Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Barbaric rituals 3: "gender reveal" parties...don't you wish

Are you a boy, or are you a girl?*

My May 9 post covered the basics of "gender reveal" parties, a ghastly new form of narcissism. Scroll down if you want the blow-by-blow. Otherwise, here's the gist:

Set aside two or three hours to graze on frilly cookies and carrots cut in the shapes of cars and dolls while playing ridiculous games designed to make a fuss over what's in her belly and how it got there because—we're pregnant! Your reward? Barrels of fun, plus we'll let you in on our precious secret: the baby's "gender." 

No thanks. If I want to be tortured, I'll stay home and watch Glee.

"The best things in life are free, but you can keep 'em...Give me money."**
I'm all for celebrating the rewards of sexual relations. But everyone knows gender reveal rituals are reserved for those who play by the rules, specifically, procreative sex. I can hear countless retailers cheering as they tally their profits from the sale of fussy little footprint cutouts to strew along shower buffet tables and all the other precious paraphernalia associated with the birthing of babies.

In Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America University of Maryland Associate Professor of American Studies Jo B. Paoletti documents the push by U.S. clothing manufacturers around the time of World War I to agree on sex-signifying colors for infants' and children's clothing. So that they could satisfy shoppers demands they said. 

It seems immigrants to the United States brought with them contradictory customs for what constituted proper attire for boys, for girls. In the mid-1800s, any number of colors in pastel shades were considered appropriate for children to wear. But by the 1880s, when it was still customary for boys to wear dresses until their first haircut (about age 6 or 7), the convention shifted to dressing all babies and young children in white.

An elegant compromise, but not for those with capitalist appetites.

According to Paoletti, just before World War I the U.S. clothing industry began to push for agreement on separate colors for each sex. Paoletti cites a 1918 fashion trade journal article in which pink was named the right color for boys ("stronger"), blue ("more delicate and dainty") for girls. She says that formula held at least until 1927, as attested to by Time magazine and flogged by major retailers of the day, including Filenes, Best & Co. and Marshall Field.

By the 1940s it was the opposite: blue for boys and pink for girls became the rule. (Very provocative.) Then, in the mid-60s as feminists emerged and argued for gender equality, gender-neutral colors took hold and remained popular for 20 years until the hammer went down again.

Who's hammer?

"Who's Zooming Who?"***
Prenatal testing appears in the mid-80s and soon we're oohing and aahing over blurry sonagram printouts documenting budding sex organs. Manufacturers and retailers climb on board with an explosion of merchandise in pretty pink and burly blue, some of the most popular items embellished with other coded motifs like footballs and firetrucks (because one layer of sex coding is never enough).

Disney makes its return to children's films with" The Little Mermaid" and begins planning their now ubiquitous stores, the first of which opened in 1987, epicenters of must-haves designed (and color-coded) for little princes and princesses.

I'm no more than an armchair sociologist, but you can't tell me the reclamation of pink and blue sex markers in the mid-80s was all about retailers trying make more money. These were the Regan-Thatcher years, when Madonna and Queen and Prince (genius naming) were bending gender in novel ways on a new kids' channel called MTV. AIDS was decimating the gay community and straight America was running scared.

Coincidence? I think not.
Honey, let's get all our friends
together so we can reveal
the baby's gender.
Y I K E S.
Today, blue and pink sex markers are everywhere babies are: the sheets on their cribs, the diapers on their wee little bums, the teething rings in their mouths—because parents need to KNOW everything and SHARE everything about their child, even host a "gender reveal" party before the baby is born.

"You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys..."****
As much as some parents might like to celebrate (or even determine) it, a child's gender is one gift that only the child can know the contours of—and in time. But that doesn't stop moms and dads from trying...and denying.

Check out Jenny's post at Talk About Gender in which she quotes a 34-year-old mother, a self-described traditionalist, on her concern that if she were to dress her now 2-year-old son in "girly" colors, people—including her son—could get confused. Not that she cares about her son's sexuality, she adds. 

*     Doug Morris and Ron Morris/The Barbarians, 1965
**    Berry Gory and Janie Bradford/Barrett Strong, 1959
***   Aretha Franklin, Preston Glass, Narada Michael Walden/Aretha Franklin, 1985 
****  John Madara and David White/Leslie Gore, 1963

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