Gender-Reveal Parties and Cultural Despair
I’m typically a year or two behind any cultural trend, so you probably already know about gender-reveal parties. I first heard of them over the weekend: a couple, strangers to me, had invited friends and relatives over to bite into cupcakes at the same instant and share the moment when the blue or pink custard inside would inform them all of the sex of the baby. (The sonogram result had gone from lab to baker without being seen by anyone else, including the parents-to-be.) Other couples choose different methods of revelation: grip the knife together and cut into a cake with blue or pink filling. Open a sealed box that releases pink or blue helium balloons. Then put the scene on the Web so that everyone not invited can participate vicariously.
These events are becoming more and more popular. The first video of a gender-reveal party was posted on YouTube in 2008, but in just the last six months almost two thousand have been uploaded. You can watch one from last month. (Spoiler alert: it’s a girl.)
Maybe it was the context—I happened to hear about the gender-reveal party in a rundown inner-city café full of ex-felons who were having a very hard time finding jobs—but my initial take was incredulity trending negative. These parties seem to marry the oversharing of Facebook and Instagram with the contrived ceremonies that modern people in search of meaning impose on normal life events: food journaling, birthday parties for grownups, workout diaries, birth-experience planning. (One birth-planning center offers a “baby gender selection kit” involving three safe and natural steps that turn sex itself into a gender-reveal party.)
In the case of gender-reveal parties, couples take a private moment made possible by science and oblige others to join in, with the result—as in so many invented rituals of our day—that the focus turns from where it ought to be (in this case, the baby) to the self. At a bris or christening, the emotional emphasis falls on the arrival of a new life in the embrace of family and community. At a gender-reveal party, the camera is on the expectant father tearing up at the sight of pink cake.
That’s the nature of manufactured customs and instant traditions. They emerge from an atomized society in order to fill a perceived void where real ceremonies used to be, and they end by reflecting that society’s narcissism. Is it too much to say that gender-reveal parties are a mild symptom of cultural despair? A society that turns exercise into a sixty-minute communion with the sacred, or the choice of food into the highest expression of personal virtue, has probably lost faith in real change—the kind of change, for example, that might allow the staggering number of ex-felons to rejoin it with a degree of dignity.