MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (Christian Examiner) - When retail giant Target announced earlier this month a portion of gender-based signage will be removed from specific areas in their stores, a firestorm of controversy swept over social media. While some applauded the move, citing progress and positive change, others voiced their anger and concern over what they perceive as the retailer's attempt to remove all gender references. Some customers vowed to no longer shop at the big box chain.
Citing a need to "strike a better balance," Target announced in an Aug. 7 press release on their website the changes ensure the retailer no longer "feature[s] suggestions for boys or girls" in their bedding departments, "just kids." In the toy aisles, gender references will be removed including "the use of pink, blue, yellow, or green paper on the back walls of our shelves."
Among those protesting the Minneapolis-based retailer's decision was Franklin Graham, who declared on his Facebook page it is ironic the mass-market chain is "off-target" in their attempt to promote gender-neutrality.
"What's next? Are they going to try to make people believe that pink or blue baby showers are politically incorrect? I have news for them and for everyone else — God created two different genders," Graham said.
Many are pointing to a tweet made by a disgruntled shopper for being at least partially responsible for the change. The June 1 tweet was from shopper Abi Bechtel who posted a picture of a sign in her local Target store distinguishing between "building sets" and "girls' building sets" and wrote "Don't do this, @Target." The tweet was retweeted and shared thousands of times.
Bechtel, who identifies herself in her Twitter bio as a feminist and an Episcopalian, told the Times-Union she was surprised how much attention her tweet received.
"I didn't expect it to become the center of this entire discussion about gender and the way toys are marketed," Bechtel said. "But Caitlyn Jenner's pictures had just come out. And the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage came out soon after. So there was a whole lot of discussion about gender and gender roles anyway. The tweet just landed at the right time."
Gender-neutral schools may be next
Experts told Christian Examiner the issue of gender identity and gender neutrality won't be going away.
Dannah Gresh, a best-selling author and speaker known for her Secret Keeper Girl series and international conferences, pointed out recent changes by two other countries related to gender and sexual preference and said she expects the U.S. will follow.
Canada approved same-sex marriage in 2005 and this year, "the Ontario sex-ed curriculum teaches that there are six genders - male, female, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited and inter-sexed," Gresh said. "When one Christian media leader voiced his opposition to the curriculum, Gresh added, his broadcasting license was taken away."
Sweden, which legalized gay marriage in 2009, now has gender neutral preschools. "Children who attend are taught to refrain from using the gender specific pronouns for 'him' and 'her' and are taught to use a gender neutral pronoun - 'hen,'" Gresh said. " Legos and baking toys are grouped together to avoid gender stereotyping in playtime."
Grant Castleberry, executive director for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, said the concern over gender labels for toys is secondary to a "much deeper and profound question our culture is wrestling with right now."
"What does it mean to be a man or a woman, or in this case, a boy or girl?" Castleberry said. "I think there are specific qualities that are innate to maleness and femaleness, and it's not just a biblical argument, but a natural law argument."
Castleberry acknowledged there is some crossover when it comes to girls who play with action figures and boys who play with their sisters' dolls, but said there are also differences in the way boys and girls play. "The exceptions to normal preferences do not make the rule."
But Gresh offered a caution for those who attempt to neutralize norms as well as those who attempt to define biblical manhood or womanhood simply based on toys. Noting there is no biblical mandate on toys, a modern invention, and that as toys have evolved, she said "creative role playing, self-control and character [qualities] of children have declined significantly.
"The fact we're arguing over whether toys should have pink or blue signs seems somewhat foolish to me," said Gresh, a mom of three young adults. "We should be more concerned with the overuse of toys in general."
However, Gresh also believes biblical manhood and womanhood are one of the most important things parents can teach their children.
"The reason we should teach our child to respect biblically defined roles of maleness and femaleness is the fact that God created gender to reflect ...to glorify him. To glorify him is to make him visible or known. Adam and Eve were more than just unique creations. They were a representation."
Navigating a growing anti-Christian culture
So how do Christians and Christian parents, specifically, navigate the culture that one bioethicist agrees is increasingly "anti-Christian"?
"The most effective way parents can help their children navigate gender roles is by example," said Ben Mitchell, a philosophy professor and the vice president of academic affairs at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.
"I learned the characteristics of masculinity and femininity from my father and mother," Mitchell said. "Gender roles are shaped in a child's consciousness at a very early age."
Mitchell told the Christian Examiner he finds it ironic people who support gender neutrality believe gender neutrality offers children more choices.
"Gender neutrality stymies choice," Mitchell said. "It leaves children rudderless and homeless with respect to gender. The challenge for Christians is to follow biblical gender roles and not be tied to the ideals of either 1950 or 2015. Biblical passages such as Proverbs 31 shows that gender roles are more flexible than some people think, but they are not completely fluid. God made us male and female. His Word is a faithful guide to what that looks like."