Rainbow Rant: A review of the Target Pride Collection

For sale: Pride

Joy Ellison
The exterior of a Target store

In my local Target, the Pride Collection products are right next to the Fourth of July paraphernalia. That alone says plenty about the corporation’s latest attempt to sell rainbow-covered everything to queer and trans people. 

The Pride Collection is remarkable for its inclusiveness. Target stands ready to sell us T-shirts and bandanas in the colors denoting a variety of LGBT identities, notably including asexuality. Likewise, obvious care went into hiring a diverse set of models. However, seeing relatable faces in clothing I can’t imagine wearing is surprisingly unsettling.

Examining the collection, I wonder if some queer Target designer carefully created a few products but then slowly started to wonder what exactly they could get away with. That’s the only explanation I can offer for why Target seems to think that a rainbow-colored ice cream cone is this year’s must-have motif (get it on a button-down, a scented candle, or as a dog toy). 

Some of these products are so well-tailored to our community, it’s enough to make a person believe in market research. Target is correct; we will buy Pride-themed pet accessories, and I don’t think that we should be embarrassed by that. Likewise, there are certainly members of our community that will snatch up rainbow-colored Mickey Mouse T-shirts, even if that does mortify me.

Other products in the Pride Collection make less sense. Take this “Pronouns” shirt. Emblazoned with a slew of pronouns, this tee won’t help you share your pronouns with the world; it will just tell everyone what you know what a pronoun is. It’s virtue signaling as a fashion statement. 

Likewise, this animal print button-down raises questions. The bears make sense, but why include chickens, groundhogs, wolves and rats? Furthermore, why is this shirt being modeled by an older man with daddy vibes, when obviously it will be favored by younger nonbinary people whose style is half Victorian gentleman and half Gonzo from the Muppets? (As one such person, I will admit that I love this shirt. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever.)

The most baffling product in the line is an eyesore called a “Liberation Jumpsuit.” Despite being described as “ballroom” attire, I can assure you that none of the legendary children would ever be caught dead in this getup. However, if I ever want to spend more than $100 to look like I came to the club straight from a Ghostbusters audition, I will keep Target in mind.

Most of the Target Pride Collection is tacky, but that doesn’t necessarily negate its appeal or importance. Some queer and trans people, particularly youth, will find it affirming, and for that I’m genuinely glad. Furthermore, Target does make an annual donation to GLSEN, though the details are a bit hazy. The Pride Collection is infinitely less objectionable than Raytheon’s attempt to rebrand its weaponry for Pride month. 

But there are social and environmental costs to the “fast fashion” Target sells. The fashion sector employs one out of six people on Earth, but fewer than two percent of those workers earn a living wage. Twenty percent of all industrial water pollution comes from the sector, along with 10 percent of all carbon emissions. That’s nothing to be proud of. 

The product in the Pride Collection that causes me the most distress is a surprising one: a T-shirt bearing a photograph of Stonewall veteran Marsha P. Johnson. In this picture, Johnson is holding a sign reading “Power to the People,” an ironic message on a mass-produced product. A keen observer will notice that the designers have edited out Johnson’s cigarette

The context of the photograph is similarly missing. Johnson was participating in a protest of Bellevue Hospital, where both she and Sylvia Rivera had been held against their wills, receiving forced medical treatment designed to cure them of their sexualities, gender identities and radical politics. In its own way, the Pride Collection functions like the thorazine doctors pumped into Johnson’s body without her consent. Commodified pride products transform our political demands into personal statements, dulling our movement’s radical edge. 

No T-shirt can hope to convey the complexity of the queer and transgender liberation struggle we celebrate during Pride month. There is, however, something especially incongruous about an image of Johnson on a T-shirt when no LGBT historical figure used fashion as deliberately or effectively as she.

Johnson gained notoriety for creating one-of-a-kind ensembles out of cast-offs. In Johnson’s hands, an old dress became a beacon of hope. A bunch of day-old flowers, Christmas ornaments or ribbons became crowns befitting the queen she was. She could have never afforded the T-shirt bearing her face, but she didn’t need a consumer product to embody her political vision.

Johnson waged her struggle on her body and celebrated her survival with her every footstep. She transformed the visibility she could not avoid as a Black trans woman into a tool for building community. Her friend and comrade Sylvia Rivera said, “Marsha would give the blouse off her back if you asked for it. She would give you her last dollar. She would take off her shoes. I’ve seen her do all these things.” 

If we want to follow Johnson’s example and honor her legacy, we should be asking ourselves what we will give up to serve our community. 

Corporations like Target don’t really want us to ask that question. Generous people make poor consumers. The kind of pride that can change the world is something that Target will never be able to manufacture.