You can tell me all day long that gender is innate. That if one is born a girl they will have a certain disposition towards dolls and pink and Gilmore Girls. Likewise, if one is born a boy they will have a strong affinity for cars and blue and Transformers. You can even tell me that this belief is rooted in the Bible (how you got that blue is for boys and pink is for girls is from the Bible I have no idea, but I’m not making the argument). But if you tell me that and then prophesy about the apocalyptic doom facing all of us because Target is removing gender labels from their signs, I’m not going to believe you.
If you believe that labels are needed for boys clothes or girls toys then you don’t really believe that gender is innate. You believe it must be conditioned, taught, trained, coached, modeled, and directed. Because if it was innate, a girl would pick up a Barbie over a Lego every trip to the store regardless of what gender-specific sign hung over.
But girls don’t always pick Barbies. And boys don’t always like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
All this brouhaha over Target’s decision to remove gender designations for toys and bedding isn’t about the kids at all. Most kids aren’t running around Target’s toy section reading the signs above the aisles trying to find the toys they are looking for. They aren’t looking up at all. Their walking back and forth, eyes glued to the shelves as they pick up and touch and turn-over everything that catches their eye.
The signs, those are for adults.
Adults are the ones who are anxious about gender labeling. Adults are the ones anxious about whether our boy is going to play with a My Little Pony or not. The boy is never anxious about what he is playing with until someone shames him into feeling bad about it. Up until the point someone instills him with the idea that boys don’t play with ponies, he has been happy imagining himself riding the rainbow colored pony across the house because riding ponies is fun. Gender constructs are shamed on to a boy the moment someone says, “Boys don’t play with ponies. You’re not a girl are you?”
Anxiety around gender has been around for a long time. In the 19th century people began thinking that the best way to make sure our boys became men and girls became women was to reinforce gender at an early age. Prior to this, boys and girls wore the same gender-neutral clothing. But as anxiety about gender rose, so did the need to wear the right clothes in the right color. So, one magazine sought to definitively decide this issue once and for and declared that boys ought to wear pink because it was the manliest of colors.
So much for gender colors being obvious and innate.
I do not understand our desire to separate the spheres of gender and isolate our women from our men. I do not understand the fear that we have for a man who is feminine or a woman who is masculine. I do not understand the outrage over a retail store deleting the word “girls” in front of the word “bedding.”
Are we that anxious about gender? And if it is innate, why? That anxiety only makes sense if we truly, functionally believe that gender must be taught. And if it needs to be taught, then a major Christian narrative about gender is undermined.
So, yeah, maybe we are anxious. But let’s be honest about what we’re really anxious about.
Maybe it will be over the top to say this, but just so we’re clear: A girl who sleeps on bedding of trucks will not become a lesbian. She will not be confused as to whether or not she is a girl. The only thing she will be confused about is why you think it is wrong for her to like trucks and sleep on pictures of them.
Let’s also be clear, the Bible isn’t so clear on what a woman does and what a man does. The strict spheres we have created for men and women are more cultural than they are Biblical. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian who was one of the first people to thoroughly examine the budding new nation of America, observed that,
In America, more than anywhere else in the world, care has been taken to constantly trace clearly the distinct spheres of action of the two sexes and both are required to keep in step, but along paths that are never the same.
America has always appreciated a sharp separation between men and women. The Bible, not so much. Jacob was a quiet man who like to hang around the tents and cook a mean stew. Deborah was a judge and warrior. The Proverbs 31 woman was a businesswoman who aptly sold land and goods. Jesus failed at living up to the Greco-Roman masculine ideals by crying out in pain and weeping. Paul declared that weakness was a gift that allowed him to experience the strength of Christ. In the end, the Bible is more concerned about what a image bearer does, not what specific genders do.
Jesus never came to make men more manly or women more womanly. That isn’t part of the gospel. Jesus came so that men and women could be whole. Fully human. Embracing the feminine and masculine qualities innate in all of us. I wish we were more anxious about that. Are we becoming more human? Are we becoming some shell of a human because we’re afraid of not being man enough? Woman enough? Are we recognizing and valuing the image of God that exists in both men and women?
Honestly, if labels on toy aisles gets us this worked up, we are in trouble. The world won’t need to marginalize Christians at all if these are the battles we’re going to fight. We’ll marginalize ourselves.
If you want to worry about your kids play, that’s fine. But don’t worry about what they play with, worry about how they play. Are they compassionate? Kind? Joyful? Giving?
After all, that’s what matters most.