AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Sunday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott responded to California Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom signing California’s Assembly Bill 1084 into state law — directing big retailers to maintain gender-neutral toy sections beginning in 2024.

In a tweet, Abbott said: “California mandates gender-neutral toy aisles for large retailers. Not in Texas. In Texas, it is businesses — NOT government — that decide how they display their merchandise.”

Under the bill, California retailers with 500 or more employees must display a “reasonable” selection of toys from its “boys” and “girls” sections into another non-gendered section, regardless of how those toys are marketed. Stores that violate the order would face a civil penalty of up to $250 for a first violation and $500 for subsequent violations.

AB 1084 not only hopes to ease shopping worries for children who are still working to understand their gender identities (and their families), but its authors, hope it helps chip away at gender stereotypes.

“Traditionally children’s toys and products have been categorized by a child’s gender. In retail this has led to the proliferation of [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]-geared toys in a ‘boys’ section and toys that direct girls to pursuits such as caring for a baby, fashion, and domestic life,” wrote California assemblyman Evan Low, the bill’s co-author, in a statement. “The segregation of toys by a social construct of what is appropriate for which gender is the antithesis of modern thinking.”

Assembly Bill 1084 also applies to childcare items, including products for feeding, teething and sleeping — which will also need gender-neutral areas.

While Abbott’s comments appear only to reference government intervention in private business, AB 1084 and Abbott’s response sparked online debate over gendering of children’s toys.

The gender-toy connection

Gendering of items for children — including language used to describe children — has increasingly become a concern for many as understanding of gender itself has progressed. The American Psychological Association explains the term “gender” refers to attitudes, feelings and behaviors a culture associates with a person’s biological sex. “Sex” refers to a person’s biological characteristics (genitalia, chromosomes) as assigned at birth.

A Ken Fashionistas doll (L) is seen with Barbie Fashionistas dolls on the shelf at a Barstons Child’s Play toy store in Washington, DC (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“Gender” can be considered an assumption of how someone should behave, what they should like, and what they should look like — but none of these may be true to how that person identifies, also known as their gender identity. That’s how they see themselves.

Gendered toys could reinforce stereotypes of men as strong, muscular, even aggressive. Meanwhile, “girl” toys may reinforce beliefs that women should be gentle caregivers and overtly feminine. Children who play with toys viewed as not “for” their gender may be discouraged from learning helpful attributes to become healthy and successful adults, experts argue.

“Boys in the first years of life are also nurturing and caring. We just teach them really early that that’s a ‘girl skill’, and we punish boys for doing it,” Christina Brown, University of Kentucky psychology professor told BBC, in reference to boys playing with dolls.

Experts explain that just as marketing and creation may sway boys away from becoming sensitive — or being interested in clothes or liking the color pink — gendered toys may dissuade girls from pursuing STEM-based interests over playing with Barbie dolls.

“We start to see manifestations of the gender hierarchy — boys seemingly starting to respond to the ‘stigma’ of femininity even in this early period [of childhood],” says University of Melbourne psychologist Cordelia Fine.

Dangers of shame related to engaging with the “wrong gender” have also been linked in studies to boys disliking school and doing worse academically than girls, Washington Post reports. Moreover and more dangerously, studies have shown men who hold strong antifeminine attitudes and beliefs of male dominance over women are more likely to commit sexual assault.