by: karly van puymbroeck, editor
Apparently, gender reveal parties are quickly overtaking the baby shower market as the parties to throw by parents-to-be. At these parties, the gender of a baby is revealed to the parents and the guests. This is usually done by way of giving a sealed envelope with a sonogram inside to a bakery, which then bakes cupcakes or a cake filled with either blue or pink icing inside. After the parents and guests at the party have voted or bet on the possible gender of the baby, the parents slice open the cake in front of everyone, and –voila — gender revealed.
Gender reveal parties struck me as an odd way to announce the sex of a baby. When I look at the parties from an academic feminist stance, I am struck (yet again) with our culture’s common mistake of seeing the biological sex of a person as their inherent gender. Indeed, our culture has long since adopted the phrase “It’s a boy/girl” to describe the sex of a baby – but to go as far as actually appropriating gender as an interchangeable biological sex term is, well, wrong. The sex of a baby is not the gender of the baby: so why the explicit push for assuming that gender pronouns can take the place of sex pronouns?
Our culture’s seemingly indifference between sex and gender has long been a focus of feminist advocates. Gender itself is born out of the false biological essentialist view that the biological sex of a person (male or female) inherently creates one of two distinct genders: man or woman. The dichotomous categories of “boy/girl” or “man/woman” dictate what feminists see as “gender roles”, where each gender assumes certain characteristics (usually what we see as “masculine” or “feminine”). The problem with a biological essentialist point of view is that it ties culturally driven gender characteristics to biological sex, thus attempting to disguise any socialization process (or social construction, as feminists see it) that has worked for centuries to create a distinct power imbalance between males and females. Thus, gender itself becomes misconceived as biological sex – a problem that is at the root of sex inequality.
I see gender reveal parties as a product of a patriarchal culture that is obsessed with eliciting and maintaining sex inequality. Assigning a socially constructed category to a nonexistent human being (in Canadian law) seems to me to be a way of reproducing a cultural script that dictates how males and females will live their lives before their lives have even come into existence. As Judith Butler argues, this script is historical: men and women have been performing a gender script for centuries. If parents-to-be are assigning a culturally produced script to their babies (which is a faulty script to begin with), they are buying into a problematic sex-gender system that is in place in order to uphold patriarchal power structures. By attaching a traditional gender to their unborn baby, parents-to-be are helping perpetuate a social system that historically and presently places men above women.
Why this cultural push to reveal “gender” before the child is born? The only reason I can think of is the dominant class’ need to establish traditional power structures, to stabilize our long-standing sex-gender system. The news is littered now with stories of parents opting for gender neutrality for their children, stories of transgender beauty queens, and with issues surrounding LGBTIQ rights. Challenging the sex-gender system is all around us: indeed, it is becoming a part of pop culture. As always, the fear of resistance and fear of change spurs long-standing power structures to assert their power. However, as a feminist in a developed, Western country, I know that asserting power doesn’t necessarily come in the form of violence or direct intervention. It comes in a subversive form, a more subconscious littering of images and messages supporting traditional gender roles. And as Butler says, gender always conceals its roots; well, gender reveal parties have yet to fool me.
editor’s note: karly is a fourth year women’s studies and english double major. she is a teaching assistant who is an hbo fanatic.