fbpx The Trouble With Gender Reveals

The Trouble With Gender Reveals

From wildfires to reinforcing the gender binary, it might be time to end this tradition.
Britany Robinson
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Britany Robinson

You've likely seen the headlines about gender reveal parties gone terribly wrong. There was the "smoke-generating pyrotechnic device" that caused a wildfire, burning 22,000 acres of forest in Southern California and claiming multiple lives. And the father who was killed when a device he was building for the big reveal exploded. There was also a plane commissioned to fly over a gender reveal party in Cancun that crashed over the Pacific Ocean, spewing pink smoke and killing both pilots.

These stories cast a tragic spotlight on a trend in which parents have deployed increasingly dramatic stunts to announce the sex (not, actually, the gender) of their future children.

The "gender reveal party" is a relatively new tradition, rooted in well-meaning excitement over pregnancy. It appears to have originated when blogger Jenna Karvunidis threw a party in which she cut into a cake revealing pink icing, and posted photos of the event to her blog, High Gloss and Sauce. This was in 2008, before the days of Instagram and Pinterest, but it sparked a trend that has since snowballed, with viral videos and posts, all of them building to a dramatic countdown that ends with either pink or blue—and usually a celebration, not tragedy.

But even when gender reveal parties are carried out successfully with cute and creative reveals, many see another big problem at play. By creating a spectacle out of the assigned sex, parents may also be assigning age-old stereotypes of gender onto people who have not yet been born.

As for the unborn baby celebrated with pink cake in 2008? She is now "a girl who wears suits," Karvunidis shared in a Facebook post, decrying the trend she accidentally started.

Why do people have gender reveal parties?
Illustration by Tré Carden
Illustration by Tré Carden

So much of the journey to get pregnant, and then the pregnancy itself, is private. There might have been months or years of trying to conceive, interventions like IVF, miscarriages, tears and struggle few will ever know.

Once pregnant, perhaps there were months of debilitating morning sickness and exhaustion. In consideration for all that parents go through—all the excitement and struggle that exist behind the scenes—it's perfectly understandable that when it comes time to share the news, many parents are enthusiastic about celebrating publicly, from the pregnancy announcement to the labor and birth.

"The core of the gender reveal is about having a communal, familial spirit around this moment," said Carly Gieseler, an assistant professor in the Department of Performing and Fine Arts at York College CUNY and author of Gender Reveal Parties: Performing community identity in pink and blue. A gender reveal party has become an opportunity to gather family and friends to celebrate with both parents—whereas the traditional baby shower has typically been thrown for mom with mostly women present.

Jaclyn Siegel, a postdoctoral research scholar in the Body Image, Sexuality, and Health Lab at San Diego State University, likens the desire to celebrate the sex to the early stages of relationships, in which you want to mark every milestone, including your 6-week and 3-month "anniversaries." It's a totally normal urge, wanting to celebrate every milestone of a pregnancy, too.

Social media ups the ante for festivities. Because gender reveal parties have adopted these visual stunts—Pink smoke! Blue confetti! Pink parachute billowing out of a dad's skydiving backpack!—it stokes a very common desire to attract positive attention on social media.

Neuroscientists have shown "likes" and other forms of positive feedback on social platforms trigger a release of dopamine in our brain—the same kind of chemical reaction you might get from recreational drugs, sex and gambling. In the middle of a pregnancy, when parents are tired and anxious and dealing with all kinds of side effects, it's no wonder they crave some social media love before the baby arrives.

The impact of enforcing a gender binary on unborn children

With gender reveal parties becoming ubiquitous on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest, there's a desire to make them bigger and more dramatic—which has led to fires, deaths and other types of harm.

Unintended disasters aside, aspects of the gender reveal can also be the opposite of uplifting—instead ostracizing those who do not subscribe to a gender binary and reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes.

When parents are told whether a fetus is a boy or a girl, what they're really being told is the baby's sex, as read on an ultrasound, based on anatomy. Gender, on the other hand, is more complicated. Planned Parenthood defines "gender" as "a social and legal status, and set of expectations from society, about behaviors, characteristics, and thoughts. Each culture has standards about the way people should behave based on their gender. This is also generally male or female. But instead of being about body parts, it's more about how you're expected to act, because of your sex."

Siegel said people are treated differently based on their sex very early on in life. "But truly, it happens in utero, as soon as the quote-unquote, gender, or, you know, chromosomal makeup of the child is revealed."

By assigning gender with either pink or blue, we are inviting people to treat that unborn baby a certain way. For example, girls are often called "sweet," while boys are more likely to be called "strong." Girls are often given gifts or celebrated with themes that are traditionally feminine, such as flowers, princesses, tea parties and unicorns. Whereas boys are more likely to be given toys related to trucks and cowboys. Popular gender reveal party themes drive this binary home with messages like "tutus or touchdowns" and "rifles or ruffles." By assigning those associations so early on, a baby, even before they're born, is receiving the message that they should be and act a certain way.

"Assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what's between their legs," wrote Karvunidis in a Facebook post.

And while there are plenty of little girls who love their pink ponies and plenty of little boys who love their blue trucks, Siegel warned there is some fundamental harm being done when people are slotted into "blue is for boy" or "pink is for girl" before you know anything about what they're like as individuals.

"People just want to celebrate—but they're not recognizing the fundamental harm this does, not only to the fetus and the child, but also to the people around them for whom gender may be nonbinary," Siegel said.

Inclusive alternatives to the gender reveal
Illustration by Tré Carden
Illustration by Tré Carden

A couple in Akron, Ohio, wore both pink and blue for a gender reveal party they held in their backyard. They opened a sealed box, presumably to reveal balloons with one of those colors—and out popped their 17-year-old son, along with yellow, white, purple and black balloons, the colors of the nonbinary flag. The celebration was a "gender reveal" in that they were celebrating their child's new pronouns (he/him) and the fact they got it wrong when they first celebrated their baby girl 17 years earlier.

As our conversations around gender have evolved, more and more people are acknowledging the problematic nature of the gender reveal.

In her research on gender reveal parties, Gieseler was thrilled to find a growing number of examples of people subverting the trend in favor of more inclusive fanfare.

"Pregnancy is something that only happens up to a few times in someone's life," Siegel said. "So wanting to celebrate every milestone and view every experience as celebratory makes sense."

But we don't need to fall into the trap of imposing gender stereotypes on babies before they're born.

If you have a desire to announce and celebrate the sex of your baby, there are ways to do so that are more inclusive and less offensive to those who do not identify with the gender binary—including, potentially someday, the child you're celebrating.

Many parents are having baby showers that include both parents these days, or throwing "gender reveals" with a tongue-in-cheek "It's a baby!" announcement. These parties can be just as colorful and social-media-worthy, with rainbows or multicolored balloons and confetti, without assuming a girl will like tutus and a boy will like trucks.

"I would look to the examples of these parents who are resisting," Gieseler said. "They're still celebrating, but they're doing it in subversive ways. They're putting something into the world that resists the tired language and images on gender binary."