CULTURE & ARTS
08/11/2019 4:15 PM IST | Updated 08/11/2019 4:15 PM IST

When Gender Reveals Kill

The decade-old ritual is the perfect party for our mind-melting, social-media-loving, anxious-about-gender moment.

Isabella Carapella for HuffPost
Are gender reveal parties innocuous, inclusive fun? Or something more sinister?

Even if you’ve never attended a gender reveal party, thanks to Instagram, you’re probably familiar with the aesthetic: “Oh Baby” metallic balloons, Baby A and Baby B boxes, carefully frosted cakes, pink streamers, blue confetti, balloons, coordinated lighting, smoke powder cannons. 

The methodology may differ, but the narrative arc is always the same: A beautiful (likely heterosexual) couple stands in front of a camera, with friends and family just out of sight. The reveal occurs, displaying something blue for a baby boy or pink for a baby girl. Immediately, the energy soars, usually accompanied by a healthy dose of “Woo!”-ing and tears. The crowd goes wild and the likes on social media pour in. Record, reveal, post, repeat.

The seeming ubiquity of the ritual makes it easy to forget that gender reveal parties (which are, more accurately, “assigned-sex-at-birth reveal parties”) are actually a fairly new phenomenon, just over 10 years old. But during a decade full of dizzying digital acceleration, gender reveal parties have gone mainstream, become wild spectacles and faced multiple waves of backlash. 

What started with pink and blue frosting became pink and blue cake, then pink and blue confetti, then pink and blue exploding powder.

Then, most recently, the accidental pipe bomb. 

In late October, Pamela Kreimeyer, 56, was tragically killed by debris flying from a homemade device meant to emit colored powder. In a statement, authorities said that “members of the Kreimeyer family were experimenting with different types of explosive material … in an attempt to record a gender reveal that could be posted on social media for friends and family.” The device they had been testing out essentially amounted to a pipe bomb. Just a day later, it was reported that police were investigating a second gender-reveal-party-related explosion in the state.

Gender reveals occupy a space at the cross-section of hyper-modernity and deeply retrograde attitudes about gender.

This news set off a predictable wave of tweets — including my own — glibly expressing horror at the whole spectacle: “Please stop combining your wrong ideas about gender with explosive devices.” “Please stop doing this shit.” “Gender reveal parties are both stupid AND deadly!”

“The binary is dangerous, y’all,” I tweeted

The news was, of course, absolutely heartbreaking. But there was something about this set of stories, on the heels of several years of viral gender reveal fails, including one that started a 47,000-acre wildfire, that struck a chord. The fatality almost felt like the inevitable, dark conclusion of a binary-obsessed, 21st-century ritual that had mercifully run its course. 

Gender reveals occupy a space at the cross-section of hyper-modernity (the impulse to constantly document and curate milestones to be shared across social media platforms) and deeply retrograde attitudes about gender. In 2019, when young people are increasingly likely to reject the labels of “boy” and “girl” altogether, celebrating the binary feels passe.  

Even Jenna Karvunidis, a blogger who has been widely credited with first popularizing gender reveal parties, is now of the opinion that we’d be better off without them.

The Humble Beginnings Of The Gender Reveal

Karvunidis didn’t intend to create an international ritual when she held her gender reveal party back in 2008. She was pregnant with her first child and felt like there wasn’t a ton of excitement surrounding the impending birth. After making a duck-shaped cake for a colleague’s baby shower, she wanted an excuse to make the cake again. Her own baby shower was months away, but she realized that her anatomy scan was coming up very soon.

“I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to try to make an occasion out of this,’” she said.

By today’s standards, Karvunidis’ reveal was incredibly tame and simple. It was on a Tuesday. She made two duck cakes, one with blue icing between the layers and one with pink. She had the doctor put the sex of the baby into an envelope that morning, and then had her sister-in-law carry out the correct cake. Karvunidis remembers everyone grumbling at the beginning of the event, but when they cut into the cake and saw pink icing, the energy shifted. 

“I swear to God, it felt like the weather changed,” she said. “Everybody was like, ‘It’s a girl!’” There were no Instagram likes to collect, but at that moment Karvunidis got the validation that she had sought: “I should have realized at that time [that] this could really take off.”

Courtesy of Jenna Karvunidis
This is the cake that Jenna Karvunidis made for the gender reveal party she threw herself in 2008.

At the time, Karvunidis was regularly writing for her blog, High Gloss and Sauce, and she was active on parenting forums. She wrote one post about the party before it happened, and one about it after. Shortly after that second post went live, a writer from The Bump magazine contacted her. The publication ran a two-page spread about the party, which ended up in OB-GYN offices across the country.

Karvunidis believes this is why the idea caught on: In 2008, people were still actually reading waiting-room magazines instead of scrolling through Twitter.  Over the next couple of years, Karvunidis watched in confusion and then horror as her simple duck cake party became a phenomenon.

