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Target Under Fire

August 31, 2015

Target recently announced some changes to their stores. No, it’s not the rumored addition of a bar serving alcohol (though my fingers are really crossed for this one); the company is in the process of removing gender-based signage indicating that certain merchandise is either for boy or girl children. In response to some customers who felt “frustrated or limited” by Target’s signage, Target released the following statement: “We know that shopping preferences and needs change and, as guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home, or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary.” The full statement can be found here.

CGct96FUgAA4hBASignage currently used in a Target store to separate children’s toys by gender

While many Target customers support their decision to move toward gender-neutral signage (including myself), others are taking great offense. In an amusing turn of events Facebook user Mike Melgaard posed as a customer service representative for Target, under the profile “AskForHelp,” and responded to disgruntled customer comments. Melgaard’s comments have since been deleted, but you can check out a highlight reel here. Many of the user comments expressed concern that the change will make it more difficult to find particular children’s merchandise, and are accusing the company of being too “politically correct” in order to please what they believe is only a minority of the population. Given the contentious nature of this issue, a lot could be said about the ‘correctness’ of particular viewpoints—especially those resting on the assumption that “men and women were made differently for a reason.” One could also consider what’s empowering or problematic about one person attempting to falsely represent a larger public. Yet, what strikes me is that the controversy seems to be rooted in how the public forms opinions based on various understandings of certain words, and how they use those words to express their displeasure with Target’s decision.

To break it down a little further, the controversy appears to center around how people personally define and understand the meaning of words and identifiers like “gender,” “gender neutral,” and even “transgender.” You might recall an earlier post about differing definitions and stasis theory, which explained how rhetoricians sometimes come to understand the root of an argument or disagreement by identifying terms that are defined differently by those expressing dissent. In other words, for many, definitions are acknowledged as places where disagreement often occurs.

First and foremost, there appears to be disagreement about how we are defining the term “gender.” According to gender theorist Judith Butler, gender is a social and performative construct—something people perform and act out as a way of representing internalized notions of what it means to be “man” or “woman,” “boy” or “girl.” For many, sex, on the other hand refers generally to the anatomy of a person’s reproductive system. In this sense, while an individual may be born with male or female genitalia, their gender is not necessarily predetermined, but rather something constituted in time based on a stylized repetition of acts.

On the other hand, opponents of Target’s gender-neutral signage seem to define or associate gender with innate characteristics with which individuals are born. In this sense, they may be conflating Butler’s (and other feminist theorists’) understanding of gender and sex. For these individuals, sex and gender seem to mean the same thing.

Below is a screen capture of one user’s comment, wherein they appear to conflate the two terms:


When user Dana Greer says, “Just wanted you to know that I and my family of both sexes by the way…Boys and Girls…will shop elsewhere,” she (I assume “she” identifies as female) appears to operate under the assumption that gender and sex are the same thing [italic emphasis mine]—that pointing out her family has both sexes is the same thing as saying she has children that identify with a specific gender, and that Target calling their current signage gender-based is the same thing as saying they are sex-based. Now, am I reading too much into this? Maybe. But it’s important to point out even the smallest assumption underlying a definition—especially when those definitions shape how we talk about others individuals and how they should be treated.

All said, it should be clear that while I suggest what opponents to Target’s gender-neutral signage believe, I do not wish to, nor do I have the grounds to, definitively claim what each individual believes. However, given the comments made publicly on Target’s Facebook page, I believe observations can be made about the rhetorical nature of this controversy. Furthermore, while the divergent connotations of the terms “sex” and “gender” seem to be one sticking point (or stasis) in the argument—no doubt there are others, like the troubling word associations being made between the expressions “gender-neutral” and “transgender.” Ultimately, regardless of your opinion about the changes being made in Target stores, it’s important to bring awareness to how language—specifically our understanding of particular words and phrases—can not only shape how we form opinions, but also limit the potential for conflict resolution.

If you want to know more:

  • To read more about one proposed theory regarding problems surrounding the category of gender, I recommend reading Judith Butler’s “ Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” and Gender Trouble.
  • If you’re into feminist theory, you might want to also check out Simone de Beuvoir’s treaty The Second Sex, for further proposed theories about how gender is constituted.
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