What is a gender reveal party and why is it all over my Instagram?
Expectant parents, eager to share their child’s gender, are crafting increasingly elaborate Pinterest-themed parties to launch their unborn offspring’s gender. Before Instagram, many parents simply shared the sonogram with a caption “It’s a boy!” on Facebook. Now, couples have upped the ante, hosting parties with guessing games revolving around a popped balloon with blue or pink confetti emerging from its prophetic depths. There are mascots that strip to a blue or pink suit underneath. Or a cake sliced to reveal, you guess it, pink or blue filling.
But what’s wrong with parents celebrating the arrival of a child?
There’s a growing amount of criticism centered on gender reveal parties and its dark implications. In a Reuters story, Dr. Leena Nahata, a professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, asks “Are these traditions truly harmless?”
“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?” Nahata is interested in the need to assign a binary identity even before the child’s birth and the ramifications on the offspring’s upbringing.
She asks: “Why do we focus on gender as early as pregnancy, and if it’s planning, what are we planning? Is it so important to know and celebrate this one aspect of a child? What expectations do we hold for our child just based on gender? How does that shape our expectations of our children?”
Many progressive parents are now wrestling with the understanding that gender is fluid and assigning these tropes at birth stifles their child’s development.
Sarah Meier, in her gender reveal post on IG, posed with a rainbow-colored bagel opened to reveal rainbow-colored sprinkles. “Jon and I wanted to use what would have been our baby’s ‘gender reveal’ as an opportunity to remind folks that:
1. Gender identity is a spectrum
2. Not all of our children identify with the bodies they were born into, and;
3. Education and exposure to gender diversity are imperative in our quest for universal equality and empathy.
“As Pride Month approaches, our wish is that every single human who has been made to feel like they need to fit into a historically socially-acceptable box is liberated from that, and treated with dignity, love, and respect.”
In the wake of school shootings in the US, Michael Ian Black opined that “Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.”
This is how gender is structured: it defines a set of limits and qualities for a boy or a girl. Blue or pink. Feminine or masculine. Soft or hard. “Boys don’t cry.” “You run like a girl.”
And gender reveal parties are the apotheosis of this binary subset, setting a heteronormative identity before the child is able to make those decisions for him/her/them-self.
“But it’s just a party, for crying out loud,” you say. “What’s the big deal? Can’t parents celebrate the impending arrival of their offspring?!”
Sure! Of course, you can. Have a baby shower! Arrange an “OMG, We Can Finally Afford To Have a Child” party. Throw a “My Husband’s Sperm Officially Works” shindig. Do an “Our Baby is Healthy, Hallelujah!” celebration.
The point is not that you don’t celebrate your offspring—simply that you don’t impose a gender identity before birth.
Marie Claire’s Diane Stopyra observes that this is also damaging for children who may come to recognize a different gender identity from what they were assigned at birth.
Katie Baratz Dalke, MD, tells Stopyra, “By collapsing gender expression, gender identity, and sex, you’re doing everyone a disservice, because no one buys into the whole package all the time.”
“You’re especially doing a disservice to those who are intersex or transgender, who must spend their lives explaining it,” says Dalke. “It’s frustrating that this is now a commercialized ritual, when it can be so alienating.”
Carly Gieseler, PhD, an assistant professor at The City University of New York, who wrote the report “Gender-Reveal Parties: Performing Community Identity in Pink and Blue,” in the Journal for Gender Studies, points out the coded inheritance assigned to children before birth: “It allows adults to recuperate what they have learned from their own gendered constructions, re-inscribing expectations and assumptions onto the unwritten body of the unborn and propelling these ideals into the digital, social, public world.”
In order to understand why these parties are problematic, we must first understand why these gender tropes are confining. And why we are so invested in passing them on.
But in the meantime, maybe put a hold on that gender reveal party.