Gender-Reveal Parties and Secular Life Rituals

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.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I’m with you on this. I thought he had an interesting point on the self-centered nature of these parties, then wondered how I wound up reading about vaccines, suburban evangelicals and convicts re-entering society. He did go on a pretty wicked tear, though; you gotta give him that.

    I had not heard of these before, and they strike me as odd, I think for these reasons. I’m not ready to pass final judgement yet (and it probably depends on the specific people involved), but, yeah, I don’t think I would ever choose to have such a party.

    By the way, at first when you referred to gender-reveal parties, I thought it was about the (I’m assuming new) cases where parents won’t tell anyone the sex of their children for the first few years of life. That’d probably be a really weird party to attend.

  2. Our gender-reveal party for both of our children was “birth”.

    • That’s what Clancy and I are hoping for, too. We’ll see how it goes. Not only does my wife know how to look at an ultrasound, but secrets are not well kept in this town. People were congratulating us for trying to conceive when it was noticed that she went off birth control. HIPAA notwithstanding, when the doc knows, lots of people will know.

      • I don’t know how to read ultrasounds, and all three times it was pretty blatantly obvious to me from looking at the ultrasound. Not that we would have waited until birth to find out.

        I didn’t kow you were expecting a little one! How exciting!

        • Thanks! Depends on the ultrasound, from what I gather. Anybody can tell from a good shot, but it’s harder from a bad one. Or maybe it’s that at some point in the process it becomes easy no matter what and the struggles to find out are from parents who want to find out sooner rather than later.

          There were a couple years in the southwest when “nino o nina?” were my wife’s least favorite three words. I think they’re still her least favorite Spanish words…

          • Our doc was good at getting shots that didn’t show anything to print out.

    • Mine too. It just doesn’t feel like people need to make such a huge deal out of the child’s sex before the child is even born.

      • The whole, “Well, how will you know what color outfits to buy?” question made me look at the questioner quizzically.

        “I’m pretty sure a pink onesie is not going to emasculate a boy child, and a blue one will not turn a potential daughter into a cigar-smoking welder by age 2. Not that there’s anything wrong with welders. If you’re worried about it, give us stuff in green and yellow.”

        “What color are you going to PAINT THE ROOM!??!”


        • My son’s room was yellow. Then I rearranged, now my room is yellow and his is beige (unfortunately no master bedroom in my 102 year old house).

          Most of his baby clothes (all of which I still own (man, I have got to learn to let go)) are brown, orange, green, red, yellow and white.

          I always knew I would not find out the sex of my child. It bugged other people though, mostly my in-laws. I do wonder now how knowing would have effecting my bonding experience. Would it have changed my experience for better, worse or at all?

          • Mary, I think it did concretize something when we found out the sex. For better or worse, I suppose, although I preferred to know. With kid 3, we actually knew at 11 weeks, because we got a CVS. We had an established name, a more firm image in our heads. The only thing to discover the day of birth was healthy or not.

            I wonder if a bit of my off-put-ness with this has to do with treating the 20 week sonogram as a gender-reveal, rather than a health-reveal. On my second kid’s sono, the sonographer managed to catch the sex but missed some signs that my child was actually not healthy. On my third kid’s sono, the sonographer made a mistake and we thought we had another severely disabled kid on our hands. Later sonos cleared up the mistake, but it was terrifying.

          • That is the thing that bugs me most too, Rose. It seems like parents are focusing more on the sex of the child instead of the health. I had a wonderful time watching the sonographer show me his healthy heart, etc. and my husband and I just closed our eyes when she told us she was going to determine the sex. Health is the purpose of the sono after all, isn’t it? People should throw a healthy baby party instead of a “gender reveal”. But to each his own, I suppose.

        • People seem confounded by the decision to choose such apparently gender-neutral colors as green and yellow, as though by doing so you’re likely to turn your child into the next generation’s Jaye Davidson.

          • Mike has a point in favor of ditching the green and yellow.

            Both my children wore a lot of black and orange, and now thanks to the perfidy of their mother, they both claim to be Dodger fans. Hannah still waffles.

        • For our first (a boy), someone gave us a onesie festooned with ruffles and ribbons. Given the sender, I have no idea whether it was a mistake or whether it was a statement against the imposition of gender roles. Could easily have been either.

