By Lincoln Wright South Bend Tribune, Ind.
Shopping trips with her 5-year-old twin daughters often left Dana Babbin frustrated. Unable to find the types of clothes her girls wanted, she would turn to the boys section.
But for as long as Dana can remember, her spunky twins weren't fawning over princesses -- they wanted trucks and bulldozers.
"My girls just love trucks and they were basically given a message through the marketplace that it wasn't cool for them, and that was unfortunate," said Babbin, a 1992 University of Notre Dame graduate.
Babbin, a former prosecutor who now consults about cyber crimes against children, decided to try to change things. So she started Pink Truck, a clothing company for all ages that blurs the gender divide.
Babbin, though, doesn't like using the term "gender neutral" for the clothing line that she launched in December. After all, her goal is to provide more options for kids to feel comfortable being who they are, she explained.
"I want to celebrate gender and its differences, but more importantly, its commonality," Babbin said. "I just want you to know that no matter what things you enjoy and have a passion for I'm going to celebrate."
She says her message, sent through pink truck, train, boat and other vehicle logos on neutral-colored clothing, is as simple as that -- letting kids be who they are. The Pink Truck line isn't in stores yet -- that's one of Babbin's next goals -- but they can be purchased online at www.pinktruckdesigns.com.
Though the idea of gender neutral clothing is far from commonplace, it's becoming a growing niche in the apparel industry, with some well known labels such as Gucci and a host of smaller ones making inroads through online stores and even mainstream retailers such as GapKids and Babies 'R' Us.
Many are startup businesses created by parents such as Babbin and others who were simply frustrated by not being able to find the type of clothing that would appeal to their children. Northern Virginia resident Jaya Iyer, for example, was motivated to start her own line named after her daughter, Svaha, because she couldn't find clothing that might inspire her space-obsessed daughter.
Babbin's goal of taking the gender specifics out of clothing isn't quite catching on in major stores, but there are some retailers making a shift in other areas. In August, Target announced it was eliminating "boys" and "girls" signs from its toy and bedding departments. It has been seen as a big cultural shift by the second-largest discount retailer in the United States.
In an interview with The Tribune, a spokeswoman for Target wouldn't comment on the cultural statement, if any, the company was making with the change in product marketing. Gender-focused marketing had been an ongoing conversation for some time, she said, spurred by guest comments on how gender indicators were used in the store and if it made sense to forgo it in some departments.
In June, Target received criticism after a customer tweeted a picture of signage in the toy department that read "Building Sets," and "Girls' Building Sets."
Ultimately, the change was made to make the shopping experience better, according to Target.
"Historically, guests have told us that sometimes...signs that sort by brand, age or gender help them get ideas and find things faster. But 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. We heard you, and we agree," the company wrote in a statement.
Target's spokeswoman couldn't comment on any future changes in gender-based marketing in the store.
But the change by Target, and the cultural shift as a whole, is not being embraced by everyone. Target was attacked on social media, with many calling for a boycott of the store and taking their business elsewhere.
Speaking on Fox News, the Rev. Franklin Graham, president of the Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse and son of evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, said the change was a "slap in the face" to the hardworking American men and women that are the heart of Target's success.
"God made us male and female, that's just a fact, and to think we are gender neutral is foolishness," Graham said on Fox. "I think this is just absolutely ridiculous and I think Target has forgotten who's made their stores strong. ...This whole gender neutral business has gone too far."
Personally, Babbin said, she has not had any negative reactions to her clothing as severe as what Target had. There are those who the message is lost on, she said, and some who take longer to come around to it. But overall she has been surprised by the varied demographics that have embraced the line.
Gender-focused marketing for kids products started picking up in the 1990s, said Mary Celeste Kearney, a professor of film, television and theater at the University of Notre Dame whose research focuses primarily on gender, youth and media culture.
Starting in the late '80s there was a big push specifically toward marketing to girls, Kearney explained, because marketers realized there was a large population to go after. And women are typically the ones in the home making the decisions on everyday purchases, so the younger a girl is hooked, the better brand loyalty will be, she said.
But like Babbin's goal of letting kids be who they want, public culture has become very gender segregated, Kearney said, and it can become hard for kids as consumers to make the choices they want.
"Kids are pretty savvy, but also very confused about gender," she said, making it hard for them to understand why marketing would tell them a product is specifically for a boy or a girl.
Clothing lines like Pink Truck and the changes Target made are steps in the right direction for kids, but there needs to be more, Kearney said. Specifically, there's a lot of attention on girls, which is good, she said, but there is less attention on boys having access to things seen as "girly."
Not limiting products and marketing by gender is something Babbin said she hopes wills start catching on more quickly. Once more stores like Target make the change, Kearney said, she thinks marketers will realize it's a good move.
"I think it's a message that everyone can send," Babbin said. "I'm not here to do anything but help support your kids and yourselves as individuals."