Target’s Toy Section: Gender Neutral in Word Only

GeekMom Toys

Target needs to remember this saying:

“Actions speak louder than words.”

A few months ago, Target announced a change in the toy section. In response to customer feedback, they promised no more girl or boy sections, just one big gender-neutral section. Cheers and complaints immediately arose from the masses. A new day upon us, people either embraced or fought against the empowering move. Just one problem, Target played lip service but failed to make substantial changes of any kind.

Let me explain.

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Girl aisle – preschool dolls packaged in pink and Lego Friends: copyright Claire Jennings
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Boy aisle – Lego City (the originally gender-neutral Lego kit) next to Star Wars Lego kits: copyright Claire Jennings

My husband and I practice what I call “equal opportunity parenting.” We present our little ballerina with a full gamut of toy options, and she chooses what she likes best. We strive to limit her exposure to stereotypes, getting most of her toys online or at stores with a gender neutral toy setup.

Last weekend, my four-year-old and I made an infrequent visit to Target, and she asked to visit the toy section. Sure, it gives something for her to do for a while. Why not? It turns out that a single visit in King County, Washington, Target confirmed every stereotype I work so hard to protect her from.

We started on one side of the toy section. My daughter loved the Barbie section, asking for every doll it had. She loved the cooking toys. She spent a large amount of time going through all the Doc McStuffins. The Disney princesses won her heart, as they always do. She found more dolls and dollhouses, and went through them quicker, starting to tell me what each of them lacked. She barely noticed the Lego Friends display on the other side of the aisle as she looked at the larger preschool dolls. She rounded the corner to the next aisle and everything change.

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Girl section ends with Lego Elves, under the sign “Collectible Dolls”: copyright Claire Jennings
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Boy section begins with the main Lego, without a single “girl” Lego set in sight, those are on the “Collectible Dolls” aisle: copyright Claire Jennings

By this point, we’ve visited about half of the toy section. My four-year-old said the following words as she looked at the aisle full of Lego kits: “I don’t like boy toys.” She didn’t even want to see what the toys were. Sure enough, we crossed the threshold between “girl toys” and “boy toys.” The signs have changed, but that meant very little to a four-year-old just learning to read. The segmentation glared out at her. It clearly segregated the area she “belonged” from the area she “wasn’t allowed.”

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The girl Lego section peeking over at the boy section, a wall divides Lego Friends packaged in pink and purple with the rest of the Lego world: copyright Claire Jennings
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The main Lego section, all boy themed with realistic Lego city sets, peeking into the girls section where the pink dolls are: copyright Claire Jennings

My sweet little girl knew exactly what section she was not allowed in, even if I told her otherwise.

Dear Target,

Thanks, Target, for segregating the toy aisles, then saying you made them gender neutral.

I can’t tell you how helpful it is to have four years of parenting undone with the turn of an aisle. Yes, I get that you just reinforce the stereotypes of our culture, but come on, you said, not even two months ago, that you heard the concerns of parents like me and changed your wicked ways. I guess those were just hollow words, words my daughter can’t even read yet.

After convincing my daughter that all toys were for boys and girls, I looked around some and took some pictures while she went to the cars deep in the boy section. You supplied four rows of “girl” toys, four rows of “boy” toys, followed by two rows of “outside” toys, and a back wall of “gender neutral” toys. Sure, you took down the signs, but you did little else. You call this “gender neutral”?

Okay, I admit that you had the giant Elsa doll next to the giant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figure. Good job on pushing all your oversized toys together. I’m sure you did that to mix the toys up, not to avoid having two sections of oversized toys.

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Oversized toys mixed – Elsa by a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Though here the boys and girls section is clearly divided in half as well: copyright Claire Jennings

Before I judge too quickly, perhaps this is not representative of Target on a whole. Maybe, just maybe, other stores act on this change of policy more readily.

I visited a second store in King County, Washington. For this trip, I went after my daughter was in bed, and Target was stocking the store. I have to say, I was surprised by the visit. It did the same, better, and worse than the Target I went to a few miles away, in different ways.

Both Targets had several of the same displays in the store. The Lego Friends display looked very similar to the other Lego Friends. The oversized section had identical product placement. This indicates that Target corporate controls where the toys are placed in a store. More on that later. So here, nothing better or worse, just the same old, same old.

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Second store oversized toys, a mirror image of the first store’s oversized toy section: copyright Claire Jennings

For the better, this Target included one actual mixed aisle! The Lego Friends display sat right next to the Lego Starwars Display on the aisle marking the divide between the two sections. Additionally, they had this wonderful end display of the Lego World I don’t remember seeing at the earlier Target. It included Lego City and Lego Friends, side by side, getting equal billing, as if they could exist in the same world, and as equals. That excited me.