          It’s now being worn by boy 3, and it still tickles me every time, like he is a time traveler from the Victorian era.

          • An uncle of mine (who a certain co-blogger has met) sent us the gift after Critter’s birth of a onesie with a ruffle right across the ass. For anyone who has anything that even gestures toward a clue, it was obviously for a baby girl. We weren’t sure if the gift was a reflection of his laziness, cluelessness, or some combination.

            We sent him a very nice thank-you note.

  3. sex-reveal party

    “I see you went with uncircumcised.”

    • Actually, I will say something about the whole circumcision brou-ha-ha. Every time I teach contemporary moral issues class, the kids basically fall asleep through euthanasia and capital punishment. Could not care any less. If this issue gets so many people so riled up, maybe it would be a good topic to cover.

  4. I’m pretty sure that this is how all traditions get started. Someone makes something up, and it sticks.

    Let’s hope this one doesn’t.

      • Sorry, Dr. S: been neglecting the sub-blogs, incl my own. Mea culpa. I say one thing on the mainpage that’s not PC, I spend the day defending my humanity. Tellya the truth, I’d like to see you up there more often, just to give your medical opinion that there’s probable cause to believe I am human afterall.

        To the topic, of course I’m always pleased when you unleash your inner conservative!

        You heard the one, eh, they gave the little girl the toy dumptruck. Came back an hour later to see her cradling it in a blanket. “Shhhh. He’s sleeping…”

          • Good function is good. I bet it still hurts like hell, that was a nasty.

            You’ll wind up with a barometer leg, and then you can say, “This ole leg o’ mine always winds up with the nor’easterner approachin’. Get under cover!”

          • My grandfather used to complain that his legs ached when it was going to rain, and he didn’t have any legs. He was still a good barometer. The human body is weird.

  5. It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas is an awful tradition.
    Miracle on 34th St on Christmas is an awesome tradition.

    • It’s a Wonderful Life became a tradition because the copyright had lapsed, so everyone and his brother could show it at Christmastime. Which goes to show what can happen when the chains of IP are loosened. (I think it’s a grand tradition myself; I just wish it were shown in its entirety, instead of being chopped up and stuffed with commercials.)

    • It’s a Wonderful Life has Gloria Grahame.
      If a movie has Gloria Grahame, then its awesome factor is increased by 7.
      It’s a Wonderful Life has Jimmy Stewart.
      If a movie has Jimmy Stewart, then its awesome factor is increased by 3.
      In It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays a surprisingly complex, dark character.
      If a movie has Jimmy Stewart plays a surprisingly complex, dark character, then its awesome factor is increased by another 3.
      It’s a Wonderful Life has sappy lines about angels and bells.
      If a movie has sappy lines about angels and bels, its awesome factor is decreased by 5.

      Conclusion: It’s a Wonderful Life is on the whole awesome, but not unmitigatedly.

  6. Rose:

    Sorry, I think your consternation about gender reveal parities is much to do about nothing. Why be so critical of things that make others happy?

  7. I don’t know that it is really narcisistic. Presumably, for people who throw these parties and for a large number of attendees, there is something special about finding out the baby’s sex and about being the first to know, rather than being told all the way down in the grapevine or worse, well after the kid is born. A gender reveal party allows parents, colse friends and relatives to all find out together and have fun doing so. Most parties thrown are excuses to socialise anyway.

    Of course, these casual parties are usually thrown by upper-middle class suburbanites. What may be rubbing us wrong about this is not exactly narcissism, but the casual-ness of it. A lot of us understand that there are certain social pressures to throw certain kinds of parties. Some this pressure might be religious, others might just have the force of long standing custom. That’s why we have those parties even though they cost us time, money, and stress especially for those of us who have to budget our money and time. When someone throws a party like this, first thought that might pop into our heads is “Don’t they have anything better to do with their time and money?” Second thing that might pop into our heads is “Does this mean that I have to do it when it is my turn?” Third thing that may pop into our heads is “Wow, there must be something shallow about the way these people just enjoy throwing parties willy nilly. If it were me, I would find about gender, spend an hour calling everyone to tell them, then go back to playing Skyrim”…

    • Yeah, I was kinda wondering if his was another excuse for an open bar.
      Because that went over so well at the wedding….

    • Well, I’m not going back to playing Skyrim :).

