I'm not that impressed by Disney's gender-neutral costumes

"The re-labelling (or de-labelling) of gender and costume categories seems to be nothing but lip service."

Disney-TMZ
The Disney Store

I’m not a huge fan of labelling products by gender, especially when it comes to items for kids. Let clothes be clothes, and let toys be toys. So I was initially surprised when I read that the Disney Store—a huge player in the kids’ market—announced that it was removing gender labels from the Halloween Costumes section on its website. I expected to be impressed by this bold move—that is, until I actually read more about it.

I noticed that several publications applauded the change: Cosmopolitan magazine called it “incredible,” while the feminist website The Mary Sue referred to it as “awesome.” With all respect to fairy godmothers and these fine media outlets, I just don’t get why there’s this level of praise.

The Disney Store has not done away with its traditionally gendered costumes. It hasn’t produced an alternative line of costumes that is gender neutral (although, in an ideal world, clothing and colours would not be attached to gender at all). It hasn’t even rid its stores of those tiny “costume shoes”—a.k.a. high heels for young kids. This is what the Disney Store actually did: It changed one website banner and replaced the sections labelled “Costumes for Boys” and “Costumes for Girls” with one neutral “Costumes for Kids” drop-down menu. All of the costumes fall under the “I Am Awesome” banner.

In an attempt to better understand the hype, I visited the Disney Store’s website. While the “Costumes for Kids” section may sound like an improvement (The Mary Sue commented on how kids are now “free from influence” in their costume decision making), it’s useful to note that the website doesn’t sell Halloween costumes for adults. So, on that count, the “Costumes for Kids” section is redundant and playing with (read marketing to) parents who are looking to push back against gender labels.

The Disney Store maintains its Boys and Girls menu tabs on the homepage. If you click on “Characters” in the Boys section, you’ll come across superheroes and Cars paraphernalia. If you click on “Characters” in the Girls section, you’ll get princesses, fairy princesses, mermaid princesses…and Star Wars. In fact, Star Wars only appears in the Girls section, almost as if it were a mistake. At best, it represents exactly what Audra Williams recently wrote about in her National Post piece that argued “gender neutral” often translates to “traditionally boy things marketed to girls.”

I also tried clicking on the Halloween Costumes section through the Boys and Girls drop-down menus. While the same costumes come up on the page as those in the new “Costumes for Kids” section, the Boys section starts with rows of costumes depicting male characters and the Girls section starts with princesses. There’s also the fact, as pointed out by Bustle, that the costumes are still modelled by kids of the gender that they were previously labelled. This didn’t ease my sense that the “Disney goes gender neutral” announcement was a bit of a gross overstatement.

The reality is that a kid searching for a Halloween costume with a parent on the Disney Store website is much more likely to notice the child models than the actual words on the page. The whole idea of this type of branding is being able to identify characters: Princess Aurora, Buzz Lightyear and so on. Kids younger than reading age won’t even notice this label change, and the ones who can read are likely still looking for characters they recognize. The re-labelling (or de-labelling) of categories seems to be nothing but lip service—and parents and the media seem to be eating it up.

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a five-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.

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