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Second store girl aisle with Halo. This is the only time I saw “girl toys” next to “boy toys” in an aisle in Target. Is it a mistake? copyright Claire Jennings

Dear Target,

I love your end cap featuring Lego Friends next to Lego City. Please do more of this kind of display, throughout the toy section, not just on the end caps.

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Second store gender neutral end cap! Lego City, Lego Friends, and Lego Scooby-Do treated as equals! copyright Claire Jennings

For the worse, this Target had two signs up labeled “Boy Action Figures” and “Girl Build Sets.” Granted these were on the back side of the aisle, against the wall. But still, Target never actually said they would mix toys up. They did say they would remove the sign. The “The Girl Build Sets” sign was on a non-standard aisle–right next to some “traditional boy toys.” This makes me wonder, was the mixed aisle I saw earlier a mistake?

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Second store girls’ building sets sign, “Girls’ Building Sets” on the aisle with Lego Super Heroes. If only I thought they did it on purpose. copyright Claire Jennings

I looked at the sign in confusion, and a stock clerk asked if I needed help. So I asked the clerk why the girl sign was there. The clerk said they were in the middle of a “section remodel,” and the signs must be mixed up. The clerk had only worked there about a month, so the clerk didn’t know how often they do remodels. The clerk did mention that the girl build sets sign was on the boy build set aisle. Signage or not, the clerk segregated the toy section into boy and girl toys automatically.

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Second store same Lego Friends signage as the first store, with Lego Friends and Lego Elves under it: copyright Claire Jennings

The signs gave me a reason to speak with a higher up. Customer service asked the toy section team lead to talk with me about “signage more complicated than a price check.”

When I mentioned the signs to the lead, in a friendly manner, the lead apologized to me, stating that the team thought they had taken down all the signs a few months ago, in a move to make the toy section more inviting to all children, and that it would be taken care of shortly. What else did they do, I asked, any mixing of products? The lead said not really. The signage change came at the same time as a seasonal change. How major are these changes? Target will have them move one aisle to another aisle, nothing to major. Target controls everything.

(Note: If you see boy/girl signs, please politely ask the Toy Section Team Lead to take care of it, it sounded like they took down and replace a ton of signs, so give them the benefit of the doubt that they merely missed a sign.)

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Second Store boy section – note the general dark and blue coloring in the aisle: copyright Claire Jennings
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Second store girl section – even without knowing the toys in it, the row appears pink and bubbly. The other side of the aisle had young girls toys: copyright Claire Jennings

With the confusion of the two stores, and an indication that Target Headquarters controlled the segregation, I asked my fellow GeekMom writers for their experiences.

The results trouble me:

Jennifer Citrolo:
“In the Target in West Nyack, New York, they’ve taken down the gendered aisle labels—but the Friends and Elves LEGO sets are aisles apart from the City, Star Wars, Creator, Super Heroes, and Ninjago sets. Grrr! Also “character dolls” are all girl (e.g., Bratz); “action figures” is where to find Marvel Superheroes, Star Wars, minifigs.”

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The Lego section – all the traditional toys, plus Star Wars: copyright Jennifer Citrolo
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The girl Lego section – Lego Elves and Lego Friends. Is that a truck I see at the end of it? copyright Jennifer Citrolo

Jackie:
“I live in New Jersey and was in Target today. So far the aisles are exactly the same as they were: babies, then “girls,” then “boys.” No signs, just a separation of traditional gender toys. The Lego Friends do have a special piece of the Lego aisle, which is still in the “boy” section. There’s also a Disney Junior section in one of the “girl” aisles. I didn’t notice any toys there from Jake and the Neverland Pirates. It was all Doc McStuffins and Sophia the First. Things like PlayDoh were on the back wall, not separated into these aisles.”

Lisa Hollard Parente:
“In the Target in Paramus, New Jersey, they took the colors down but the “boys” and “girls” signs remain. Also, they kept everything where it was…didn’t mix the Lego or dolls with action figures at all. The ONLY difference is the lack of color on the back of the shelves.”

Karen Walsh of West Hartford, Connecticut, supplied the photos below of her store.

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Boy Lego section – classic Lego sets and Lego Star Wars: copyright Karen Walsh
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Girl Lego Section – the gender-neutral Lego sign surrounded by Barbie and dress up dresses: copyright Karen Walsh

Sarah E. White:
“In Fayetteville, Arkansas, the sign just says building toys instead of girl’s building toys on the Lego aisle, but they are still segregated, in the same way, with other Lego on a different aisle.”

