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.

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13 Comments

  1. Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    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?

    I don’t see that message at all. If that were the point, then these celebrations would be held entirely before a sex was assigned, or would be disconnected from that event entirely.

    From what I read in your links (and I have not heard of this trend until now), these gatherings seem like one more voice in the overwhelming chorus that a person’s sex is the one single most salient fact about them and everything else is of lesser importance. The party-goers are super excited because they are present at the event where the single most important fact about the baby-to-be is revealed.

    How can this possibly be a step towards liberation from a rigid gender binary when the entire raison d’etre for the event is the assigning of the forthcoming child into that very binary, and the event is a celebration of that assignment?

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      I agree! Enough with the pink and blue already!

  2. Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    We didn’t know what we were having until our little bundles made their arrival. I went with my “instinct” and was dead wrong, all three times. I loved not knowing until the little person presented herself (twice) and himself (once). I had no expectations or fantasies that needed to be fulfilled. I just dealt with the little person I had. I also never bothered with a nursery or crib or bedding or wallpaper or any of that, so there really was no compelling reason to know. What would it change?

    I thought the mystery of it was pretty exciting. And because no one knew, all the clothes and gifts I got were gender neutral, which means all three kiddos wore/played with them. Win/win.

  3. Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    As a feminist who thinks that gender already plays a big enough role in our lives when we get assigned one at birth, I personally decided birth was early enough to start pigeon-holing my children and declined to find out their sex until I saw it for myself at their births.

    But honestly, I think all this crap is less about gender and sexism and more about getting people to spend as much money as possible buying more stuff than they or a baby would ever need.

    Major life events DO NOT need to be marked with spending lots of money on crap you are going to throw away. Baby clothes can be fun, but the fact is they get pooped and thrown up on. At 3am when you have not slept more than 1 hour at a stretch for the last 5 weeks, you are NOT GOING TO CARE if the next onsie is pink or blue. Help your pregnant friends by buying them some good books about how to keep their bodies and their relationships healthy as a new parent, or by stopping over after baby has arrived and holding it so they can take a shower and comb their hair. Pink baby dresses from the mall not so much.

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      I’m not a mother, but I agree with what you say.

      I feel like nothing better has happened for the people who make baby stuff than sonograms being able to tell what sex these future babies are.

      Before that you bought some clothes and the baby wore it no matter what genitals it had, and then you saved those clothes for the next baby that may or may not have the same kind of genitals.

      Not to mention how all of the car seats, strollers, EVERYTHING is color-coded, and most people would never re-use a pink stroller for their boy later.

  4. Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Of course it’s a good idea to attempt to read a cultural trend differently and not just gather more fuel after your knee-jerk “it’s bad!” reaction, but sometimes the knee-jerk is spot on because you’re trained and practiced at looking at these things, and I’m afraid you missed the mark. I don’t say this as a difference of opinion, but based on your faulty logic. Take this:
    “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?”
    The thing is, the party is not “not matter the sex.” The party revolves entirely around the sex. It is revealing a sex; it’s in the name of the party. And sure, the party goers celebrate either (cause only 2 are allowed) “gender” meanwhile make it the central bit of information about the forthcoming child. It’s basic Women’s Studies 101 at this point, that not everyone is born cis-gender, and these parties will inherently contribute to the notion that they are.

  5. Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    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.

    I could have sworn there was already a solution for this. It’s called the “baby shower”.

    If the purpose of this party is to celebrate the sex of the child, I think it has great potential to be more problematic than beneficial. The parties play right into the gender binary. The child is either a boy or a girl. You either use blue or pink decorations. It’s hardly progressive.

    I mean, how embarrassing would it be for the parents to have one of these parties, invite all of their closest friends and family just for the child to not identify with that sex later in life? All I can imagine is trans youths awkwardly sitting with family members showing them pictures of the big gender reveal party. I mean, it’s not like the children get any say in how their own sex is celebrated. I am a cis female and I would be a little resentful of such a party. These parties seem less about celebrating life than about celebrating gender normative expectations of an unborn child.

  6. Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure how I feel about this party trend for one main reason: It’s none of my damn business how private citizens choose to celebrate the birth of their baby.

    And for me, that’s the bottom line. We can critique it, look at it through a feminist lens, etc, write about it, blog about it, what have you. But really, it’s not our right to decide for couples that it’s right or wrong to do this.

    There will probably be a lot of disagreement on that, but that’s how I feel, because I sure as hell don’t want someone dictating how I should conduct myself in my private life.

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Hmm, well, surely we can judge the rightness of other people’s actions and communicate our reasoning without necessarily asserting a right to interfere? Although it is not our right to say to couples “you must not”, isn’t it within our right to say “I wish you wouldn’t”?

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      We can critique it, look at it through a feminist lens, etc, write about it, blog about it, what have you.

      That is exactly what we are doing.

      But really, it’s not our right to decide for couples that it’s right or wrong to do this.

      That is exactly not what we are doing. Since we do not live in a “Feminazi” dictatorship, this discussion is unlikely to have any affect on people’s 1st amendment rights. No one is “dictating” anything. We are well within our rights to express disagreement with practices that have the potential to be socially problematic and harmful to individuals. Isn’t that what feminism is all about?

  7. Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like it. It’s just another way to polarize the population based on gender. Aren’t there enough blue and pink baby items already? Now blue and pink frosting. Why don’t we just paint a penis or vagina on the cake, because that’s what this is really about. It’s gross.

  8. Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see how celebrating (presumed to be gender-normative) FAAB babies as much as MAAB ones is “radical”. Sure, it’s nice, but it’s essentially the bare minimum in feminist parenting. You stated that this could be “radical”, and that’s going a bit too far. Nothing can be radical that doesn’t exhaustively examine and overturn myths of gender, which I see no evidence of here. No doubt a progressive person could hold one of these and do it in a jokier, subversive way, but I doubt that would ever become the norm.

  9. Posted April 27, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    I agree, Candice! In feminist politics “radical” isn’t just an adjective, it refers to feminist ideas that seek to actually change the entire system of gender-based oppression which is in contrast to “reformist” feminism which is concerned with making reforms so certain people gain more privileges but patriarchy stays basically intact. See bell hooks on this one. According to this, there is no way gender reveal parties “might be” radical.

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