in an open household like ours, gender labeling doesn’t go undetected. Last year for Christmas, one twin was upset she couldn’t find a purple Nerf gun for her sister. She had to go with blue. Advertising and society told her that girl stuff is pink and purple, even if she missed the larger message often conveyed—that Nerf guns are for boys.
Children are listening. But it appears adults are not. Some of the comments in response to Target’s decision are shocking.
Parents: Just because your son wants a My Little Pony bedspread does not mean he’s gay. Just because your daughter wants a bug collecting kit doesn’t mean she’s transgender. And if your children don’t identify with the gender binary, that’s OK. Gender identity has nothing to do with signage in a store. Maybe you should consider backing off and loving the wonderful being you created whether they are homosexual, or queer, or transgender, or straight. Whether they like pink or blue or yellow or polka dots.
It’s not like we’re not going to be able to find dollhouses or G.I. Joes anymore. They’re just not going to be separated by a “girl” and “boy” aisle. The products will still be there, and parents can still buy whichever they like for their children. Do we, as adults, need these boxes we’ve placed around identity so badly that the removal of a sign will throw our entire definition of life into a tailspin? If that’s the case, maybe we should look closely at ourselves, instead of at a missing label.
To me, Target’s move is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to pressure manufacturers to get rid of the labeling on the products. We need to pressure advertisers to lose the labeling in their commercials. We need to tell ourselves that “girl” and “boy” interests do not exist. Every child is an individual, and we have a duty to find out who each and every one of them is instead of lumping children into categories before they can speak for themselves.