April 12, 2018 | Narrative
nation-building in pink and blue
Maybe you’ve seen them on your newsfeed—people cutting cakes, opening fake presents, shooting guns at tannerite explosive, all leading up to the magical ~reveal~, blue or pink. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re missing out. There’s an entire genre of videos dedicated to announcing the gender of an expecting couple’s newest addition to the family. The videos are presumably intended to be shared with family members, but the most outlandish often go viral.
As if the doctor’s “It’s a —!” weren’t enough as a performative speech act (meaning that the baby becomes legible as a particular gender through the doctor’s utterance), these couples gender their children through an expansive array of technologies. When a soon-to-be father shoots a rifle with a sniper attachment off of a pickup truck in Granbury, Texas—an act which is then digitally recorded, uploaded to YouTube, and watched over 40,000 times—the baby’s gender becomes part of a larger web of nation-building ideology. It’s not the doctor who decides the gender here, and it’s not really the father either. The gun, the bullet, the tannerite explosive, and the pickup truck are the agents that come together to produce the gender, signified through a cloud of pink smoke.
There is an assumed agreement between the viewer, the father and videographer, and the tannerite. Pink = girl = female, blue = boy = male. While there is no explicit reference to sex, a prenatal assessment of gender or sex could only rely on sex characteristics such as those identifiable via ultrasound technology, and not the child’s self-identification. It is here, on the back of this Texan pickup truck, that gender becomes ideologically bound to sex, because before the fetus is even separated from the womb, it can be characterized by a plume of pink smoke. The instant these cultural icons (blue, pink) are assigned to biological sex, we link the realm of sex to gender and biology to culture. While the parent in this video hits a bullseye, ultrasound technology often misses the mark—sex assignments via ultrasound are only 75% consistent, according to an article published in the Australian Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine.
This genre of video also makes interesting claims about (un)awareness. Never does the viewer see the person who “sets up” the reveal, who picks the pink paint. It’s sometimes unclear whether the parents already know what color they’ll find, or whether that really matters. Presumably, the information that determines the color in the explosive is determined by someone operating an ultrasound, who would only be able to share the information to someone other than the person carrying the baby with a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act release. The passage of information here from ultrasound machine to technician to person to explosive color to bullet to parent to phone camera to viewer is remarkable, like a game of gender-binary telephone (literally, passed as a series of binary code via cell phone).
Interestingly, in some of these videos we hear an off-screen voice proclaim, “I knew it!” but it is unclear what “knowing” really means. Does the premonition of a certain sex assignment constitute knowledge? These interjectors claim that their knowledge predates the ultrasound’s and that they, too, are qualified to assign sex to an unborn fetus.
My favorite bizarre gender-reveal experiment in home cinema is a video from Slidell, LA (according to the Facebook geo-location), in which a circle of smartphone-toting onlookers observe a tattooed Crocs-wearing Louisianaian wrangling a huge alligator in what appears to be someone’s backyard (we can see a basketball hoop, garage, driveway—all the typical fixings of suburbia). Again, there’s a ten-foot long alligator, in someone’s backyard, wrestling with a tattooed man in Crocs. The man is handed what appears to be a watermelon and pries the alligator’s mouth open. Then the alligator’s mouth snaps shut, almost chomping the man’s hand. Again, the jaws are pulled open, and this time the watermelon is dropped inside. As the ten-foot-long amphibian’s jaws pull together, the watermelon is smashed, spewing what looked like blue Jello. We hear hoots and hollers—“It’s a boy!” The alligator starts to move—“It’s on the run!” The man returns from hugging his presumed partner to subdue the animal-announcer, pressing down on the alligator’s jaw. Reinforcements come in, and two people clamp down the jaw, pushing the animal’s body to the ground.
The main question we’re left with is, who is performing the reveal? In other words, who is speaking, who is calling the baby’s gender into existence? The alligator in the video is in the yard, a guest at the party just like the humans (though it is quite rude to play with the mouth of a party guest). There’s no denying that the alligator performs an intentional role here—the watermelon could have just as easily been smashed on the driveway, or the ‘gender’ could have been ‘revealed’ through a short SMS. Instead, the alligator is given the honor of gendering a prenatal fetus, with the help of some humans and their Jello-filled watermelon.
This gator-reveal, alongside the rifle-reveal, puts on display the ways in which the ideologies of nation and region play out in the field of gender. For the Texan, the rifle is the device through which gender may be ‘revealed,’ and for the Louisianian, it’s the gator. Kylie Jenner’s reveal included a professional photographer and confetti cannons, with luxury cars in the background. A luau-themed gender reveal party asked the question, “Will it be a hula boy or a hula girl?” A video from Illinois features pink and blue pumpkins. The translation of information from ultrasound imaging to blue Jello or pink explosive activates a wealth of cultural assumptions and understandings linking biological sex to socialized gender. Objects and animals are transformed into accoutrements to underline the context through which the unborn baby will become their assigned sex/gender. Through their relationship to the rifle and the gator, these Americans will come to understand and negotiate their genders. It’s worth noting that the ultrasound and the doctor’s office are themselves two alternative media through which to understand gender and sex, no less politically and historically valent than the rifle or the gator. Regardless of the media used, all of these videos left me asking, why do we really want to know the sex?