Excerpt from Slice of Life: The Food Practices of the North American Cisgender, Ch. 3: “The Big Reveal.”
As an anthropologist living amongst the Cisgender people, I’ve been lucky enough to witness a number of their unique cultural practices…. One of these is the “gender reveal cake,” in which a (typically heterogamous) couple has their doctor send what they call “the results” of their fetus’s ultrasound–essentially, whether said fetus appears to have a “penis” or a “vagina”(1)– which the Cisgender believe to be the determination of “gender,” to a Baker. To the Cisgender, “gender” is the factor on which they believe the child’s entire essence hinges and is determined by external anatomy. We call this outmoded practice gender essentialism; it ignores intersex individuals but reduces a complex set of cultural cues, personal interests, fashion, skills, behavior, and the innate knowledge of the complexity of one’s own gender, to two options based on the “results” of the ultrasound, or, for those who opt out of “knowing the gender,” on the appearance of the external genitalia of the baby at birth.
In order for their parents-to-be to properly prepare themselves for this rite of passage, they call on their community of peers and familial relations to witness the “reveal” of the apparent genital configuration(2) of their child. The Baker then creates a cake or other dessert in which the “gender” of the child is “revealed” through the use of colors: pink for the fetus with a vagina, and blue for the fetus with a penis. The color is hidden in the center of the cake by dyeing a segment of the batter with food coloring or through filling the cake with colored ganache; the outside of the cake will be white or decorated in a fashion deemed “gender neutral.” To the Cisgender, the colors yellow, white, and green are considered free of gender, as are certain animals such as ducks, giraffes, and elephants.
However, the party may have a theme on genders in opposition, such as “hair bows or bowties”(3), “facial hair or cosmetics,” or other fashion markers the Cisgender use to distinguish gender, which are forbidden for use by the “opposite” gender. They may engage in light-hearted genitalia-guessing games by polling the guests merely on personal desire or opinion, or on the appearance of the gestational parent, the season in which the egg and sperm fused, etc. A frequent slogan is “pink or blue, we love you,” which means “we will love you whether you have a penis and identify as a boy or have a vagina and identify as a girl.” However, it is less clear about whether the parents will love a child who is a girl and has a penis, a child who has a variety of reproductive and sexual organs, or a child who does not have a gender.
The parents-to-be will typically cut the cake open in front of an audience to reveal the color inside. The color of the cake will determine how the child is dressed, physically and socially handled by adults, discussed, encouraged in academic and athletic pursuits, and even named. This “gender” assignment will also determine with whom the child may socialize or, at adolescence, engage in romantic behavior.
Like most cultural practices, the intent and meaning of the ritual are rarely questioned. The Cisgender truly seem to believe in the power of the ultrasound, even if the child themself, upon reaching an age when they can communicate their gender, tells their parents otherwise. The reveal cake is not universal; a more common variation on the gender-reveal cake is just a “baby shower cake,” in which the parents have been told that the baby has a “turtle” or a “hamburger” and make an appropriately colored cake. (N.b. Strangely, turtles are considered gender neutral, and hamburger-shaped cakes are more often associated with summer birthdays. Although hamburgers (full size or miniature) may be served as refreshments, they seem to carry no further gendered value after the ultrasound.)
Although I had already announced my own gender upon my arrival, the Cisgender people read me as one of their two genders, though not always the same one. I thought I would help them understand me better by creating, with permission, a cake to reveal my gender to them:
Genderqueer Gender Reveal Cupcakes
I made the genderqueer flag, which is purple-white-green, but as you can see, my green rose and my purple sank. You can make whichever flag you want by dividing the batter evenly and dyeing it with food coloring drops or gels.
Adapted from “Buttermilk Layer Cake,” The Joy of Cooking, 2005 ed., p. 714. You can use any vanilla/white cake batter; you’ll need about 3.5-4 cups.
Yield: ~14 to 16 cupcakes
2 1/3 cups sifted cake flour*
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup (1.5 sticks/ 85 g) butter (room temperature)
1 1/3 cups (265 g) sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
Optional: 1/2 tsp orange blossom water
1 cup (240 mL) buttermilk**
*Make your own: 1 cup of cake flour = 3/4 cup AP flour sifted with 2 TBSP cornstarch (85 g AP flour with 15 grams cornstarch = 100 grams); for this recipe, you will need 1 3/4 cups (198 g) AP flour + 4 TBSP+2 tsp (35 g) cornstarch.
**Or: 1 TBSP white vinegar + 1 cup minus 1 TBSP cow’s milk; if using soy or almond milk, use the same ratio but use apple-cider vinegar; let sit for at least 10 minutes.
-Stand mixer or hand mixer
-1 medium bowl
1. Preheat the oven to 350º F/170º C.
2. Whisk together dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
3. Beat the butter in the mixer bowl until creamy.
4. Gradually add the sugar and beat on high speed until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes.
5. Whisk eggs, vanilla, and orange blossom water together, then gradually beat it for about 2 minutes.
6. Beating at low speed, add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk in two parts.
7. Beat until smooth, scraping the bowl as necessary.
8. Divide the batter into three equal parts for the tricolor (or as many parts as necessary). Dye using food coloring. I used food coloring gel but food coloring drops are also fine. I used about 1/2 tsp of green for the green; no color for the white/yellow; and 1/4 tsp red with 1/2 tsp blue for the purple.
9. Using a small measuring cup (~1/4 works well), layer the three colors into the cup, filling each cup about 2/3 full (or 3/4 full for more of a dome).
10. Bake for ~18-25 minutes or until golden and a tester comes out clean.
I always use “American Buttercream” from Sprinklebakes; recipe here. You’ll use the stand mixer or hand mixer again. I used a knife to frost the cupcakes, but use whatever technique makes your cupcakes as pretty as you are.
Decorations: rainbow sprinkles
- Also colloquially referred to as “turtle” and “hamburger,” as they believe the fetal penis looks like the head of a turtle and that the fetal vagina resembles a type of sandwich. The Cisgender are also somewhat squeamish about the use of medical terms around children, and often prefer to use euphemisms for genitalia, though the euphemisms used for and in front of children vary greatly from those used for and in front of adults.
- Though great technological advances has been made, ultrasounds are not 100% accurate in terms of relying the desired “gender” information to the parents, both in terms of what variety of genitalia the child might have as well as the fetus’s actual gender.
- The location and purpose of the bow, which may be used to secure a collar, pull back long hair, or fasten a shoe or garment, seems to enforced by “gender” despite being a nearly identical object in form as well as in purpose.