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From the cultural avant-garde, the latest trend : parties convened by expectant couples for the sole purpose of unveiling the gender of their child-to-be to a room full of friends and family:

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.

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? A society that turns exercise into a sixty-minute communion with the sacred, or the choice of food into the highest expression of personal virtue, has probably lost faith in real change—the kind of change, for example, that might allow the staggering number of ex-felons to rejoin it with a degree of dignity.

At bottom, the invented rituals that proliferate in our culture signify a disenchantment with modernity. 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?

Well! Talk about a hefty diagnosis. As someone whose ears admittedly perk up at any deployment of a phrase like “disenchantment with modernity,” I can’t help but think that might just be a bit of overreaction (and on the part of a usually-staid New Yorker columnist, no less). Now, admittedly, this is a completely fabricated occasion for a party, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as a “tradition” in even a casual sense of that term. Furthermore, as the article keenly notes, it does seem like a kind of desperate replacement for the traditional religious services that usually accompany a monumental life event like the birth of a child.

But I’m not sure the impetus behind every one of these parties can be chalked up to sheer “narcissism.” In fact, in some way, aren’t these parties a benign development? Presumably anyone willing to announce their child’s sex to a room full of well-wishers has already made a definitive choice in favor of life for that child, and has (more specifically) rejected the dismayingly common practice of sex-selective abortion. And I wonder how representative these events are of “atomization” when they necessarily involve the corralling of a sizable group of people. Plus, it’s really not that frivolous an occasion for a soiree, fabricated though it may be; parties have been known to have been thrown on far more specious grounds than something relating to the mystery of new human life.

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