Gender, Sex, Fire, Collapse

Writing is an act of learning. There are things I want to learn more about, and things I have to learn more about. These essays (literally, efforts) are processes of learning, and in the realm of sex, gender, and social construction there is an infinite evolving array of things I am eagerly taking in, learning from, shaping, and forming into thoughts. And then there is the condition of the world, its politics, its societies, its wretched inhumanity — a field which we must ingest, process, learn from, and work to repair. The following tries, in short space, to do a tiny bit of both.

The West is on fire.

Yes, California Oregon and Washington (the West) are burning. But also, America, Europe, and their recovering (or relapsing) colonies (the West) are imploding.

The former catastrophe seems like it may be, in some small part, the result of a ‘gender reveal party.’ The latter catastrophe is in large part due to the oblivious social structures that create such an uninformed, misguided thing as a ‘gender reveal party.’

Los Angeles, Sept 2020 — Photo: Eddiem360, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0

I want to consider ‘gender reveal parties’ for the bare minimum of time that they merit. American heteronormatives, raised in an underfunded educational system and getting their worldview primarily from television and its bastard child the corporate internet, have found themselves heavily invested in knowing whether their unborn children are going to be ‘boys’ or ‘girls.’ This is fine a case of the profiteers of pink and blue taking advantage of people’s ignorance for profit. Sometimes in capitalism it’s important to give consumers too many choices, such as in the breakfast cereal aisle, to numb them and drive them into a meaningless choice that feels meaningful. “I like Raisin Nut Sugar Clusters because I have always liked Raisin Nut Sugar Clusters and I do not like Raisin Clusternuts because I’ve never had them and the box is different and why would I because they’re not the kind I already like.”

Other times in capitalism, when reality presents something actually complex, it is important to simplify it into a simple binary — either/or. We can afford to confuse consumers only when the stakes are low (they’d be perfectly happy with BOTH Raisin Nut Sugar Clusters and Raisin Clusternuts). But if the matter has a little more personal import (or at least appears to, in terms of cultural conventions and their role in society), such as what type of person is it ok to have sex with, capitalism can’t afford the complexity and nuance of reality. Instead it offers us a stark, simple-seeming choice. In the gender aisle there are “men,” and there are “women”. Thats’s all — pick one to be, and pick one to be attracted to. (Progressive capitalism is great, because it says at least it’s OK to choose for yourself!) Simple.

The illusion of choice: what capitalism gives us when there is no real choice to be made. Photo by Nathália Rosa on Unsplash

As far as ‘gender reveal parties’ go, this involves the complicity of medical science, which can see genitals before anyone else can. Television has taught people to be emotionally invested in those genitals, and so people started throwing parties to announce what the genitals look like. Capitalism also encourages any opportunity to throw a party or have a holiday; and the bastard corporate internet as we all know by now is built to provoke extremism of all sorts — including who can throw the most extremely attention-seeking ‘gender reveal party.’ Pink and blue explosives in the dry grasslands of high fire season? This is success in the addled worldview of the ‘gender reveal’ people.

But capitalism, through its control of categories that don’t map to reality, and its grip on our worldviews, creates all kind of dissonances and leaves all kinds of gaps. When people encounter these gaps between what they’ve been told/sold, and how the world actually seems to be, they are often driven into crisis and confusion (select your example from 20th Century American theater here). It’s important to the functioning of our system that it smooth over these complexities, and even market products and experiences that can seem to put a patch on these dissonances. It’s also essential, within consumer capitalism, to cut short people’s education before they’re equipped to deal with complexity, and profit off both the ignorance and the subsequent crises.

In this case, this may be the thing about ‘gender reveal parties’ that annoys me the most — the fact that genitals are not gender. Gender refers to a set of social relations held by an individual in regards to sex, politics, family, society. A sonogram cannot see gender because only a crystal ball would be able to see gender. Gender is a condition that an individual grows into as that individual integrates with their surroundings. Sally Haslanger compares it to being a landlord or a scapegoat — no amount of medical scanning at 7 months of pregnancy is able to determine if the baby is destined for one of those fates.

No gender here (Image: Nevit Dilmen, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license)

What the sonogram sees is sex, but capitalism can’t sell people on a ‘sex reveal party’ (if you’re stopping and saying, “hey wait a minute I’d go to one of those” keep in mind that capitalism doesn’t have a plan and believe me if it could go back in time and re-design all of our society’s hangups and taboos so that a ‘sex reveal party’ was cool with everyone, it would.)

So: some people had a ‘sex reveal’ party but called it the wrong thing (and this sort of mental laziness aggravates the hell out of me) and also incidentally burned thousands of acres of forest and destroyed towns and lives (as does this sort of selfish, oblivious, wanton destruction).

But all those same conditions, conventions, and hidden structures that created the misnomered ‘gender reveal parties’ have been at work in the formation of what we have been calling ‘democratically elected’ governments in Europe, America, and Latin America for centuries. And these governments, to an astonishing extent, have watched their people, their economies, and their ways of life burn with extraordinary speed in 2020, just like that California couple watched their backyard, and their neighbors’ backyard, and then tens of thousands more acres of backyards, homes, and forest burn.

Amidst the wildfire that is a global pandemic, capitalism is screaming that there is still a simple binary here — there is normal and there is not-normal, and DON’T WORRY WE’LL BE BACK TO NORMAL SOON. But the reality is of course so much more complex. The Earth’s climate is changing with startling rapidity, and is manifesting in a thousand alarming ways at once — pandemics, hurricanes, inland hurricanes, floods, fires, etc etc. It’s not just that we’re using the wrong categories to understand things (‘normal’ and ‘not-normal’ aren’t actually a thing, and our ‘democratically elected governments’ aren’t technically ‘democratically elected’), but the very basis of categorization doesn’t really apply.

We are in the infinite cereal aisle of reality.

The centuries old project of patriarchy (dare I say literally the father of the capitalist one) has us more invested in holding its norms of gender and power, and ‘reopening’ its economies, than in reducing atmospheric carbon or educating the masses to an extent sufficient to understand the existential threat they face. It has been wryly noted that the countries with a ‘woman’ president have fared significantly better in the pandemic that the rest (the most) — but even this discourse is tainted by our conventions of ignorance. Is it their sex that has made them more effective leaders within the current system, or their gender? Are the people in these ‘women-led’ countries, also, correlatively better educated than the people in ‘man-led’ countries? Do we have time to even examine the complex interplay of biology and socialization? I didn’t think so. Our channels of discourse and our own frenzied immersion in wage slavery doesn’t allow anywhere near enough time to think that deeply.

The clues to our crises are all around us. But there is so much that gets in the way of examining them, from our own inertia in critical thinking to the desire for those stark, simple choices we’ve always been given when things seem really important. So I think it is a valuable first step to just discover for ourselves how spectacularly stupid and misinformed ‘gender reveal parties’ truly are. From there, the rest of our problems may unfold before us with clarity and lightness.

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Filmmaker, Teacher, Researcher, Founder and Director of the Artists Literacies Institute (artistsliteracies.org)

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Andrew Freiband

Andrew Freiband

Filmmaker, Teacher, Researcher, Founder and Director of the Artists Literacies Institute (artistsliteracies.org)

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