One afternoon at the playground a few years ago, my then 5-year-old was hot, dusty, and flawless, with red glitter fingernail polish that sparkled in the sunlight. My kids had teamed up with some older boys, and they were all playing happily in the clubhouse when one of the older boys asked: “Don’t you know nail polish is for girls?”
My 5-year-old shrugged and replied, “Nah, anyone can wear nail polish if they like it. It looks really cool!” He held out his fingers for the older boys to see. “Look how sparkly it is!” They crowded around. “Yeah, it does look pretty cool,” one of them agreed. “It kind of looks like lava,” said another. And then they all went back to pretending the clubhouse was a pirate ship in shark-infested waters.
Being a feminist parent of sons often feels like its own journey through shark-infested waters. Our society is constantly telling kids how they’re expected to perform girlhood or boyhood, and so my partner and I spend a lot of time trying to help our boys to unlearn these messages.
That’s why when I was toy shopping in Target a few months ago and noticed the “building sets/girls’ building sets” aisle sign, I rolled my eyes and tweeted a picture.
It seemed to imply that if “building sets” are for kids, and “girls’ building sets” are for girls, then “girls” is a distinct category from “kids.” Here was one more piece of visual rhetoric telling my sons that boys are normative, and girls are other.
First grade seems to be when the awareness of cooties develops. We’d walk past the all-pink aisles of the toy section, and one of my sons—the same one who, a few years before, would snuggle next to me and nurse his stuffed animals while I breastfed his baby brother—would yell, “Ew, girl stuff!” At his girl cousin’s house, he would eye her train toys suspiciously and ask, “Why do you like Thomas the Tank Engine?” Toys came in two flavors—boy and girl—and everything not pink was for boys only. A girl playing with toys that didn’t come from the girl aisles was suspect; a boy playing with anything pink was putting his maleness at risk.
If you read the comments on any article about Caitlyn Jenner, you’ll see gender anxiety in full display. If my Twitter mentions these days are any indication, a lot of men still feel that their masculinity is at risk of being contaminated just from having toys for boys shelved near toys for girls. Masculinity, it seems, is so fragile that proximity to pink can taint it.
But we don’t have to teach our kids to live inside the narrow confines of gender stereotypes. This is why Target’s announcement that it’s removing gender identifiers from its toy and kids’ bedding department is a big deal. When toys aren’t color-coded pink or blue or labeled “boys’” or “girls,’” kids are freed up to play with what they want and pursue their own interests. No longer boxed into their half of the toy section, children of all genders can be nurturers and builders, scientific and creative, peaceful and rowdy, chaotic and organized, homekeeper and adventurer. Our kids contain multitudes, and we owe it to them to let them explore their full range of interests without anxiety or limitation.