Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Gender-Reveal Parties

It must mean something, but I had not heard about them until I read it on The New Yorker site.

I discovered gender-reveal parties while reading a column George Packer posted online.

As it happened, Packer heard it from human beings. But, not in any ordinary circumstances. Packer heard it in “a rundown inner-city cafĂ© full of ex-felons who were having a very hard time finding jobs.” Me, I discovered it online.
I will mention in passing that neither Packer nor I have a clue why these parties are called by the term that is commonly used to introduce someone who has undergone an extreme makeover.

For those who are even further behind the times than I, at gender-reveal parties expectant parents or their friends and relatives throw a party to announce their new baby’s gender.

But they are not just announcing it to their assembled guests. They are discovering it themselves at the same time.

The party resembles a baby shower, but it opens the doors to men.  Thus, it deprives women of a traditionally important female-bonding ceremony.

To be more precise and to answer the questions you are now asking yourself, the lab technician who first discovers the baby’s gender via ultrasound is sworn to secrecy. He/she/it sequesters the information in a sealed envelope. It is only opened at the moment of the reveal.

When the expectant parents and their closest friends and family discover their baby’s gender they are transforming an intimate moment into a vulgar ceremony where everyone gets to join in the fun.

When you turn your private experiences into public spectacles, you are, I hate to say it, being vulgar.

Apparently, the couple then posts the whole scene on the web so that everyone else can watch their private reactions to the discovery of their new baby’s sex.

Packer’s analysis of the phenomenon is exceptionally brilliant, so allow me to review some of what he says. Beginning with this:

These parties seem to marry the oversharing of Facebook and Instagram with the contrived ceremonies that modern people in search of meaning impose on normal life events: food journaling, birthday parties for grownups, workout diaries, birth-experience planning.
Confucius said that living in human society involved participation in ceremony and ritual. To my knowledge he did not have very much to say about "contrived" ceremonies and rituals.

Confucius knew that true rituals and ceremonies were about affirming one’s membership in community. Packer notes that contrived ceremonies are about anything but community. They highlight the individual self.

In his words:

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.

Packer doesn’t use the term anomie, but he sees these contrived ceremonies as an effort to overcome it.

Having learned to dispense with traditional rituals and ceremonies, to say nothing of customs and mores, we moderns find ourselves lost and adrift, detached from our cultural moorings, trying to find a way home.

Packer explains:

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?

In a world where we pride ourselves in our belief in science and where the more sophisticated among us reject all religious practices, we have shredded the social fabric and the cultural traditions that would ground our human identity.

Packer sees that the anomie produced by the modern world has elicited a strong counter-reaction or backlash. People who should know better are embracing some of the strangest and more extreme forms of social cohesion… even extremist ideologies… because being alone and detached and disconnected is intolerable.

In Packer’s words:

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.
Many of the commenters on The New Yorker site have found Packer to be overly cynical. I do not. They feel that he has no right to mock an event that they consider to be wholesome fun, fraught with meaning.

Their comments suggest that they have bought into many of the types of contrived ceremonies that Packer ridicules, and take serious umbrage at the harsh light that he casts on them.

One might say—I would—that Packer is asserting the value of traditional ceremonies and rituals and telling us to think twice before replacing them with contrived ceremonies and rituals.

With all due respect for commenter sensitivity, Packer is correct. Not all ceremonies deserve the same respect. Making public a moment that has always been shared privately by a couple and their physician or midwife is a bad idea.

For my part I would add one ironic note. At a time when the nation is awash in gender-bending silliness, it is worth noting that gender-reveal ceremonies do assert the supreme importance of gender.

If these reveals need a saving grace, I recommend their effort to counteract the mindless trend toward gender neutering.

No comments: