I Will Attend Your Gender Reveal Party, but Please Forgive Me If I Groan
Celebrating genitalia never felt so superficial.
There’s definitely a difference between judging an event that you’re not a part of, versus actually being present at that event.
I feel that’s important to say, because I have attended my fair share of gender reveal parties, and while I was there, I took part in the festivities and enjoyed the feelings that communal sharing and connection—ahem—engender (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself).
That being said, it’s been awhile since I have attended one of these little genital-celebration parties, and having some space away from the glittery, exploding blue and pink balloons and the surprise cake-fillings and rocket launches has given me time to reflect on the value and meaning of these events.
As I continue to watch my friends, acquaintances, and even strangers on the internet carry out the tradition of celebrating their child-to-be’s private parts, I wonder how much of this tradition is harmless, and how much of it is harmful and perpetuates some of the challenges that people of all ages face in society today.
A reason to celebrate.
We’re all looking for a reason to celebrate—especially in the wake of quarantine isolation and social distancing. But let’s be honest—even pre COVID-19, people were looking for reasons to celebrate—and why the hell shouldn’t they?
Gathering a group of beloved people together and mingling positive energies over a collective event is arguably one of the most precious aspects of human life. The feelings of warmth and connection that a social gathering generates are invaluable to our instinctive need for community, togetherness, and communication.
I applaud celebrations, and I applaud the individuals who make a point of organizing opportunities to celebrate. As an introvert, I occasionally feel overwhelmed by the capacity of some individuals to find opportunities to gather, but I get it—because it feels so damn good to commune with those that we love.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that those of us experiencing pregnancy should want to celebrate every possible aspect of our unborn children. If, as a society, we eagerly look for any reason to celebrate and gather, then celebrating a child’s reproductive organs is as good a reason as any, right?
Well, maybe not so much.
Arguably the most obvious aspect of a gender reveal party is the self-indulgent nature of it.
Now, your mind may rush to any number of self-indulgent aspects surrounding this sort of superficial celebration (remember when California burned for weeks because of a wayward gender-reveal rocket?), but I’m thinking of one victim in particular who (ironically) often goes unnoticed in all of the hubbub—the unborn.
What exactly is being celebrated at a gender reveal party? What is the specific focus of the party?
The unborn’s private parts.
Now, interestingly, the unborn’s private parts are of no consequence to the unborn themself. If healthfully developed, they will function with equal efficiency, regardless of whether the individual is born with a vagina or a penis. In terms of reproduction, the unborn’s private parts won’t become relevant until they begin to experience puberty around 9–12 years old.
Additionally, there are many aspects to genital development that an ultrasound can’t screen, meaning that after the unborn becomes born, their gender identity isn’t biologically guaranteed—we have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, Persistant Mullerian Duct Syndrome, Turner’s Syndrome, and many other syndromes and developmental anomalies to thank for this.
Further, the unborn may at some point post-birth begin exhibiting signs of transgenderism, suggesting that all of that pre-birth genital celebration is rather pointless. Let’s face it — gender reveal parties are not for the unborn themselves — they’re for the intended caregivers.
Let’s face it — gender reveal parties are not for the unborn themselves — they’re for the intended caregivers.
I defer to my previous statement about celebration—I honor and appreciate any well-intentioned celebration—but I also appreciate a level of thoughtfulness, introspection, and alignment with one’s values when executing some kind of celebratory event. Because the unborn has given us no indication about their psychological or behavioral alignment with their genitalia (which is really their business, anyway), what exactly are we celebrating?
A whole lot of assumptions, hopes, and dreams—all the fantasies of the caregivers-to-be.
But that’s just to start.
Reinforcing social norms.
“Social norms” is not something you may typically hear without some kind of political mish-mash thrown in, but stick with me and we will glide through this next part without getting even the least bit political—I promise.
At a gender reveal, we’re not celebrating whether the unborn is going to pee standing up or sitting down (one of the few small differences that sex differences may create in their lives for the first decade or so). We’re celebrating whether they’re a girl or a boy—and everything that goes along with that, socially speaking.
If they’re going to be born with a vagina, we’re celebrating that their caregivers will get to dress them in pink, put them in flowy gowns, paint their nails, show them the Disney princesses, give them ballet and ice-skating lessons, and perhaps (in some instances) bear lots of grandchildren down the line. In its distilled essence, society associates (and celebrates) softness, gentleness, prettiness, precociousness, pinkness, and harmlessness with little girls.
