Great topic, good analysis, interesting discussion of the relationship between gender and sex (and their interconnectedness), and good summary of evolving research about our culture's understanding of these categories. You also do a good job breaking down the emerging and ongoing relationship between technology and ritual. Nice work indeed! — Dr. Matthew Tiessen
The gender reveal party, in which soon-to-be parents along with their guests, learn the biological sex of their child has become a commonplace social media spectacle unique to this moment in history. Though pregnancy has long been ritualized, only today's hyper-mediated digital landscape could allow these events to go viral, perpetuating stereotypes in their wake. Gender reveal parties raise a number of communications issues, which this essay will explore. It first examines gender coding, ritual, and gender construction, before interrogating how gender reveal parties relate to transgender identity, and commodification of the gender binary. While gender reveal parties seem like innocent fun, in fact, these events have potentially harmful implications for the child they purport to celebrate.
A gender reveal party is an overt attempt to slot a developing fetus into a gendered classification system. Billed as a celebration in which expectant parents reveal the "gender" of their gestating fetus, it is an event that appropriates both medical and internet communication technologies (ICTs) (Pasche Guignard, 2015). Here, ultrasounds, the most common medical technology used to surmise a fetus' sex (Pasche Guignard, 2015) collide with an era of unprecedented personal disclosure via social media to transform the most intimate parts of pregnancy into consumable public knowledge (Gieseler, 2017). Pasche Guinard (2015) notes that the expectant parents who perform these parties "have been proficient users of digital technologies and the mediated forms of communication they allow" for almost their entire lives (p. 482). As such, media are an essential component of the performance and dissemination of gender reveals (Pasche Guinard, 2015) as diffuse usage of ICTs has allowed audience size to increase exponentially from the people who were invited to a party to extended social media networks (Nahata, 2017, p. 1), potentially even achieving virality or coverage in the press. What are the consequences when so much of an individual's identity has been constructed, performed, and disseminated online before they are able to control their own representation?
Assigning certain traits to males or females is generally harmful, but it is particularly limiting to do so at such early stages of life. Stiltanen & Doucet (2008) point out that gender coding begins even before conception, and as children grow, it shapes their inclinations and abilities in potentially limiting ways. Similarly, Nahata (2017) questions if by celebrating the "fact" of gender months before the birth parents pose a risk to themselves and their child in committing to stereotypes that could prove harmful. Identities are built, not only through language, but by combining language with other "stuff" that isn't language" (Gee, 2010, p. 28). Buying pink or blue clothes, decorating, and selecting a name are some of the gender-based actions that begin to assert an identity onto an unborn child. As Gee (2010) notes, "language, actions, interactions, ways of thinking" along with " symbols, tools, and objects" are combined to achieve a "socially recognizable identity" (p. 29). A common way to reveal the "gender" at a gender reveal party is by cutting into a cake that hides a blue or pink interior (Pasche Guignard, 2015). In this way, the gender reveal party and its accoutrements are tools in expectant parents' efforts to construct an identity for their child that both they and the world can relate to. Gieseler (2019) posits that knowing "that the child will grow into a set of constructions and performances that define and redefine gendered identity" likely influences the need to gender the fetus (Gieseler, 2019, p. 669). Unfortunately, gender reveal parties extend the ability to apply potentially limiting assumptions from a tight family group to a much wider circle.
Despite their negatives, on many levels, gender reveal parties do fulfill the human need for ritual. Pasche Guignard (2015) argues that preparing for, performing, and disseminating a gender reveal party constitutes ritual behaviour. For Pasche Guignard (2015), the gender reveal party continues in the ritualistic traditions of the baby shower and pregnancy announcements, both of which emphasize gender, as well as the trend toward "disclosing an increasingly precise and growing amount of data about one's pregnancy" to unknown numbers of people online (p. 483), which in itself is a ritual. Finally, when images and videos of these parties are shared online they become "ritual scripts for anyone to replicate" and comments left thereon by both attendees and those who did not directly take part in the ritual are another form of ritual (Pasche Guignard, 2015, p. 483). Though rituals are important, as a society, it is important to interrogate the forms we allow them to take.
