“Are you having a boy or a girl?” is likely the first question that people ask pregnant women who announce or confirm that they are expecting. Just as weddings can be both resource-intensive and gender normative events, pregnancy, in particular through the recent phenomenon of “gender reveal” parties, is becoming yet another life event re-appropriated to serve the whims of the market and the binary gender system. It is worth noting the gendering of infants is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Typically, gender reveal parties typically occur around the 20th week of gestation, where couples (typically white, middle-class, hetero, cis) ask the ultrasound technician to write down the sex of the fetus on a piece of paper and seal it in an envelope that they deliver to a baker or a photographer in anticipation of a party or a photo-shoot. A baker might craft a cake containing pink or blue frosting that the couple will cut into at the event (one critic described it as a stand-in for the uterus) , or a photographer might stage a box of pink or blue balloons that the couple will open during the photo shoot.
Surprise! You’ve gendered something that eats through its belly button.
In a capitalist hetero-patriarchy, the gender-reveal operates under the assumption that knowing the sex of the baby simplifies the shopping process, since friends and family will know the “right” colour to buy and parents will know the “correct” way to decorate. Heaven forbid someone buys the boy a pink and frilly dress!
As feminists we should be highly suspect of this tradition for a number of reasons. Gender revealing serves as just another way to make money off the bellies of women and reinforces pregnancy as a hyperfeminized and infantilized, Stepford Wife-esque event, with the aesthetic of the party resembling more a child’s birthday party than a shower.
But more troubling are the ways in which gender-revealing naturalizes the popular conflation of physical sex and gender by assigning gendered identities to genitals in utero. This pre-natal celebration of cisgenderism reminds us that only certain bodies with “matching” sex identities are valued.
Rainbow Health Ontario estimates that in Canada, one intersex child is born every two days, while in the US, there are five. The Transgender Day of Remembrance every November 20th is also a reminder of the effects of gender policing, with an global estimate of 267 reported cases of murdered trans* peoples in 2012 alone. These figures, along with the stories and experiences of fabulous gender outlaws trying to navigate an oppressive binary gender system, should be enough to suggest that that we need more gender-neutrality and not less.
We should also ask important questions about the benefits of ultrasounds for maternal and fetal health. Sonograms themselves, according to Linda Layne (2006), offer little medical utility. While they demonstrate that the baby is “normal”, they do little to help women if in fact their baby does not turn out to be so (133)1. Sonograms are also typically considered to increase the emotional attachment between a woman and her fetus and activate a “maternal instinct” that is essentialist by design.
This sentimentalization of the fetal image also performs an ideological function attractive to the forced-birth contingent. Borrowing from Judith Butler 2, the sonogram helps the fetus become a person when the technician declares “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”, while images of the fetus adorn the posters of those trying to save what have been rebranded as the “pre-born”.
This hyperhumanization of the fetus occurs at the same point in the pregnancy that represents a difficult time for some pregnant women. At the 20th week, pre-natal tests such as anomaly scans and amniocentesis can reveal that the fetus may have a severe impairment or that its birth will endanger the life of the woman, forcing some to consider late-term abortions, something else that conservatives would love to make illegal.
Curiously, conservative political groups rally around the fetus because it is neatly contained and requires no economic support from the state – as soon as the fetus is born and becomes a child, however, they often devote less attention on how to sustain that life. Have you paid for daycare lately? So while using a sonogram to plan a gender-reveal party simplifies choice for some, the subsequent humanization of a fetus through gender reduces choice for many others.
There aren’t easy answers to this problem of gender-revealing except for us to try and be more gender-neutral in our encounters. We should try and use gender-neutral language when addressing children and if we give them gifts, try and choose items that are gender-neutral or even challenge gender norms (there are many wonderful children’s books available).
We should call out companies that cash in on excessively gendered products and talk to kids about gender identity, providing safe spaces for them to articulate themselves. It is also important to intervene in social situations and conversations when adults and children attempt to police the genders of those around them. We cannot simply end these systems by saying so, but we can form resistant communities that challenge this gender power and mobilize future generations to do the same.
1 Layne, L. (2006). “Unintended Consequences of New Reproductive and Information Technologies on the Experience of Pregnancy Loss” In Women, Gender and Technology. Sue Rosser, Mary Frank Fox and Deborah Johnson eds. Pp. 122-156. University of Illinois Press.
2 Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, Routledge.