Samantha Fisher:
“Same aisles changed signs, that was all. If I go further to the left than the aisle with Lego friends it is all typical ‘girl’ toys and to the right all typical ‘boy’ toys.  Hilliard-Rome Road Target in Hilliard, Ohio.”

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The girl section – almost identical to the set-up I saw in King County: copyright Samantha Fisher
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The boy section – the next aisle even has the same Lego City box as what I saw, as is the divide of the toy section: copyright Samantha Fisher

Okay, so across the board, the stores still segregate their toy sections without labeling them, but surely the Target website will be better. After all, removing labels on a website forces the toy sections to be gender neutral. I headed over to their website and saw the following screen capture, segregating the toys into boy toys and girl toys:

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Gender separation on Target’s website marketing section: Screen capture 10/22/2015

Maybe they made a bad marketing decision, I will look at their filters, and found the “gender” filter:

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Target.com Gender Filter: screen capture 10/22/2015

Oh, no, never mind.

Listen, everyone, do what Target says, not what they do. I guess I will go back to Fred Meyer. They maintain a smaller toy section, but they mix it up just enough to make my daughter feels invited into the entire section.

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Fred Meyer girl’s toys – Thomas set above pink and purple toys: copyright Claire Jennings
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Fred Meyer boy’s toys – Monster High toys mixed into the action figures: copyright Claire Jennings
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Fred Meyer mixed toys – Lego Star Wars next to Lego Friends in an aisle with a bit of everything: copyright Claire Jennings

Have you seen a difference in the toy section at Target? Please share how your Target has implemented the gender neutral toy section below. What do you think they can do better?

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My daughter talked into looking at the boy toys – I eventually convinced her that toys were for both boys and girls, and she gravitated to one of her favorites deep in the boy section, the toy cars: copyright Claire Jennings

Dear Target,

You disappoint me.

You disappoint me because half effort hurts more than no effort. You disappoint me because I know you can do better. You recognize the need but fell to understand it.

Please fix this. Hire someone into your company that understands the issue, and can guide you to a better path, one that will help all our children find their true interests. Learn how to set up your aisle to without segregation, not just your endcaps. Fix your website.

Let your actions speak loud and clear on this important issue.

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Forcing my daughter to actually look at the boy toy section, and hearing the disappointment in her voice as she said that “these are cool” as she walks by, not playing with the toys she felt were off limits. copyright Claire Jennings
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13 thoughts on “Target’s Toy Section: Gender Neutral in Word Only

  1. On the eastern side of Washington state, it’s the same thing. Gender neutral in name only. Trying to get our little monster down the “pink” aisles is a challenge I have finally given up on.

    1. I feel for you. I think it is even harder when you have a little boy, because almost all “girl” toys are pink, where “boy” toys can be a wide variety of colors, making it easier to accept that a boy toy is really a gender-neutral toy. That particular issue cannot be answered at the store level, though they can make moves to make it less of a deal, by grouping the toys by activity and not gender.

  2. While I agree that the Lego girl-marketed sets could be mingled with the other Lego sets, mixing the rest of the toys would just make it confusing to find something., If someone is to blame is the toy manufacturers, not Target. Manufacturers (and marketers I guess) are the ones packaging everything in either Pink or Blue hues, such that once setup in a aisle the entire aisle becomes that color.

    1. I agree that toy manufacturers play a big role in this. Pretend play and dress up were on two different sections, one for boys and one for girls, similar to the Lego Girls and Lego sections, so it is more than just the one section that was oddly divided into two sections. Setting the aisle up just segmented just makes it obvious to the children, and Target said they were not going to do that. This article is about Target keeping their word. Target changing does not make the issues of the world go away. It just makes a small difference, and more importantly, shows that Target will do what they said.

  3. Is it at all possible that your daughter gravitated to the toys she did due to those being the ones she is genuinely interested in? And perhaps she wasn’t interested in the “boys” toys, not because she felt she was not welcome in that aisle, but because, you know, she just wasn’t interested in those toys? The fact that you SO strive to keep her sheltered by gender stereotypes only points to that being the actual cause of this, and not something thrust upon her by societal norms and the evils of Target’s toy displays. No where do I see any questioning of the child as to WHY she didn’t like those toys. What about the “girls” toys did she like, and what about the “boys” toys did she dislike. All I see is projection of a “my poor daughter is incapable of making decisions on her own because of society forcing expectations on her” world view

    My nephew is 4. He received and played with a pink kitchen set because he liked it. He also loves legos, Ninja Turtles, building blocks, trains, star wars figures and ninja figures.