      My beef with the parties is not huge, especially if it were the only party one is having. As I said, I’d happily go to one. But inviting a lot of people to celebrate what is basically one event over and over again is a little much (so a gender-reveal party, then a baby shower, then a christening, etc. etc.).

      My beef was more with saying that because a ritual is secular or new, it is therefore not meaningful.

      • My beef was more with saying that because a ritual is secular or new, it is therefore not meaningful.

        Oh definitely this. People really should be more familiar with Confucian philosophy else they wouldnt say silly things like that.

        • or even just asking “where do traditions come from?” gotta start somewhere! why else do people move to atomized cosmopolitan godless cities like new york? i know that’s why i came here.

          the cupcake party does seem a little precious/park slope-y to me, but presuming the pitch was “come if you can, free beer/wine and cupcakes” rather than the more egocentric tone of “OF COURSE YOU WILL COME AND SUP UPON CUPCAKES WE DEMAND IT!”, it’d hard to really take issue.

      • Rose:

        “But inviting a lot of people to celebrate what is basically one event over and over again is a little much (so a gender-reveal party, then a baby shower, then a christening, etc. etc.).”

        I’m curious how you consider all the events you mention to be the same thing? If you think that gender reveal parties are a waste then by all means don’t have one.

  8. For you childed people, I can imagine that these parties are too precious. For those of us without children? It helps us plan, for years, exactly how we’re going to mess with the kids.

    One thing we did for one of our nephews: we purchased 8 identical-print shirts. One for age 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, 4 years, and (finally) 5 years. Apart from size, they were all made from the same fabric.

    I explained that I wanted the boy, when he was around 16 or so, to look at the family picture albums from his early childhood and ask “why I am I wearing the same shirt?”

    • Calvin: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color
      film back then?
      Dad: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs ARE in color. It’s just the WORLD was
      black and white then.
      Calvin: Really?
      Dad: Yep. The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy
      color for a while, too.
      Calvin: That’s really weird.
      Dad: Well, truth is stranger than fiction.
      Calvin: But then why are old PAINTINGS in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn’t
      artists have painted it that way?
      Dad: Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.
      Calvin: But… but how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn’t their paints have
      been shades of gray back then?
      Dad: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else in the ’30s.
      Calvin: So why didn’t old black and white photos turn color too?
      Dad: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?

  9. I gotta admit that if the party is low key, no gifts, a semi open bar (ie I put out the basics with some mixers/ try not to drink me into poverty guys), then I don’t see the big deal. It’s a party and it gets rid of that minor awkwardness as the family has to weigh in as individuals on the “Did they tell Grandma what the sex was?”

    I’m less worried about “what color do we get for the baby?” I admit that I struggle because while I want my kids to grow up to be who they are, I also worry about what will happen to them if they buck gender trends too much. We’re far more forgiving, as a society, of tomboys than we are of… er.. feminine boys. (curious that the only term I had for that in the slang was “nancy boy” which itself is a still a male dominate term).

    I guess it all comes down to delivery and intention. I almost wish we had done this ourselves only because I see it as “What a cool excuse to have some people over for cupcakes and Rock Band!” and much less of a “hey another excuse to GET STUFF!”

    Of course we also only had one baby shower, one wedding shower, no real bachelor/bachelorette parties (I went out to a restaurant with the guys, she had a spa day), no destination wedding, and to date no “real” honeymoon.

    • >I gotta admit that if the party is low key, no gifts, a semi open bar (ie I put out the basics with some mixers/ try not to drink me into poverty guys), then I don’t see the big deal.

      Oh yeah. Totally with you. It’s all in the execution: the expectations placed on guests, the seriousness with which the couple takes themselves, and the number of other celebrations.

    • You see.. I’m the kind of jerk that would say this to the caterer:
      Okay, I want 15 cupcakes the color of the baby’s gender, I want 5 for the other gender, I want 5 yellow, 5 green, and 1 purple.

      Then I’d add a party game to figure out who should get the gift basket of cheeses we have as a giveaway door prize: The first person to correctly figure out the gender, the first to find the significance of the yellow and green or the 1 with the purple…

  10. Like a cupcake, this has been eating at me.

    I see a handful of “OH I WANTED THE OTHER CUPCAKE” exclamations. Knowing that someone else knows but you don’t? That’s a good recipe for stewin’.

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