The toy industry magazine Playthings poses an interesting question: if Chinese department stores don't segregate their underwear section by gender, why must we segregate our toys?

In a post for the magazine's Out of the Toy Box blog, Richard Gottlieb writes,

[T]he notion of gender in toys is so ingrained in our thinking that we never stop to think that maybe it's not a fact of nature but rather a cultural outlook that we impose.

That was the thought that I had when coming upon an underwear department in a Chinese department store. To my surprise, the women's and men's underwear were merchandised in one department: The underwear department.

Obviously, in this culture (or certainly that department store) the western notion of merchandising by gender did not prevail. Wouldn't it be interesting if we took a step back and stopped merchandising by gender?

Wouldn't it, indeed? While the store Gottlieb visited may not represent all Chinese department stores, his observation does show that even underwear — something we think of as extremely gender-specific — isn't always separated by gender. As Gottlieb notes, this raises the question of what would happen if we stopped dividing toy stores into pink and blue aisles. But it also made me wonder why stores make gender divisions in the first place.

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In the case of underwear, stores might fear that women would be uncomfortable shopping alongside men — although the few men usually browsing the Victoria's Secret racks make clear that we can usually handle it. Perhaps managers also think men won't want to shop around girl stuff, like bras, which is possible — but this is probably culturally determined. I doubt that men are congenitally unable to open their wallets in the presence of lingerie — strip clubs are a testament to that. Most likely, store managers and merchandisers just feel most comfortable breaking down customers into demographic groups, and one of the main groups is gender.

You'd think that the rise of online shopping would fix this problem, but as we noted last holiday season, gender categories for toys persist on the web. And if I want to buy, say, a button-down shirt with no goddamn darts, I usually have to go to the men's section of the e-commerce site of my choice. I don't mean to say that all items should be marketed equally to men and women — moobs aside, for instance, women will always be the main consumers of bras. It's just that in many cases, stores might be more interesting and consumer-friendly if they came up with smarter divisions than gender. As Gottlieb says, this is especially true when it comes to toys. Just as there's little actual difference between action figures and dolls, there's little reason to suspect that kids want their toy stores separated into boys' halves and girls' halves — except insofar as everyone tells them that's what they want. Of course, the commercialization of gender may benefit retailers, by allowing them to sell essentially the same product in two different, gender-"appropriate" packages. And department stores are unlikely to be on the forefront of social change. Still, there's a certain power in knowing that it doesn't have to be this way, that alternative modes of merchandising exist — even if they're half a world away.

Underwear And The Toy Department [Playthings: Out of the Toy Box Blog]