***Disclosure: Kaitlin McCarthy is a staff member of SeattleDances. Kaitlin was not the editor assigned to this review and the opinions presented are entirely that of the writer***
Living in a pregnant body can bring on a renewed forcefulness of gendered expectations; people are very comfortable telling pregnant women exactly what they should or shouldn’t be doing, orders commonly accompanied by righteousness and condescension. The accepted and even celebrated controlling of the pregnant body is the context in which Kaitlin McCarthy’s Gender Reveal Party sits, as it navigates a complicated and morally-latent system of “rules” coming from pregnancy literature, TV and movies, total strangers, and even loved ones.
Through Gender Reveal Party, McCarthy ruthlessly interrogates what it means to be pregnant, reclaiming her own agency as human and parent, and challenging gendered expectations. The “avant garde lecture-demo/existentialist dance memoir performed by a very pregnant person,” as McCarthy describes it, was all at once a philosophical treatise on womanhood, a celebration of vulnerability, a breaking of societal norms, and a redefining of McCarthy’s experience on her own terms.
From a soon-to-be mother, often there’s an unspoken expectation of wholesomeness, of demurity, perhaps even shame for living in a de-sexualized body. Instead, McCarthy, from the get go, sexualizes the pregnant body. She enters the space with a human-sized, bare-naked puppet on her back, noodly arms flopping up and down, as she pulls the strings. The puppet has oversized, flopping breasts, and a large pregnant stomach. McCarthy dances the puppet, kicking its legs and jiggling its tummy. This serves to objectify the pregnant body, and in its nudity, sexualize it. The audience laughs at the puppet’s exaggerated floppiness, but there also seems to be a comedy associated with sexualizing pregnancy.
McCarthy slips out from underneath the puppet to reveal her own pregnant body, scandalously clad in a sexy bikini, distinctly showing off her bare belly. McCarthy comedically plays with breaking the cultural norm of a desexualized pregnant woman by dancing to the iconic “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas. Intended to refer to breasts and backsides, McCarthy repurposes “My Humps” to foster the audiences’ love, perhaps even eroticism, of her pregnant belly: “you love my lady lumps.” McCarthy thrusts with small, subtle, and unbearably funny pelvic isolations. She eagerly frames her stomach with her hands as Fergie chimes “Check it out.” She shoots her pointer fingers out from her nipples in long arcs as the Black Eyed Peas sing “mix your milk with my cocoa puffs, milky, milky, right,” rewriting the song’s meaning to refer to her breast milk.
It seems the layers of expectation pregnant people feel can be particularly isolating, as the pressure to be a “good mother” is particularly heavy. However, McCarthy smashes these expectations with a hammer, using honesty and vulnerability to permeate the performance. After each dancing vignette, a pre-recorded commentary plays, written and spoken by McCarthy herself. The very first narration comes through bold, intense, and authentic, as McCarthy speaks of feeling deeply repulsed when considering getting pregnant: “Just thinking about it manifested physically, my stomach turning over.” She speaks of a “gut-level horror” and of how she hoped her body would “biologically reject the whole process.” Instead of performing the societally expected love and excitement around being a new mother, McCarthy grapples with a profound aversion to pregnancy and childbirth.
McCarthy also confronts the idea that being pregnant should make one feel as human and womanly as possible. Rather, she expresses that “natural is the opposite of what I’m feeling.” To reinforce her point, McCarthy dons a rubber bird mask, driving home how inhuman and unnatural she feels. She holds her arms bent at the elbow with dangling hands, simulating a birds’ legs and feet. The scene is eerie as she moves slowly, almost crawling. The stage is dark except a spotlight that accentuates the bird mask.
As McCarthy slinks out of the bird head, the next commentary airs: “I don’t want to be a divine vessel, a symbol of feminine creation, a miracle of life bringing. What I want is to tear the world apart and see what it is made of.” In this, McCarthy wrestles with the fact that she is a human housing another human, both of which have their own dreams and realities. She illustrates this discomfort by forming a crude hand puppet by her face, fingers pinched close as if her hand had a mouth. She slowly looks side to side, her hand puppet following her gaze. With great suspense, she turns to face her hand bit by bit, starting with a sharp look out of the corner of her eyes, creating a fearfulness around fully facing her creation. McCarthy’s hand puppet is both absolutely her body and yet something outside of her body; it seems to analogize the experience of having a baby living inside of you, and McCarthy seems to regard it with much the same distrust.
For me, the climax of Gender Reveal Party lied in one of the most blatant challenges to the policing of pregnant women. After a long series of being ordered to blow! and suck! from an authoritative male voice as McCarthy alternated between blowing bubbles in a glass of milk and quickly lapping it up, McCarthy grabbed a bottle of wine from the bar and offered audience members a top-off. She poured herself a glass and sipped it casually, jokingly admitting “she could really use a drink.” Escaping the looping orders, in this case blow and suck, McCarthy sought some form of relaxation. Judging looks and stern lectures are almost inescapable if a pregnant person orders a beer, even though the casual sipping of an adult beverage is well within a pregnant person’s right, and the fear around lightly drinking while pregnant is often overexaggerated. Drinking alcohol is perhaps one of the most taboo acts one could commit while pregnant, and here McCarthy had a room full of people watching her do it.
In interrogating the experience of pregnancy, McCarthy is careful to explore the positive as well. To a sequence of covers of “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, McCarthy invited audience members to slow dance with her in 30 second intervals. She often knew people by name, calling them towards her. She finished by asking her partner and co-parent to dance with her. McCarthy seemed to be celebrating love, both in community and partnership – a love that centered around support for her as a human going through a complicated experience, and as a parent welcoming a new human into this world.
McCarthy further cemented the importance of a loving community, particularly during this time, by asking for help throughout her performance. In multiple instances, she called on volunteers, for slow dancing, for pushing pom poms around to outline her body, and for help removing a glittering cardboard box from around her body. She even asked every audience member to circle around her, on stage, at the end of the show. From beneath a shiny pinata style dress, where we could only imagine her curled up, arms hugging her legs close, McCarthy admitted her last confession of the night: “I’m scared. I don’t want to disappear. That is all.”
McCarthy’s raw vulnerability and voicing of intimate fears closed the performance on a beautiful note. Ultimately, she seemed to imply that the intense and complicated experience of being pregnant is better navigated through much friendship and community. Even with this, McCarthy breaks societal norms, those of individualism, of turning inward for strength during difficult times, and of not divulging potentially embarrassing thoughts and feelings.
Gender Reveal Party challenged so many assumptions I had around pregnancy, parenthood, and womanhood. Even the name itself – gender reveal party – presented a meaningful lesson on a problematic tradition. Perhaps instead of expecting pregnant people to authoritatively label their unborn children in a gender binary, we should celebrate the fear, criticisms, joy, and courage of pregnant people and their art.
Gender Reveal Party (an avant garde lecture-demo/existentialist dance memoir performed by a very pregnant person) was performed by Kaitlin McCarthy at Velocity Dance Theater on Sunday March 8, 2020.