The idea of gender reveal parties is simple. Yet in an era of inclusivity, the recent tradition has been plagued with controversy.
What are Gender Reveals?
The Spruce states: “Gender reveal parties are a special way that mom- and dad-to-be can reveal the gender of the baby to friends and family”. Many of the suggestions around activities rely heavily on themes of pink vs. blue and one of the activities is a ballot for guests to vote on what they think the baby’s sex will be.
The trend began in 2008 when a couple revealed the gender of their baby by baking a cake with pink icing. Since then it has boomed in popularity, with over 500 thousand “gender reveal” videos on YouTube. One such video, a compilation of reveals currently has 4.2 million views.
In April 2017, A United States Border Patrol agent in Arizona set a fire that destroyed over 45,000 acres of land and caused 8 million in damages when he fired a shotgun at a target. The intention was to have coloured powder indicating the sex of the child explode out of it. However, the resulting explosion caught alight instead, spreading to the Coronado National Forest. This later became known as the Sawmill Fire.
A plane crash in early September 2019 is also the result of a reveal gone awry. The pilot of a crop-dusting plane was conducting a gender reveal flight for a friend, during which he dropped 350 gallons of water shortly after which the plane stalled. A passenger sustained minor injuries.
In late October this year, the reveal inadvertently led to the death of one of its guests in Iowa. The attempt to make a device that would shoot coloured powered into the air created a pipe bomb. It exploded and fired metal pieces instead. One such piece struck a guest in the head, killing her instantly.
Australia had a trend for “burnout” gender reveals. This involves a car billowing out coloured smoke and has led to two cars bursting into flame.
Far from every reveal concludes with tragedy. Regardless, the majority of news of such parties now focuses on those that have gone wrong. Some assume that this is leading to the expectation that these parties will begin to decline in the next few years.
Why are Gender Reveals Controversial?
A common point is that gender reveals don’t reveal the gender of the baby at all. As Diane Stopyra states: “They reveal anatomy. Gender is a wholly different thing, inextricably tied to the social constructs around it”.
This is perhaps best explained by Refinery29’s Kasandra Brabaw: “The most basic difference is that sex is something a doctor assigns a person when they’re born, while gender is how a person experiences and/or presents themself”. Although referred to as a gender reveal, it is revealing the sex instead.
Moreover, the pink and blue associations can propel dangerous stereotypes. Pink was initially associated with boys, as shown in a 1918 article: “The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy”. The swap to the current association happened in WWII when gay men were forced to wear pink triangles. In fact, before the 20th Century, neither colour had gender-specific connotations.
Another issue with the party is that it ignores anything that falls outside of the binary of pink vs blue. One in every 1,500 births a baby is born with a form of Disorders of Sex Development. This means that the child’s sex may fall somewhere between male and female in terms of genital or chromosomal makeup.
These parties also do not account for the fact that the baby may somewhere outside the gender binary.
How Harmful are Gender Reveals?
The person who inadvertently created the trend was Jenna Karvunidis. She said: “I started to realize that nonbinary people and trans people were feeling affected by this, and I started to feel bad that I had released something bad into the world”. Her current message is that “gender isn’t the most important thing about a person, to begin with… Let your kids just be who they are.”
Arguably the most prevalent issue with gender reveal parties is their perpetuation of gender roles. Carina Chocano, author of You Play the Girl, describes the announcement as “a green light to start layering the unborn person with signifiers: to plan outfits and decorate rooms, to imagine bonding rituals, to project your own insecurities and unfulfilled longings”.
Essentially, the reveal perpetuates the notion that sex determines enough about the baby’s personality and future interests. It implies that it is acceptable to shoehorn them into traditional gender roles.
Carly Gieseler, PhD is an assistant professor at The City University of New York and author of Gender-Reveal Parties: Performing Community Identity in Pink and Blue. She states: “At a time when these expectations about gender are eroding, this type of ritual is working against that progress. We’re affixing a label to a child who hasn’t even had a chance to enter the world and assume that identity.”
The constraints that gender roles already placed on children are further strengthened by gender reveal parties. Forging such a strong link between sex and gender creates expectations even before birth. Yet there are increasing worldwide efforts to be as inclusive as possible. It is therefore likely that gender reveal parties will soon become a thing of the past.