We live in incredibly uninteresting times when it comes to the meaning of sex and gender. Unlike the years of second-wave feminism’s ascendency, today most Americans accept that babies are born male or female and will grow up to be masculine or feminine as a result. Forget “free to be”; embrace sex as destiny.
Whether it’s our favorite gender theorist Larry Summers explaining that there are so few senior professors in the sciences because of differences in “intrinsic aptitude” or the many pop-neuroscience books that tell us women are hardwired to shop and men to be aggressive, we have a culture where it is now “commonsense” to believe that socialization is far less important than what is between your legs.
Given this reinvigoration of the weight and scope of the gender binary, Americans have created a variety of rituals surrounding it. That’s what we humans do when we believe something is sacred: we make up rituals that use fetish items and special costumes to mark this sacred space from the profane world. Durkheim would be proud of the religious fervor with which Americans now approach the sacred TRUTH of gender.
Perhaps my favorite elementary forms of gendered life is the “Gender Reveal” cake ceremony. The basic idea is this: you have the results of your sonogram sent directly to the bakery who then make a cake filled with either pink or blue custard. You throw a party and gather around the cake, with the happy couple cutting in and revealing to everyone, including themselves, the fate of their child.
According to a piece in The New Yorker by George Packer,
These events are becoming more and more popular. The first video of a gender-reveal party was posted on YouTube in 2008, but in just the last six months almost two thousand have been uploaded.
Packer sees these rituals, made possible by science and spread far and wide through new technologies, as lacking in the weight and value of previous rituals:
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.
At bottom, the invented rituals that proliferate in our culture signify a disenchantment with modernity.
I’m not sure it is a disenchantment with modernity as much as an embrace of the gender binary upon which so much of modernity has been built. After all, it wasn’t until the Reformation that early moderns began to see two sexes rather than the Greek one. But once sex was “discovered” it could explain everything, from why women should not get an education, own property, or vote to the scientific “degeneracy” of races that were not as adept as creating a strict separation of the sexes (because the women worked and were masculinized or the men didn’t and were feminized).
Of course, since the gender binary became the dominant way of seeing the world, there has been resistance in the form of feminism and other radical critiques of sex. But today that resistance feels weakened, perhaps sated with pink and blue custard, boys diapers and girls, and the secure knowledge that our futures are sexed.