On the Ritual Disciplining of the Female Body
August 10, 2015
by Marcelle Kosman
I chose childlessness for a long time—about half my life (I’m thirty-one). There are plenty of reasons why childlessness is important to me, but mainly my ambivalence toward pregnancy and motherhood stems from maternity’s importance to the patriarchal and capitalist disciplining of women’s bodies. Now that I am pregnant, I wrestle with being disciplined in a completely new way. In the next few weeks I’ll have a baby shower, and nothing I do will prevent its ritualistic extension of that discipline onto the childless women in my life.
Baby showers disturb me, especially women-only showers. I have yet to be invited to or attend a women- (or “ladies”-) only baby shower that did not make me profoundly uncomfortable. I am disturbed by the stereotypes that lead to my inclusion over that of my (cis-male) partner, Trevor. Compared to Trevor, I am less interested in the pregnancies of literally anyone I know, less excited about the idea of a baby shower, and less interested in having a baby. What could I ever contribute to a baby shower that Trevor could not? The answer is biological: my body—or, more specifically, my uterus. And I detest the reductive association between my female-sexed body and my inclusion in baby showers.
My own baby shower will not disappoint my prejudices. Baby showers are distinctly coded in ways that mask their performative and ritual functions. A shower is a performance that compels its attendees to participate in the production of its meaning, thus making the event appear agenda-free. The shower is also a ritual that works to discipline the attending fertile cis-gender female bodies in preparation for motherhood. As a whole, the baby shower operates as a ritual performance, performed by the kinship networks of pregnant women, training fertile childless women to enter into the social economy of motherhood, conditioning them to value motherhood as a desirable social role and to regenerate the system itself.
My baby shower will have refreshments, be organized around activities, and have an implicit dress code. You will be noticeably underdressed in jeans. Most of the other attendees will wear dresses, blouses with skirts, dress pants, or pantsuits. The space will be decorated with baby shower themed coasters and balloons. Also, and perhaps most significantly, you will be greeted at the door by my hostess who will explain to you the rules and approximate order of the afternoon’s activities. Thus, even though you are my close friends and family, the party is structured around your implicit obedience.
You may notice that anything that might trouble your obedience—say, coffee or alcohol—is unspoken of and absent.
The power of the baby shower ritual lies in its homogeneity. Anthropologist Victor Turner explains that the consistency of sociocultural systems ensures that we rarely (if ever) escape the normative entrapments of social events. Baby shower gatherings, like weddings and bridal showers, are“small-scale” events whose attendees are microcosmic of “large-scale” normative society. When the majority of attendees treat a baby shower as normative, the event conforms to our society’s typical baby shower standards. While individual baby showers are presented differently according to the faiths, socio-economic statuses, and politics of the parents (or the hosts), they nevertheless take familiar shapes. There is a degree of freedom to organize the event, but that freedom is limited to and mediated by the social expectations of a baby shower: it ideally occurs during pregnancy; the attendees bring gifts; there are games.
These expectations are not perceived as restrictions, but rather as elements necessary to a baby shower. Most disturbingly, deviations from the norm are easily subsumed as constitutive. For instance, we’ve seen the mainstream co-option of the term “offbeat” in describing non-normative weddings (see, for example, the former empire offbeatbride.com). The growing popularity of “offbeat” trends has produced an expanded market for consumable “offbeat” maternity products: advertisements for “Rockin’” maternity clothes and “Little Rebel Apparel” on the now defunct offbeatmama.com testify to this point.
Janelle S. Taylor argues that the baby shower, once “a ritual passing on of knowledge,” has now largely become another American consumer rite whose presumed purpose is gift-giving. The very fact that showers typically occur at the tail end of pregnancy emphasizes their purpose as consumer rites rather than part of a process of emotional preparation and support for the parent(s)-to-be. For example, while I am deeply fortunate to be part of a community to whom I can turn for advice at any point in my pregnancy, the onus is on me to know what advice to seek. I am neither shy nor isolated, and yet I remain remarkably unprepared for birth, postpartum, and parenting because I don’t know what questions to ask and there is no ritual to initiate the answering.
Baby showers are typically scheduled at the same time during most women’s pregnancies, are attended by roughly the same types of people, and have the same overt goals. Even the “freedom” to adapt a baby shower to match parents’ personalities and politics still yields an event that will be familiar to guests who have attended baby showers before. Further, the inescapable consistency of baby showers ensures that any first-time attendees will learn what to expect if they attend more baby showers in the future.
