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Daniel L Carlson Ph.D.
Daniel L Carlson Ph.D.

What 'Gender Reveals' Really Reveal

Quick answer: It's not gender.

We’ve all seen them, or maybe even participated in one ourselves. A cardboard cake is setup, the top is lifted, and a pink or blue balloon floats to the sky. A woman throws a baseball at her partner holding a bat. He swings, and pink or blue dust explodes into the air as the ball is struck. A couple pulls out confetti poppers, they pull the strings, and pink or blue confetti shoots out into the crowd who has been gathered for the occasion.

Gender reveals and gender reveal parties are everywhere. On the surface, they are designed to convey to family and friends whether soon-to-be-parents are having a boy or a girl. Underneath, however, they reveal much more about ourselves and our culture than perhaps we are aware or care to admit.

Revelation 1: Most People Have No Idea What Gender Is

The most important thing about gender reveals is that they are actually not about gender. Parents are revealing the sex of their fetus not its gender. Sex is the biological (i.e., sex organs) and hormonal characteristics that distinguish women and men. Gender is the social, behavioral, and psychological characteristics that we use to distinguish the sexes. By definition, parents have no idea what the gender of their child will be since they have yet to interact with the child. Gender is used to indicate sex, but it is distinct from it. Therefore women may wear skirts, go shopping at the outlet stores, be employed as nurses, and be empathetic of others, but these features are not inherently linked to sex. Additionally, men may wear their hair short, play football, work construction, and suppress emotion, but this has little to do with their biological makeup. Rather, they are culturally determined indicators of sex. That is not to say that there are no biologically determined behavioral or psychological sex differences. These are well documented and include differences in aggression, affect recognition, toy preference in children, etc. Nevertheless, they are minor and much of what constitutes gender has nothing to do with biological sex differences and is instead the product of social learning. Indeed, even the colors pink and blue which we so strongly associate with girls and boys, are cultural fabrications that have shifted over time.

If gender reveals were truly about gender, then what they would indicate isn’t whether the baby to be is a boy or girl, but rather how the parents of the child intend to treat the child based on their sex. That is, parents would be announcing what behaviors, preferences, and personality traits they plan to instill in their child because of the child’s sex. This of course isn’t what the gender reveal is about, but in fact it kind of is since gender is seen as a natural outgrowth of biological sex.

The problem with conflating gender with biological sex is that these two things are not inherently linked and some individuals grow to identify with a gender that may be different from their sex. Indeed, if people cannot accurately distinguish between sex and gender then how will it ever be possible to accept people who are gender non-conforming or transgender? By imposing a gender identity on infants before birth, parents run the risk of psychological trauma to children who do not identify with their imposed identity as well as risk of family conflict and contention over the parents’ preferred identity for their child and the child’s own identity preference.

Not only do some people identify with a gender that is not associated with their biological sex, but our gender binary (we have cultural categories for only two genders) is complicated by the fact that a non-trivial number of individuals are born with both male and female sex organs. This leads to pressures to assign children to one sex or the other at birth, which may lead to gender identity issues in later life. Recently, Canada announced that they will include a third “non-binary” gender category on their Census forms to reflect the fact that some people do not exclusively identify as either male or female.

Revelation 2: We Have an Unhealthy Obsession with Gender

Aside from what gender reveals actually reveal, a more fundamental question is why do couples feel the need to broadcast whether they are having a boy or girl in the first place? Why is this such momentous news that it requires an elaborate unveiling? Why do people besides the parents even care? The answer is that biological sex and gender structure our lives and provide necessary information used to determine a child’s place in the culture and community. Our biological sex determines everything from the mundane (e.g., adjectives to describe babies–pretty vs. handsome) to the significant (e.g., whose opinions are privileged in conversation). We use the information about one’s sex to determine how we interact with them, what roles they can hold, what behaviors to encourage or discourage, and much more. Of course, we cannot see one’s sex when one is wearing clothing so gender is the proxy that stands in, providing cues that enable us to engage socially with a person. The importance of gender to social interaction and social life generally helps explain why trans-persons receive impolite stares and questions from others who are having trouble discerning their sex. Of course, while sex and gender are important to social situations, too many have an unhealthy obsession with knowing others’ sex, especially when someone is perceived as gender non-conforming. Indeed, some peoples’ pathological fixation with knowing others’ sex is evidenced by the rage and violence aimed at gender non-conforming individuals when they do not fall neatly into culturally defined categories.

But should sex and gender be this important to us? Certainly we use them to categorize others and to structure social life, but social interaction does not grind to a halt if someone’s sex is unknown. Indeed, gender neutral language and gender neutral etiquette exists for nearly all social situations. Moreover, many gender distinctions are rather unnecessary, functionally speaking. Separate bathrooms for men and women are a case in point. Not only are separate bathrooms unnecessary (and historically non-normative), but their existence has led to a cultural powderkeg surrounding transgender individuals bathroom usage (the concern about trans-persons bathroom use stems from misunderstandings of the links between gender identity, sexuality, and sexual deviance but that is a topic for another time).

Revelation 3: Parenthood is Intensive and It Starts Before Birth

A quick internet search reveals a cornucopia of gender reveal party accessories from invitations to decorations. While gender reveals highlight our misunderstandings of sex and gender and our obsession with them, they also show that parenthood is now more than ever a commercial enterprise and that every aspect of the parental experience starting from conception is something to be marketed and posted on Pinterest. And although it is pleasurable and worthwhile to revel in the events and moments that mark child development and our journey as parents, the growing expectations of parenthood can be exhausting.

Jamie Peterson/Freeimages
Source: Jamie Peterson/Freeimages

Coined “intensive parenting,” parenthood today is an expensive, child-centered, and time-consuming enterprise that leaves many parents, especially mothers, in constant need to demonstrate their qualities as a parent to themselves, and also others. Whether this means creating hand-crafted gift bags for their child’s classroom Valentine’s Day party, renting a bouncy house, dunk tank, and pony for their child’s 1st birthday, or throwing a themed gender reveal party, the stakes of parenthood are higher than ever. Though children clearly benefit from much of this investment, it can come at a cost to parents. For instance, mothers have increased their time with children since the 1960s despite the fact that most now work in the paid labor force. This time investment has come at the expense of sleep (down an hour per night) and leisure. Additionally, parents may also suffer psychologically from constant social comparison and the pressure to maintain the image of an exceptional parent. The gender reveal party is an extension of this larger trend showing that intensive parenting begins before children are born.

About the Author
Daniel L Carlson Ph.D.

Daniel Carlson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah whose research has been featured in the New York Times & The Washington Post, among other outlets.

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