There’s a new petition making the rounds; one I signed quickly, although it left me profoundly discouraged. The editorial board of New Moon Girls , a magazine for young girls, is asking Target to stop color coding its toy aisles. Colored coded toy aisles?  In  2012?  In the year in which we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the ground breaking record Free to Be You and Me?  After more than four decades of work on non sexist  school books and studies on the importance of encouraging girls and boys to explore skills and careers outside traditional gender stereotypical ones?  After all this we have color coded toy aisles?

I couldn’t get my head around it.  What had I missed in the past decade as the items topping my daughter’s Christmas list moved from toys to clothes and computers?  I needed to see for myself.  In a nearby mall there’s a Target where I’ve shopped from time to time, but never in the toy aisles. This time I wandered only in the toy section.  Indeed, glancing down the rows of toys, some rows were distinctly pink, others dark, at first glance mostly black. But what produced the colors was not, as I had begun to imagine, actual pink shelving or pink signage, it was pink packaging. And it was  black, navy blue and deep purple packaging that produced the dark aisles. There were no signs saying ‘girls’ or ‘boys’, the colors spoke for themselves.  It’s a message no child or parent can miss.

But what struck me as much as the grouping by color was the extremely rigid way the toy manufacturers had color coded the toys and their packages.  I hunted with very little success for red trucks, for dolls dressed in yellow or green outfits, for little cooking sets with bright colors rather than pastel pots and pans. Even in the one row near the store entrance that had several boxes of dolls on the same shelf with boxes of various toy machines–snow mobiles, rocket ships and airplanes—the stereotypical two colors proclaimed:  “GIRL!”  “BOY!”  All the dolls were dressed in pink except for a few in very light blue with silver sparkles.  All the vehicles were black or grey with an occasional purple stripe or bit of flaming orange.

Interestingly, the aisles with books and games were far less color coded, at least at the Target store I visited. Book covers and game boxes did not, with the glaring exception of some very pink games, display the same degree of color coding found in the toy aisles. It appears more acceptable for girls and boys to, at least some of the time, read the same books or participate in the same games, than it is to play with any but the most gender stereotypical toys.

Yes, Target should try harder to mix up its toy aisles. We should all sign the petition.  But  we also need to pressure toy manufacturers.  First order of business, more colors for everyone. A rigid two color code for toys, pink for girls, dark and black for boys undoubtedly simplifies manufacturing and store inventories.  It’s good for business.  It is not good for children.

What about more brightly colored cars and airplanes, or boy dolls as well as girl dolls? What about addressing the lack of girls playing with cars on the front of those packages or the absence of boys on the cooking sets?  What about more diversity in terms of racial background? Almost of the faces on the boxes I saw were white.  We all want affordable toys for our children, but surely there are ways to provide a wider range of choices for parents and children than those available in the toy aisles at Target.

If any of us thought the battle for less gender stereotyped toys had been won, we were wrong. We’re a long way from fulfilling the 40 year old promise of the Marlo Thomas song, Free to be You and Me.  Our work must include renewed attention to the gendered messages that greet children and their parents every time they wander through a toy store.