George Packer has a short piece up about gender-reveal parties. If you, like I, had never heard of such a thing as a gender-reveal party, it is this. Parents-to-be get their 20 week sonogram, and elect not to hear the determination of the fetus’s sex. Instead, they have the results sent to a baker, who makes up cupcakes with either pink or blue icing on the inside. The glowing parents-to-be invite everyone over, cupcakes are bitten, and voila! We know if the stork is bringing a baby girl or boy. (Actually, it should more accurately be called a “sex-reveal party,” but since it’s suposed to be a cutesy affair and has to do with babies, probably best to avoid the inevitable confusion and go with “gender-reveal.”)
Like Packer, I do find something a bit distasteful about this new tradition, if you want to call it that. Or passing fad. Not as distasteful as Packer – I wouldn’t really mind if someone invited me to one. I mean, hey, free cupcake. However, I think he is only half-right about why it is distasteful.
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.
At bottom, the invented rituals that proliferate in our culture signify a disenchantment with modernity. If, like millions of Americans, you’re secular and the traditions of a church or temple have no hold on you, or if you’re assimilated and ethnic identity has faded away, then what is there to sustain you on the lonely path through a turbulent, rootless, uncertain world? Science might not be enough, which is why so many educated people have turned against it and adopted hostile theories about childhood vaccination. This is the same disenchantment that has produced religious revivalism through much of the world. The same emptiness that afflicts modern life leads doctors in Cairo and Karachi to vote for doctrinaire Islamists, stay-at-home moms in suburban Colorado and rural Minnesota to dig in as evangelicals, Web designers in Silicon Valley and Park Slope to make a cult of yoga while rejecting pasteurized milk, and Americans everywhere to throw parties with cupcakes filled with pink or blue custard.
It is…interesting to come up with a grand unified theory that can explain the previously-believed-to-be-disparate phenomena of the rise of Islamist parties in Cairo and the rise of unpasteurized milk sales in deepest blue America. But, as one is tempted to say to yoga cultists and unpasteurized milk drinkers and vaccination crazies: citation, please. (Here I think of Patrick Calahan fondly). I suspect evangelical religion and vaccine nuttiness are not the unique province of the formerly godless and rootless.
My husband and I are secular, and come from different ethnic backgrounds and religions. Both of us have something of an aversion to ethnic pride, although we do Godlessly celebrate the biggest holidays of my religion (with one of his thrown in for good measure). We do create our own rituals, after a fashion. Songs are sung to the children every night after dinner, followed by books read aloud. Extra-fancy lingering breakfasts every weekend. Hunting for signs of seasonal change during walks in the woods. We have done, and plan to continue, a fundraiser every other year on my disabled son’s birthday for the charity that supports people with his syndrome. I am pretty fond of these rituals, and think they are not so much as salves on an otherwise empty life, but celebrations of things our family happens to care about.
I grew up in a religious home and we had similar created family rituals that had nothing to do with our religion. Lots of families create rituals, whether religious or secular.
And some recent rituals are so nice. Children’s birthday parties! Trick-or-treating! It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas! New Year’s Eve kisses!
What seems distasteful about the gender-reveal party is Packer’s first reason, not his second. Some of these rituals are indeed self-centered. I can be very happy that a couple I know is getting married. Yet after an engagement party, and a bridal shower, and a bachelorette party, and a destination wedding where I’ve had to pony up for plane fare and a hotel so the wedding can be just exactly what the bride and groom have always dreamed – well, you know, I’m not that happy for them. Asking someone to celebrate a life event (new child, marriage, etc.) several different times and in several different ways is asking everyone to take your life events as seriously as you do. It’s inevitably self-serious and self-involved and therefore pretty annoying. If you’re asked to a gender-reveal party, you are probably going to be asked to celebrate this new addition to the world more often than you’d prefer.
I don’t think secularism is the ill, here. One can be secular and have meaning and ritual in one’s life — without resorting to alternative vaccine schedules or voting theocratically. But not having a little privacy for some rituals, and inviting your wider community to celebrate the end of your bout with a cold has nothing to do with secularism and everything to do with inflated self-regard.