Binaries, Boots, and Bows

Gender reveal parties have been an economic boon to stationary companies and party supply stores nationwide; a search for “gender reveal” on Etsy yields 46,711 results. But when you look at them through objective eyes, you can see that there is a whole lot of toxicity bundled up in cute little pink or blue packages, ready to be absorbed by the masses. Gender reveal parties are a divisive issue parents choose to tackle long before they even know their child. Some say they are harmless. Others, like Dr. Leena Nahata of Ohio State University believe they are covertly insidious. “By celebrating this single ‘fact’ several months before an infant’s birth, are we risking committing ourselves and others to a particular vision and a set of stereotypes that are actually potentially harmful?” she asks. After extensive work with transgender children and their parents, she noted that it seems that we as a culture are unsure of how exactly to identify a child as a whole if we are unable to identify their gender. As our knowledge of pediatric healthcare advances, we must reexamine our understanding of gender as a hard-and-fast binary. Presently, there is a false dichotomy of male or female, masculine or feminine. Destructive erasure of intersex people, this stigmatizes nonbinary identities. Cordelia Fine explores whether sex and gender are truly at their core a neurological phenomenon as well as genital in her book Testosterone Rex. If it is not, perhaps the sex divides served more of a purpose for our evolutionary predecessors but as significantly more advanced creatures, sex hormones and male and female brains are thought to continue indissoluble distinctions, making for deep-rooted inequalities in modern society.

Diane Stopyra wrote for Marie Claire, “My discomfort with the gender-reveal party goes beyond my standard objection to fanfare surrounding gestational markers—which is primarily that, because we don’t celebrate non-pregnancy-related milestones with the same enthusiasm, we’re reinforcing the archaic notion that a woman’s value rests squarely in her ability to grow tiny humans.” We have to examine why and how precisely these parties may effect the child and our attitudes regarding this tiny human.

First of all, gender-reveal parties don’t actually reveal gender—they reveal anatomy. Gender is a wholly different thing, inextricably tied to the social constructs around it. (Fun fact: Blue used to be the color most associated with little girls, due to its association with the Virgin Mary. But Hitler feminized the color pink by forcing LGBTQ folks, especially gay men, to wear pink triangles. More on the homophobia tied to toxic masculinity in another post.) A gender reveal conflates the two.

“Projecting gender perceptions onto a fetus becomes especially thorny when you take into consideration that, globally, one in every 1000 to 1500 children is born with a visible form of Difference of Sex Development (DSD), which means being neither entirely male nor female, since the chromosomal/genital makeup falls somewhere in between—an enlarged clitoris capable of erections, for instance. (Broader definitions of DSD put this number closer to 1 in 100 children.) Then there are the millions of kids assigned a sex at birth with which they don’t align: 150,000 American teenagers identify as transgender. In a ritual that celebrates only a binary way of thinking about identity, we’re leaving a cross-section of the population out, adding to a culture of trans and intersex shame. And for what? Confetti poppers?”

We must ask ourselves what exactly it is for which we are planning as new parents. Nurseries are painstakingly planned by specific colors, books, toys, clothing, interests, and themes. This is further exemplified by a simple Google search on gender reveal cakes. Quickly the screen is flooded by binaries such as baseballs or bows, rifles or ruffles, and tractors or tiaras. The implication is heavy—we expect either pretty, calm and quiet little girls or bouncing, hyperactive boys who engage in allegedly loveable and harmless aggression like wrestling with peers. Children and even babies are forced into fixed and definitive boxes. Parents are often gravely disappointed if their child pushes the confines of these proverbial pink or blue straight jackets and are at a loss of how to interact with and guide their supposedly-atypical child.

Surely some people are rolling their eyes right now, thinking that gender reveals are no big deal and political correctitude is the opioid of the masses. Consider this, at the very least: These parties are a little, well, narcissistic. They stand, as one journalist put it, “at the intersection of All About Me Avenue and Oversharing Boulevard.”

“I’m glad people are having children and celebrating that, because the birth rate is dropping in America,” says W. Keith Campbell, PhD, nationally recognized expert on narcissism and head of the department of psychology at University of Georgia. “And there is something to be said for the communal aspect of sharing something meaningful with friends, which I don’t want to downplay. But there’s self-celebration taking place here as well. We can link this to narcissism and individualism.” This is not saying that everyone who’s ever hosted a gender-reveal party is a raging egomaniac. The trend may have started out that way, however, Campbell says. And thanks to social media, future moms and dads increasingly feel social pressure to participate and outdo their peers (see: skydiving gender-reveals) or risk coming across as subpar parents before their child is even born. The problem is compounded for low-income families who cannot afford the price tag attached to these events (the specialty cakes, for one, can run as much as $1,000).

All of that being said, making guesses about anatomy with levity and contrived games where you have to pretend you’re fine with someone putting a diaper full of melted chocolate in front of you is doing little to assuage a new mom’s fears about motherhood, nor is it sending a great message to any of the kids who happen to be in attendance. We’d be better off showing the little girls in attendance that changing the world is every bit as much a female prerogative as Tinkle in the Pot and balloon shuffling games and tutu’d onesies. The only way we are truly able to do so is by celebrating the who, not the what, of the coming child.

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