Are gender-reveal parties necessarily retrograde?

Cake with blue and pink icing So, people are talking about gender reveal parties.

Have you heard of these? They are almost exactly what they sound like: parties where the sex — not gender, despite the name — of a forthcoming baby is revealed, often to the expecting mother or couple at the same time it is made known to guests. This can be orchestrated in a number of sneaky and elaborate ways: by party planners armed with creative themes and inventive decor, by doctors and lab technicians complicit enough to seal ultrasound results, and by discrete bakers who whip up dual performance pastries whose gender-neutral shells mask tell-all interiors in shades of pink or blue.

TIME thinks they’re the “hottest new thing”, natch, even if the title “gender reveal party” does, in the opinion of one TIME journo, have the potential to “throw some for a loop” by suggesting “someone was celebrating a sex change.” (Lol.)

The New Yorker has beef with them, but mostly cause they’re “manufactured,” “contrived,” and “narcissistic”; a “mild symptom of cultural despair” that “seem to marry the oversharing of Facebook and Instagram with the contrived ceremonies that modern people in search of meaning impose on normal life events”. (Surprisingly, in all that devastating cultural poo-poo’ing and bemoaning the end of modern civilization as we know it, there’s no critical or radical gender analysis, or really anything substantive about gender at all.)

Girl w/ Pen also thinks the parties suck, complaining that they’re “for the birds” and asking “why all the fuss?” since most “enlightened parents these days” will be happy about their baby regardless of the reveal results. Plus “shouldn’t we be a tad more concerned with “Who will it be?” than “What will it be?”” she rightly asks.

Here’s the thing. Of course gender essentialism is dangerous. But I’m not convinced these gender-reveal parties are necessarily retrograde on gender.

Like many things, these parties strike me as a kind of vessel that could as easily carry anti-feminist gender essentialism as they could promote radical feminist values and liberation from the gender binary.

In theory, it seems kinda silly and anti-feminist to promote a baby’s sex as a thing to obsessively guard and then dote over. But isn’t there another, more progressive message underlying these celebrations: that no matter the sex of the baby, a community of party-goers are super excited about its arrival in this world? At a time when girls are valued so much less than boys that sex-selective abortion is on the rise in India, isn’t this a fundamentally important sentiment to embrace?

While they may not have originated from the most political of places, what these parties are actually doing is ensuring that people are excited and celebrating the existence of a baby before its sex is known. The later emphasis on sex can surely become problematic, unnecessary, or essentialist, but I think it’s helpful to take a moment and realize that at their core, these parties are about going out of one’s way to be excited about life regardless of sex or gender. And that’s kinda cool and important.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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