Are gender reveal parties a new way of imposing binary sex/gender norms?
I am not a parent and so I generally try not to comment on parenting type things, but I can no longer keep silent: so-called “gender reveal parties” are terrible and should cease to exist.
They are nothing more than an exercise in oversharing that at best perpetuate offensively out-of-date notions of sex and gender and at worst are outright transphobic.
Gender (or more accurately, sex) reveal parties can take many forms but generally follow the same pattern: parent(s) have a medical professional secretly write down the sex of the fetus.
That information is then given to a baker who creates a cake iced with a neutral colour. The parent(s) throw a party and cut into the cake, revealing either a blue or pink interior. Cake is probably the most common vehicle for the reveal, but a quick internet search shows others using balloons, exploding baseballs, or colour changing drinks.
These parties came about as a response to burgeoning technology. Previously, a fetus’ sex was determined via ultrasound around the 20-week gestation mark and used the highly-scientific method of looking for a penis.
Now, fetal DNA testing can be done with a simple blood draw and can give a rough guess of sex as early as 10 weeks gestation.
So what’s the big deal?
I reached out to Catherine Clune-Taylor, former Edmontonian and current PhD Postdoctoral Research Associate in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University, for her thoughts.
“Gender-reveal parties are just a new way of imposing binary sex and gender norms on humans (though one that happens to feature cake). They problematically reinforce the notion that physical sex and gender are naturally binary, and that sex produces gender. In reality, humans exhibit a wide range of variation in both physical sex and gender, and the relationship between the two is quite complex, such that a particular sexed body doesn’t necessarily lead to a particular gender.”
Let’s break this down a bit. First of all, a quick review about the difference between sex and gender: “sex” is rooted in biology; it is the combination of primary/secondary sex characteristics, hormones, and chromosomes. Gender, on the other hand, is frequently thought of as our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and covers everything from how we dress to how we talk. Although sex and gender are often presented as binary (male and female) and the same thing (i.e. people with penises and XY chromosomes like sports and beer), neither of these things are actually true.
While I am sure somewhere someone’s drunk uncle is shouting about “nature only made two sexes,” keep in mind that an estimated four percent of newborns are intersex. Additionally, there are 14 different sex chromosome disorders which blur the lines between the simple dichotomy of, “XX is female and XY is male.”
So, this is why the idea of these parties frustrates me so much. Even supposing you could get a very accurate sense of a fetus’ sex, it still tells you nothing about the human that is about to be born. Rather, it creates an assumption of who that new person will be, one that might haunt them for years to come. I’ve heard people defend these parties because they want to “get ready” for the new baby.
Ready for what? There are no guarantees that a child is going to like Barbie dolls, even if they are cisgender. Why not a gender reveal party when the child is old enough to say, “this is who I am” rather than being told before they are even born, “this is who you will be?”