If they’re going to be born with a penis, we’re celebrating nearly the exact opposite! Caregivers thrill in the knowledge that there will be toy cars, the color blue, sports, mischief, and intelligence and money-earning potential in their unborn’s future. For little boys, society associates (and celebrates) assertiveness, physicality, intelligence, blueness, and even a little aggression and violence—boys will be boys, after all.
Now, most caregivers-to-be don’t necessarily consciously think all this through before/during/after their gender reveal parties—this programming and these expectations run largely within our subconscious minds, where they lie insidiously and make an appearance only when someone begins to contradict or behave in opposition to the unspoken social norm.
Most caregivers-to-be don’t consider how slapping a stereotype on their child-to-be (before they’ve even gasped their first breath of air) could be harmful. I’ve heard caregivers-to-be say things like “the gender reveal just helped me to love my child more.” But let’s examine this statement—is it truly that which hangs (or doesn’t hang) between your child-to-be’s legs that gives you something to love?
Is it truly that which hangs (or doesn’t hang) between your child-to-be’s legs that gives you something to love?
No—not at all. It’s what you think their gender represents.
As a society, we have personified gender. We have given genders qualities that are neither guaranteed, nor realistic. There is no longer one gender which exclusively dominates sports, education, caretaking, child-rearing, science, technology, politics, or the arts. There is no longer one gender that can claim the qualities of “soft” or “hard,” “kind” or “cruel,” “good” or “evil.” The genders say nothing about an individual’s character, or lack thereof—so how is it possible that knowing the shape of an unborn’s genitalia could foster any kind of emotional connection, when it is completely arbitrary to their personality?
And yet, caregivers-to-be feel as if they are getting to know their child-to-be better by knowing their genitals, when in reality, all they are getting to know better are their own presuppositions of what gender is and isn’t. This brings up a stumbling block that continues to reappear everywhere in modern society—stereotyping. If someone feels that they can platonically connect more deeply to someone else based exclusively on their private parts, it isn’t a reflection of either individual—it’s a reflection of internalized stereotypes—ideas the individual has come to believe about another person bearing a certain gender.
We’ve come to believe our own gobbledygook that all females are one way, and all males are the other way (with a few exceptions, of course), and then our brains go to work providing confirmation bias to reinforce that which we’ve decided to believe. The result? A perpetuation of long-inaccurate stereotypes that just give the unborn another battle to fight against once they emerge from the womb—or, the weight of surrendering to those stereotypes in the hopes of being accepted and loved.
“There are so many things to worry about, Amanda—why pick on the innocent gender reveal party? So a few stereotypes are reinforced, whatever. I lived with them—your parents lived with them—and we made it out okay…”
And that’s where I smile.
The old “and we made it out okay” is an argument that is long overdue for a deep dive, but I’ll save that for another article. Suffice it to say, just because humanity has survived certain conditions (social and otherwise) doesn’t mean that they are optimal conditions and should continue to be reinforced.
We can always do better.
We can always become a little more considerate, a little more thoughtful, a little more loving, a little more intentional, and a little more values-aligned.
I don’t find gender reveal parties to be a deliberate assault on anyone’s well-being—in fact, they are often well-intentioned enough (and there’s food!). What I do find is that gender reveal parties are self-indulgent, non-substantive (typically fodder for social media), and are a reinforcement of old patterning around gender stereotypes—stereotypes which I have watched create physical and emotional violence in my own life, and the lives of those I love, for as long as I’ve been around to notice.
There is an effect for every cause, and a consequence for every action—whether or not those causes and actions feel “harmless”—so it is my hope that introspective individuals will take these thoughts and reflect upon why we spend money and time celebrating the genitals of the unborn. For the same reason I haven’t abandoned attending these parties, I hope it’s a reflection that can be allowed its fair share of nuance—simply labeling these parties as “bad,” “problematic,” and “harmful” and then cutting them out completely isn’t the answer, either.
Instead, what if we could root out the origin of society’s obsession with empty celebrations, pink ponies and blue toy cars, and forecasting the future of our unborn? What if we could become a little more mindful about why we feel a moment is only memorable if it’s splattered all over social media, or if other warm bodies are present to share it?
There’s much grey area to be pondered here, but my hope for today’s share is this—the next time that you find yourself swirling a pink or blue noisemaker at a gender reveal party, you lean over and whisper to the person next to you: “as long as this baby is born healthy and grows up to be joyful, that’s all that matters to me.”