Beneath the gender reveal party lies a dangerous misunderstanding about how gender is constructed. Over the last decade, gender issues have gained increasing prominence in pediatric medicine and the press (Nahata, 2017, p. 1). In medicine, for example, the terms "sex" and "gender" are now understood to be distinct (Nahata, 2017, p. 2). When a child is born, factors including appearance of genitalia, assumptions about future sexual function, fertility potential, and predictions of adult gender identity are considered in order to assign a gender (Nahata, 2017, p. 2). The term "gender reveal party," therefore, is inherently problematic. In fact, what is revealed at the event is "the sex ascribed to the shape of a fetus' genitalia" (Pasche Guinard, 2015, p. 481). Gender, on the other hand, is both socially constructed and fluid (Stiltanen & Doucet, 2008). Specifically, it is constructed and performed via "discursive strategies and the manipulation of specific objects" (Pasche Guinard, 2015, p. 481). Stiltanen & Doucet (2008) contend that any individual gender identification ought to be considered potentially temporary as that identification is subject to change over the course of a lifetime (p. 46). Indeed, sex assignment is sometimes questioned or even reversed, leading to great stress (Nahata, 2017). The gender reveal party is a compelling example of how the terms "sex" and "gender" can be understood differently by a scholarly audience and the performers of the celebration who, as Pasche Guinard comments, "have no methodological issues at stake in substituting 'sex' with 'gender'" (Pasche Guinard, 2015, p. 481). To locate a culprit in the perpetuation of confusion about gender construction, we need look no further than gender reveal parties.
It follows that such confusion has severe negative implications for transgender individuals. Gender reveal parties have risen "with and against our modern fragmentation of identity [and] narratives of gender fluidity" (Gieseler, 2018, p. 665). Ambiguity challenges the human need to categorize and identify (Gieseler, 2018). Constraining a child to a gender that is incongruent with their own perception of themselves, however, can result in gender dysphoria (Nahata, 2017). Moreover, communication that occurs within families forms the bedrock of communication skills development, and has implications on an individual's "quality of relationships inside and outside the family" (Norwood & Lannutti, 2015, p. 51). Gieseler (2017) suggests that those who are "unsettled by an era more accepting of gender fluidity become motivated to mark their unborn children's sex" (p. 663). This is supported by Norwood & Lannutti (2015) who found that participants in their study would find a family member who came out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual to be easier to accept than if a transgender identity were disclosed (p. 59). Gieseler (2018) posits that gender reveal parties "grant an illusory sense of security and stability" (p. 665) in the face of these issues. Clutching to outdated notions of gender by throwing a gender reveal party may eventually undermine a family's ability to accept a transition later on.
Finally, gender reveal parties are celebrations that best serve the capitalist commodification of the gender binary. Pink has not always been associated with women and girls but, rather, only became popular for Western women in 1952 when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower wore a pink gown to her husband's inaugural ball (Lupton, 2017). Since then, market segmentation into "boy" and "girl" categories has grown year over year, particularly since the 1980s (Dempsey, 2017). Researcher Elizabeth Sweet analyzed thousands of 20th century advertisements to determine how gendered marketing has mutated over time and found that despite strides toward gender equality, toys are more divided by gender today than at any point in history (Dempsey, 2017). The commodification of the gender binary is reasserted by pregnancy culture (Gieseler, 2018). As evidence, Gieseler (2018) points to the proliferation of search results relating to hosting such parties across YouTube, Google, and Pinterest since the first video of a gender reveal party was published on YouTube in 2008. Initially, the sharing mechanisms of social media spread the idea for gender reveal parties, ultimately giving the trend sufficient momentum to gain advertising capital and incite "competitive consumerism" (Gieseler, 2018, p. 666). Gender reveal parties suggest that we are both moving backwards on equality and continue to be gripped by capitalist consumer culture.
Though at first blush the gender reveal party seems innocuous enough, they have wide-ranging repercussions for the unborn child and its family. We must therefore pause to consider if we want our children to believe they can be anything they want when they grow up, whether celebrating biological sex with a surprise display of gender coded colour is truly harmless. With social media always in the shadows waiting to exacerbate any missteps, it is even more important to interrogate our relationship with these events.
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