    His sister is 2, she already has gravitated to everything pink, from clothes to toys and stuffed animals.

    Regardless of what people wish to believe about socially forced gender stereotypes, there are still biological differences in the gender taht expand to brain function, interests, satisfaction and mental stimulation. Most of the time girls like “girls things” because they are girls, not because they are told to like “girl things” and the same with boys.

    The goal should NOT be that any individual child likes all toys equally, but that each child makes those choices on whatever drives them internally, and separating toys by their category (ie, dolls, kitchens, construction sets, nerf guns, etc) is the only logical path. To state, both implicitly and explicitly, that this categorization of toys somehow influences your daughter’s interests at the base level is, quite frankly, insulting to your daughter’s intelligence.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. And to answer your initial question, is it just her likes? The answer is no, and here is why:

      1) At home, she plays with her dolls the least, preferring the cars, Lego Kits, puzzles, and art/science stuff to it. She is very much my little dancer and loves dance above all else. Every now and then, she pulls out a doll to play with, and enjoys it, but dolls don’t rank on the top ten of her list.

      2) At Fred Myer, she prefers the toys she prefers at home, after the initial pass through the sections, she often ends up at either the cars or the toy animals, where the nights and the ferries stand side by side with the horses, dragons, and sheep. This store mixes the toys as far as boy/girl toys go. They do segment out the toys by type, which means the dolls are mostly pink, and Lego kits are mostly “boy”, but they include the toys where they make sense from an interest standpoint. And in this store, she likes many of the “boy” toys best.

      3) At Target, should would not even look at the “boy” side to begin with. She had no idea what was in it, just that it felt “boy” to her. She was really hurt that the boys got the cool stuff once she looked. Finally, I was able to explain to her that she could like what she wanted, regardless of where it was. At that point, she announced to me “These are for girls and boys”.

      Of course, my little dancer is going to like some things better than others. The problem isn’t that she didn’t like a toy. The problem is that she didn’t think she had a right to look at the toy. Further, each store has a right to lay the toy section out as they want. But Target said, not two months ago, that they were going to make sure they didn’t cause the feelings my daughter felt in their store.

      Sometimes, it is the environment that influences the choices a person makes. It happens to the best of us, include you and I. It has nothing to do with intelligence. It has to do with further categorizing all those sections you called out into “boy” nerf guns and “girl” nerf guns (the purple nerf set was in the “girl” section randomly, not with the nerf toys). It has to do with putting all the “girl” sections in on half of the store and all the “boy” sections in another half of the store.

    2. It’s cute how you think children’s choices exist in a patriarchy-free vacuum, separated from any gender-oriented marketing.

  4. Wow. I find it amazing the lengths people will go to find some offense. Based on your description the toys are segregated by type. It appears that you’re supplying the gender association.

    1. Sadly, it was my daughter who supplied the gender association. It had to do with the types of toys being segmented out into a “girl” section and a “boy” section that she could since, instead of say, a row of action figures followed by a row of dolls, followed by a row of make believe, followed by a row of cars. Still segmented out by type of toy, but not further segmented out by “boy” and “girl”. Or even letting the Lego Friends live in the same row as the Legos would have helped. I was blissfully unaware of it until my daughter, point blank, told me the second half of the toy section was for boys – and it contained the cool toys like cars. I saw her point then, but not before.

  5. Darn good points Claire. It’s not just a simple as taking down signs that say, ‘girls’ and ‘boys’. Real change means mixing the items up so there’s no gender barrier while still maintaining an organization to find things.

    How about ‘Real world’ where you put the trucks and police cars and kitchen sets? What about ‘Figures’ with action figures and dolls? It just takes extra planning which is SO MUCH WORK.

    1. Thanks Shuffledog,

      I like the idea of “real world,” though it is sure to cause some uproar. In time, hopefully, we will get there.

  6. I was thinking about the announcement side of it. Seems like they would be far more effective if they simply changed and didn’t inform people. Some people who are objecting might not even notice. But, it would not have the same PR effect.

  7. I see your daughter wearing a dress. Did she pick it, or did you? If she did, was it because society told her to? If you did, was it for the same reason? If the answer for either of those questions is yes, is there anything wrong with that? I don’t even want to ask the next question because i know how easy it will be for you to take the high road, and lie, and say, “yes, i would totally do that because that’s perfectly okay,” but ifit was a boy, would you let him wear a dress? Maybe she was not interested in,”boys” toys because she’s not interested in,”boys” toys. The fact that she thinks there’s a difference should tell you that segregating things by gender in inherent to us. I know this article is old, but i still thought, I’d leave a comment.

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