My baby shower is part of a web of socio-cultural training. It will participate fluidly in the broader patriarchal social system that is made up of similar landmark-related rituals, like weddings, christenings, bar mitzvot, and graduations. Further, it will represent the future life that I am expected to have in accordance with the same social order.
Rather than simply being oneself and pregnant, a pregnant woman embodies the social role of the mother—a position that is asexual and social. Cindy Stearns explains that “despite the obvious facts of human reproduction,” what constitutes a “good” maternal body is an asexual body. That is, our society sees women’s sexuality and women’s maternity as entirely distinct from one another. The most obvious evidence for this is the fact that we culturally associate birth with women’s pain, rather than women’s sexuality—let alone women’s pleasure (see, for example, Jezebel and the Daily Beast for recent discussions about orgasmic birth). Even though I think of myself as a relatively open person when it comes to discussing sexuality, I find the notion of orgasmic birth too taboo to discuss with family, friends, my health care providers, and even my partner.
As a pregnant woman, I am symbolically desexualized, existing only as maternity. My identity has been replaced by the presumed identity of my forthcoming child. If the fetus is presumed to be “a boy”—that is, if the infant’s sex organs are expected to be assigned male at birth—the decorations at my baby shower will be blue. Unlike, say, my favourite colours, normative gender codes are important to choosing my baby shower’s décor. To ensure the division between my sexuality and maternity, the event itself will be asexual. A woman-only space keeps the sexual connection to my maternity physically absent. Advice about caring for my nipples, if given at all, will be whispered. Under no circumstances will sexual relations be discussed or alluded to.
The baby shower’s simultaneous erasure of sexuality and reification of gender norms thus reinforces the binaristic, heteronormative sex/gender alignment of our patriarchal social order. The “party” serves to distract from the covert purpose of the shower: ritualizing the transition from childlessness to motherhood. The baby shower seduces fertile childless women into the social economy of motherhood in accordance with Michel Foucault’s analysis of social coercion. Our bodies, Foucault explains, are “useful” only if they are both productive (re-producing the systems of power and dominance that organize society) and subjected (abiding by those same systems). Only when we willingly comply with (rather than resist or ignore) social expectations are we good and useful members of society, and so compliance is rewarded through everyday rituals—like baby showers. The baby shower rewards the mother-to-be for complying with biological reproduction. In addition to praise and affection, she is “showered” with gifts that directly support the patriarchal capitalist economy. Moreover, the fertile-yet-childless women are treated to a kind of sneak preview of the rewards that await their compliance. In this way, without using weapons or terror, the shower coerces its attendant female guests to comply with the biological imperative to reproduce the system itself.
Your fertile female body will, like mine, be compelled, enticed, seduced, and rewarded for accepting maternity.
Motherhood is a role to which fertile childless women are constantly and at times aggressively pushed. The baby shower ritual is a significant part of this subjection. For instance, before one attends a shower, one must purchase a gift. Childless individuals do not patronize businesses that sell baby things—except to purchase gifts.
In preparing to attend my shower, you will locate a store selling the kinds of items I list on my gift registry. To purchase a gift, you must physically enter into the space of the store, surround yourself with maternity and baby things, browse, examine, and even touch the various objects from which you will eventually choose the gift.
This process quite literally forces a childless woman’s body to inhabit an imaginary maternal space. Objects as innocuous as textiles prompt a litany of questions and considerations that fuel this imagining: “What colour/texture/style would I want for my baby?” “Washcloth or bath mitt?” And while browsing with such a mindset (What would I want for my baby), one eventually encounters objects that advance one’s self-questioning about how to care for one’s own hypothetical baby: “Would I use disposable diapers or re-usable cloth ones?” “Bamboo, corn, or PBA-free plastic utensils?” Questions such as these, sparked by consumer goods entirely alien to one’s lifestyle, become seductively embedded in one’s consciousness.
You will find yourself considering what items would make up your gift registry if you were having a baby.
