Oh baby! Gender Reveal Parties and Proleptic Personhood

Picture it: The ultrasound technician drapes a veil over the monitor to protect the screen from the wandering eyes of expectant parents. She applies a cool gel to the pregnant person’s stomach and switches on the machine to gain a glimpse at the fetus. After several minutes she smiles a private smile, takes out a sheet of paper, writes down a single word, and hands it to the parents in a sealed envelope. That envelope is swiftly delivered to a baker who makes a cake, pink or blue, covered in an opaque, sugary, perfectly white frosting. The next day the parents-to-be gather their friends and family together. At the perfect moment, after an adorable amuse-bouche, the group huddles around the cake. Their hands trembling, the parents reach for the cake trowel and pierce the frosting, revealing not only the color of the cake but simultaneously the gender of their child!

Gender-Reveal-Party-12

This, friends, is known as a gender reveal party. I never thought cake could be used as a gendered performative utterance, but there you go. If it’s not cake, it could be colored balloons, bonnets and boots, or greeting guests wearing fake beards or bows. A simple search on Pinterest for “gender reveal party” releases an avalanche of ideas that would leave Martha Stewart breathless.

Before you think I’m just a grinchy gay man, you should know that the only thing I love more than surprises is pageantry, and the only thing I love more than pageantry is babies. I live for theme parties, I LOVE the thought of beating a pinata until a secret comes flying out, and  I have personally jumped out of no fewer than three jumbo gift-wrapped boxes. 

Given this personal commitment to all things cheesy and over-the-top, why was my reaction to learning about gender reveal parties one of abject horror?

The very idea of a gender reveal party conflates assigned sex and gender identity, while at the same time reinforcing extremely traditional and tired gender stereotypes. The sex of a fetus tells you nothing about the child’s future gender identity. We all get assigned a sex a birth, for many people that sex lines up with their identity, but for others it does not. Generally speaking, I think it’s a good idea to keep gendered expectations at a minimum until the child can express a gender identity. I realize this is almost totally impossible, but it’s worth a shot.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t anticipate what the child will be like. Hilde Lindemann’s newest book Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identities contains a wonderful discussion of the narratives we use to welcome a fetus into our familial and social networks. She calls this a proleptic relationship, where we anticipate what the child will be like and how the child will fit into the family. By integrating the fetus into family narratives, the fetus moves from being just any baby to being our baby, and gains an identity that will hold the child in networks of care before becoming able to create a unique identity. We must do this as a way to welcome children into the world, but I think it is extremely important to be aware of the gendered nature of many of these narratives, and be flexible as the child grows and either confirms or changes the narratives we have constructed.

I love parties, gags, cakes, pinatas, and surprises. Maybe we can shift from gender identity to “sexual orientation reveal” parties (“Your fetus is gay!”). It would be just about as speculative, but at least it would open the door to much more interesting party decor.

 

9 Responses to “Oh baby! Gender Reveal Parties and Proleptic Personhood”

  1. Holder Lindemann

    I never thought of gender reveal parties as proleptic personhood! Well spotted. And yes to your suggestion of “sexual orientation” parties–just as silly and with baking a cake for.

    Reply
  2. Hilde Lindemann

    Oh dear. Autocorrect was in overdrive. I’m Hilde, not Holder, and I meant worth baking a cake for, not with.

    Reply
    • Tim R Johnston

      Thanks for your comment! I’m so happy you’ve stumbled on our blog! I’m currently writing a book MS that uses a lot of your work, so there will probably be more posts about holding, letting go, and narrative identity!

      Reply
  3. Serene

    Tim, do you have any thoughts about why this recently became a trend? I mean, we’ve been able test for sex for a long time, and parties are age -old (and as you note, awesome), so why now?

    Reply
    • Tim R Johnston

      I don’t know! I suspect it has to do with Pinterest, and our post-recession world where everyone is expected to become DIY mavens.

      Reply
      • Katie Day Good

        Great post, Tim. My hunch is that not only Pinterest and DIY mavenhood, but also the general spectacular culture of social media is contributing to the popularity of these parties. The pink and blue cupcake centers are facebook-ready visuals that are part of the new suite of signs parents can draw from to share information about birth and pregnancy on social media. They’re right up there with the staged DIY photos announcing the pregnancy (full disclosure: we did that) and the growing industry of tokens and clothing designed to showcase a baby’s growth through social media photos (check out these fabulously gendered month-by-month onesie necktie stickers: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/208924870187103711/)

        Reply
  4. Lauren

    Well written and think of the horror people must feel if they reveal a sex and then the baby is born with ambiguous genitalia. Also technically the parties should be called sex reveal parties as sex is chromosomally set but gender is really just a perceived vision of oneself.

    Reply
  5. sam

    While we’re speculating, let’s get real specific with it: “Your baby will at some point consider, but ultimately decide against, taking up knitting as a hobby!”, “Your baby will be a Mets fan, but won’t be that serious about it!”, etc.

    Reply

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