When it comes to raising little ones these days, parents are chucking tradition out the window. Yet even in the most progressive families, some traditions are inescapable, and they trap us in gender boxes before we're even born.
Last week I attended a baby shower for my partner's sister. Charged with picking up the decorations, my partner and I wandered up and down the aisles of a suburban Party City in search of something that didn't scream "It's a [heteronormatively gendered] GIRL!" Our options included "pink safari" balloons, "Queen of the Jungle" tableware, and a magenta banner that read, "A New Little Princess." We cringed, bought some crepe paper, and called it a day.
Before the era of Party City stores with conveniently gendered aisles, baby showers did without the decorations. The ancient Greeks shouted strident noises to signal peace after birth, while ancient Egyptian festivities included the ritualized disposal of the afterbirth. When dropping off your placenta at the local shrine went out of style, Victorian era mothers held tea parties with their closest friends a few days after the birth. Participants played games to predict who else might end up with a bun in the oven, precursors to the "guess what's in this diaper" shower games we suffer through today.
Post-World War II, consumer culture gave birth to the gift-giving baby showers we have today. Academic Alison Clarke writes that while gifts eased the financial burden of raising 2.5 kids and a dog, they served the additional purpose of constructing a social identity for the fetus.
Modern parents have taken the "social identity" part to new heights with "gender reveal" parties. Here's how it works: the mother-to-be asks an ultrasound tech to stick a baby crotch shot in a sealed envelope. She takes the envelope to a baker with instructions to dye a cake pink or blue, depending on the baby bits, then hide the color beneath a layer of frosting. The next day, the parents-to-be gather their friends and family, slice into the cake, and learn the sex of the fetus. Surprise! It's a boy! And a hidden layer of chocolate pecan crunch!
My partner comes from a family of many queers and gender non-conformists (i.e., if there's a special occasion, don't expect to see any of the aunts wearing anything other than pantsuits). While these folks would probably laugh if the baby shower hosts wheeled out a "gender reveal" cake, the sex of coming baby was still a huge part of the affair. I doubt that they wanted it to be that way—the mother-to-be is definitely not invested in gendering her child as a "girl"—but when you're buying disposable tableware at Party City, your options are limited.
The food was served on pink paper plates, the champagne poured into pink plastic cups. The presents included onesies in hot pink, pepto pink, fuchsia, and magenta. By the time we started in on the pink-frosted cupcakes, the aunts were dreaming of the fetus' future wedding gown.
When this baby is born, even though she won't be able to eat, walk, or poop by herself, she'll be branded a girl. She will wear "pink safari" onesies and bows in her first tufts of hair. If she grows up to be a tomboy, a dyke, or a transsexual menace, her family will embrace her (after all, they've managed to embrace my partner and me, and we're as gender-funny as it gets). But first, like most kids, she'll have to pass through a designated gender box, regardless of whether or not it fits.
Is it too late to go back to the age of placenta rituals? Perhaps—we definitely won't find those supplies at Party City.