Such a shift in thinking is part of the subtle coercion of the fertile female body. Foucault explains that mastery of the body is “often made up of bits and pieces,” and shopping for a baby shower gift is the piece that most effectively submerges childless women into the economy of motherhood. In her work on feminism and psychoanalysis, Jane Gallop writes: “Any gift or debt alienates the individual into the circuit of exchanges, compromises one’s integrity and autonomy. But assertion of one’s uncontaminated selfhood is no practical way out of the circuit.” In purchasing gifts for baby showers, we literally buy into both the social and capitalist economy of motherhood. In choosing a gift, we willingly express our identities through the pre-existing options that the market makes available to us.
You can reject items colour-coded by gender, or the petroleum-industry’s selection of fabrics, but the market is ready for you with unbleached white organic cotton. The available options will allow you to feel satisfied with your purchase and you will conveniently forget to think critically about the social, political, and symbolic ramifications of the act of purchasing a shower gift.
There is, as Gallop suggests, no practical way to escape the baby shower circuit. One could refuse to purchase a gift, but this is useless. Such a refusal can never successfully resist the patriarchal social order perpetuated by baby showers. Instead of being perceived as autonomous and resistant, one is instead perceived by compliant friends and family as inconsiderate, rude, or (at best) eccentric.
You will be overwhelmed with guilt for failing to bring a gift to my baby shower, for this is the degree to which your body is already disciplined to participate in the maternal economy.
Foucault explains that the power to discipline is not simply possessed by the dominant members of society, but is rather the cumulative effect of all citizens abiding by the rules that keep the powerful in power. It is thus inevitable that women perpetuate the baby shower ritual—a ritual that is complicit in and integral to the maintenance of the patriarchal social order—given patriarchy’s domination of women. It is a ritual by and for women, about how to be a woman: be a mother. The power of discipline means that the elements of the ritual are not restricted to the event, but rather extend temporarily (and, ideally, permanently) into the everyday world of the participants. Women get excited about baby showers, look forward to them, and help one another plan them. When they no longer participate in the planning, they affirm the shower’s value through their predictable attendance.
That showers are exclusively women’s purview creates the illusion that the ritual celebrates rather than disciplines the female body. This illusion depends on the reification of motherhood as a desirable social role. There are multiple means through which this is achieved, but essentially it comes down to games. Games emphasize the value of pregnancy by rallying the attendees into group-think exercises that presuppose the importance and grandeur of maternity. Importantly, these games are structured so that participants are at all times distracted from the coercive nature of the games—not to mention the event itself.
You will play three games at my baby shower.
Game Number One
This game will be introduced to you just as you arrive. Our host will place a blue soother strung on matching blue string around your neck, and explain:
- Do not use the words “baby,” “babies,” or any term containing those words, such as “cry-baby.”
- If you hear an attendee using the forbidden b-words, take away her soother and wear it around your own neck.
- When the shower ends, the participant with the most soothers will be declared the winner and given a prize.
To play this game correctly, you must keep the word “baby” in mind at all times. You will endeavor to do so to avoid punishment; the shameful lack of soother will signal your failure and disobedience to the other attendees.
The “baby” taboo game reinforces the social stigma directed at women who fail to have “babies” in mind at all times; it playfully (but publicly) penalizes that failure, while praising the women who carry the most (symbolic) “babies” possible.
Game Number Two: Baby Necessities
You will be handed a sheet of paper titled “Baby Necessities from A to Z” and challenged to fill in as many of the alphabetized blank spaces as you can with corresponding alphabetized “necessities” to care for your baby. You have five minutes to complete the list.
Timed baby trivia games force childless participants into rapid-fire training sessions on maternity preparation.
You will be compelled by the ticking clock to produce itemized proof of your ability to parent. Your answers will be compared and subtly scrutinized to ensure that the winner has compiled a legitimate list. You will be questioned, for example, if under M you have failed to write “Mommy” and have written “mirror stage.”
Alphabetization and time limits streamline the participants’ thoughts directly toward stereotypes: B for bottle, C for cradle, D for diaper, and so on. This precludes any serious discussion about how to care for infants and instead perpetuates the notion that prepared mothers (that is, “good” mothers) have consumer goods, baby things, with which to care for their babies.
Game Number Three: How Big is Mommy?
This is the most important game we will play. It requires you to guess the girth of my pregnant body by wrapping a string around your waist and extending it outward, imitating my pregnant stomach.
More than any other baby shower element, maternity imitation games entail an imaginative displacement in which the participants must imagine that they are themselves as pregnant as the expectant mother.
