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Letting go of gender reveal parties

Letting go of gender reveal parties

I was recently interviewed for Vogue about whether gender reveal parties are something we might leave behind in 2020. You can read the excellent piece they wrote here, and my full interview below…

Gender reveal parties have been called problematic because they’ve started wildfires, but why are they problematic when it comes to how we think about gender

Wildfires aside, the main problem is that gender reveal parties reinforce several ideas about gender which are pretty bad for kids, and for society in general. Three main ones are: 

  • That gender is the most important thing we can know about a person, 
  • That we can know what gender somebody is going to be by knowing what their genitals are like, and 
  • That gender is binary (they’re either a boy or they’re a girl).

These ideas are bad for all kids.

These ideas bad for any kids who don’t end up conforming to sex and gender norms, like intersex, trans, and non-binary kids, because they mean that those kids will have a far greater battle to be recognised in their sex/genders than they would have done if we didn’t make such a big thing of sex/gender at the start of their life.

These ideas are also bad for all kids because they set them up to believe that the division between girls and boys, women and men, is a really important one, and that they need to conform to rigid ideas of what it means to be a girly girl or a ‘big brave boy’, a feminine woman or a masculine man.

They take place before the child is born, so do they actually affect the child?  

We know that from birth onwards, and perhaps even before birth, the gender attitudes of the people around a child have a huge impact on the kid. The famous ‘Baby X’ studies found that adults who were given the same baby to look after behaved very differently towards them depending on whether they were dressed in pink or blue. Babies dressed in pink were treated more gently, given dolls to play with, and assumed to be ‘upset’ if they cried. Babies dressed in blue were treated more roughly, given trucks, and assumed to be ‘angry’ if they cried.

Scientists like Cordelia Fine and Sari Van Anders have found that such different treatment has a big impact on our physiology, including the ways our brains wire up, and our levels of circulating hormones. We’re literally shaping kids’ bodies and brains when we treat them differently according to their gender. 

The BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls showed that, by primary school, kids raised like this all believed that boys were better than girls and that girls should aspire to be ‘pretty’ rather than having career goals. Boys found it difficult to ask for support when they were struggling, and couldn’t come up for words for emotions other than anger. We can see the toll that all of this takes in later life when we consider gender pay inequalities, toxic low self esteem and body dissatisfaction in women, and the high rates of suicide and aggression in men, for example. 

It all starts with the idea that the gender of a kid is the most important thing about them.

Why do you believe that gender reveal parties no longer have a place in 2020? Did they ever have a place?

 
I don’t believe they ever had a place. Looking back in time, and around the world today, we find that this idea that people can be divided into two ‘opposite’ genders is actually a pretty new, western thing. Many places and times have celebrated gender diversity as something sacred, have had more than two gender categories, and have regarded gender as only one feature of a person among many, not something to determine their whole lifecourses.

Another reason to leave gender reveal parties in 2020 is the increasing awareness, in our culture, of intersex, trans and non-binary people. Between one and two percent of babies are born with some variation of sex characteristics. In the past, such babies often received surgical interventions to make their genitals conform to norms of what we think male or female genitals should look like. Such surgeries can be risky, can deaden sexual sensation in later life, and can lead to later struggles if the decision is made in a different direction from the way that person ends up experiencing their gender. The need to ‘reveal’ the gender of a baby is part of a cultural pressure which makes parents more likely to believe that they should ask for such surgical interventions, rather than waiting until the child themselves is able to make that choice consensually – unless there’s actually a good medical reason for surgery.

Also, now that we know that over a third of adults experience their gender as to some extent the other gender, neither gender, or both gender, and that many people identify as trans and non-binary, we should be wary of anything that puts people in a box regarding gender that it’s hard to move out of later. 

What would a better approach be?

Some parents are now raising all kids gender-free until they’re old enough to make a decision about what gender they experience themselves as being – if any. Even if we don’t go that far, we can clue ourselves up about the strong impact of rigid gender stereotypes on all kids, and work to challenge these in our own childrearing. 

For example, on the No More Boys and Girls documentary they tried providing all kids with gender diverse toys and clothes and allowing them to make their own choices, they deliberately exposed kids to people who worked in non-stereotypical occupations like a male ballet dancer and a female mechanic, and they did activities that showed the kids how equal boys and girls were on physical strength and all kinds of activities at that age. 

It’s important that schools and families move in this direction, towards raising human beings who have all the choices available to them, rather than restricting their future possibilities, and later mental health, with rigid gender stereotypes.

Trans author and educator S. Bear Bergman also suggests that, while things remain so tough for gender diverse people, we could consider having gender reveal parties for people when they come out as trans or non-binary. What might it be like – for everyone – if we saw gender creativity as something to celebrate, rather than something to commiserate? What if we regarded trans, intersex, and non-binary people as a gift – as artist Travis Alabanza puts it – who have something vital to teach everybody about the beautiful, unique, complexity of all of our genders.

Find out more

There’s more on these topics in my books Gender: A Graphic Guide, How to Understand Your Gender, and Life Isn’t Binary. There’s also a free zine for exploring gender here.

If you enjoyed this, please consider supporting my Patreon here.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Dee

    17 June

    Great post MJ and I must check out the documentary.

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