Once each of you has a length of string estimating my body’s diameter, the hostess will measure me and then compare her measurement with the lengths and accuracies of each of your estimates. Only one participant’s guess will come close; most will be off by nearly a foot.
The impossibility of the measuring game suggests that its sole purpose is to force participants to actively pretend to be pregnant. While most elements of a shower encourage the incidental imagining of oneself as pregnant, measuring games demand that players visualize their own pregnancies.
By wrapping measuring tape around your imaginary womb, your focus is directed onto and into your own body as a vacant space available for the satisfaction of maternity.
According to psychoanalytic theory, our bodies contain imaginary spaces that serve psychic functions. For example, even though we know emotions are produced by the brain, our language sustains the fantasy that emotions reside in and come from the heart. This fantasy is called “incorporation,” meaning the imaginary space is integrated into one’s whole identity, imagined to be corporeal, and then reified through discipline. Where gender identity is concerned, all of the rules and expectations for how one should behave are imagined to be and described as the result of the physiological differences between men and women.
Judith Butler explains that gender roles normalize the disciplining of bodies through incorporation. That is, discipline is the process that sustains the fantasy of incorporation. In the case of motherhood, baby showers locate the internal, imaginative space of womanhood as the womb. This is not the physiological sex organ called the uterus; the womb is an asexual location where the social expectations of maternity are “incorporated.” As my baby shower demonstrates, all (fertile) women have wombs. Wombs are what make us women.
The sum total of my baby shower’s elements will create an imitative physical and psychological experience of maternity that will discipline your fertile, childless body.
The incorporation of maternity into women’s bodies exemplifies the binding of female-sexed people to women’s gender roles. The baby shower ritual fosters continuity from mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter, aunt to niece; maternal body to childless body. Luce Irigaray’s theory of the exchange of women in society describes mothers as “reproductive instruments.” Irigaray explains that women, “marked” with the names of fathers (our own fathers first, then the fathers of our children), fundamentally exist to reproduce the labour force and “maintain the social order without intervening so as to change it.” Baby showers, much like weddings, mask the use-value of women’s bodies by making us the outright and unquestioned centre of attention, however briefly. As events, they reinforce our social constructions of appropriate feminine sexuality: valorizing reproduction, monogamy, and modesty by precluding any reference to or discussion of women’s sexual pleasure. As participants, we are made complicit in our own subjection; we celebrate one another’s acquiescence to it.
The desire to become a mother is aggressively imposed and reinforced by a capitalist social economy dependent on procreation for its continued existence. Our society encourages us to desire material objects from friends and family as proof that we are the centre of their attention. The baby shower takes on this form for women, reigniting our socially instilled materialistic desires. It hails the childless attendees by promising rewards of gifts and attention. Moreover, because other mothers lavish the gifts and attention, an atmosphere of merit, desert, and “my turn” is created. The childless woman knows that someday it will be her turn.
“My turn” has long been a topic of conversation among my immediate family members, in-laws, and even strangers. Any statement I previously made about my disinterest in pregnancy, motherhood, and children was regarded as part of “a phase” and temporary (“You’ll feel different when it’s yours”). Now that I am pregnant, my disinterest continues to be misinterpreted. My ambivalence toward motherhood is now perceived as cautiousness rather than, simply, ambivalence.
Marcelle is a rabid feminist working on her PhD in Edmonton, Alberta. In addition to making a baby and feeling complicated about it, she also co-hosts and produces the fortnightly podcast Witch, Please (available on iTunes) about the Harry Potter world. She tweets a combination of rage and whimsy @kosman8r.
Image: “Feminology; a guide for womankind, giving in detail instructions as to motherhood, maidenhood, and the nursery” (1902), Flickr
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Gallop, Jane. The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.
Irigaray, Luce. “This Sex Which is Not One.” Performance Analysis: an introductory coursebook. Ed. Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf. New York: Routledge, 2001. 59-65.
Stallings, Ariel Meadow. Offbeat Mama. 4 December 2010. www.offbeatmama.com.
Stearns, Cindy A. “Breastfeeding and the Good Maternal Body.” Gender & Society 13:3, 1999. 308-325.
Taylor, Janelle S. “Of Sonograms and Baby Prams: Prenatal Diagnosis, Pregnancy, and Consumption.” Feminist Studies. 26:2, 2000. 291-418.
Turner, Victor. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” Performance Analysis: an introductory coursebook. Ed. Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf. New York: Routledge, 2001. 202-9.