“At first, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s weird. Other people are having my party,’” Karvunidis said over the phone, reflecting on what it’s like to have made, in her words “a weird contribution” to today’s culture. “By 2013, I started to see it as problematic, and now I just see it as a total disaster and I want to run from it.”

Karvunidis watched in confusion and then horror as her simple duck cake party became a phenomenon.

The earliest gender reveal videos on YouTube are from 2008, the same year that Karvunidis had her party, according to Carly Gieseler, an associate professor at City University of New York who has studied gender reveal parties. She sees the ritual as something that grew out of a genuine desire for a new, more inclusive way to “experience celebrating the impending arrival of the baby.”

Gender reveal parties shift the focus to the couple as a unit; they served as an alternative to traditional baby showers, which were generally for women only and, in essence, sent the message that parental responsibility is primarily the purview of mothers. But over the last decade, these parties have morphed into a social media contest over “whose spectacle is the most visible,” providing yet another performative task for expectant parents (specifically expectant mothers) to fulfill. 

The Instagram Of It All 

When Jia Tolentino describes the ideal woman in her book “Trick Mirror,” she writes that “she looks like an Instagram — which is to say, an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace, which is how an ordinary woman evolves into an ideal.”

Motherhood is one key component of the ideal femininity that women are expected to constantly perform, and the most natural — and often lucrative — place to do so is on Instagram itself.

Click on the hashtag #genderreveal on Instagram, and you’ll find more than 1.1 million posts from around the world. Scrolling through the hashtag can feel mind-melting, one interchangeable 15-second video after another. The posts blend together into a swirl of pink and blue, laughter and tears, confetti and smoke. An “It’s a girl!” box of balloons in Ukraine becomes an “It’s a boy!” dog cake in Philadelphia becomes an “It’s a girl!” sparkler in Brazil becomes an “It’s a boy!” confetti-filled balloon in Australia becomes an “It’s a girl!” keg in Houston. 

Gieseler sees the proliferation of gender reveal parties as something that only could have occurred in our current moment. “Instagram is almost ideally suited for growing the phenomenon, because it’s all about these brief snapshots of your life and organizing a story in a specific way that is suited to the visual medium,” Gieseler said.

But cultural fads move unbelievably quickly in the social media age. Any visual trend is just a post away from becoming passe, which creates a never-ending pressure to document an increasing number of manufactured milestones. It also provides an opportunity for capitalism to swoop in and do its thing, filling the need for goods that can streamline the path to a perfect gender reveal. 

A simple search on Etsy turns up thousands of gender-reveal-specific products, all in shades of pink and blue, replete with tired gender stereotypes. There is an entire subset of “Ruffles or Rifles?” merchandise, as well as “Boots or Bows?” and “Wheels or Heels?”Whole companies have popped up to cater to people who want a splashy way to reveal their baby’s sex.

Poof There It Is!promises to “help you create your dream reveal,” with its pages upon pages of smoke and confetti-based products. There are exploding hockey pucks and basketballs and golf balls and baseballs. There are targets for shooting and colored powder packs that can be triggered using car tires and motorcycles. The promotional photo for the 3LB Premium Burnout Gender Reveal Simple Black Tire Pack features a pregnant woman standing in a white dress while a truck drives off behind her, leaving a trail of blue smoke in its wake. One can only assume that her husband is behind the wheel. The photo would kill on Instagram.

Etsy
A sampling of the "Ruffles or Rifles?" merchandise you can find on Etsy.

Even if you are someone who is more likely to take pleasure in mocking gender reveals than hosting one, the urge to produce the perfect shot, the one that allows the subject to freeze in time a moment that feels big and important and full of joy, is a fairly universal one. It’s the same impulse that makes people want to pose just so when they travel to see Very Good Foliage or go apple-picking in the fall, or that makes you feel a twinge of failure when you forget to capture a really good birthday outfit.

The camera has become a constant third party in most of our lives, like in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” but with fewer hot priests. Just think about the last time you went to a wedding and saw 100 iPhones lift up in unison as the bride walked down the aisle. 

We have all become professional documentarians of our own lives, and for women, the pressure to do so within the confines of idealized femininity can be all-consuming — and do unforeseen harm to those who witness the performance.

Thinking Outside The Binary 

Even as gender reveal parties decouple parenthood from gender, they reinforce gendered expectations for yet-to-be-born children. 

As mainstream understanding of non-binary, trans and intersex communities increases, it feels out of touch at best and actively harmful at worst to put so much focus on the assigned biological sex of a fetus, even if it’s framed as innocuous celebration. Trans and non-binary youth are more likely to have poor mental health outcomes than their cisgender peers — not because their gender identities fall outside of the binary, but because they are significantly more likely to face discrimination, violence and erasure at the hands of a culture that is inexplicably attached to the binary.

The products that populate the cottage industry of gender reveal parties illustrate how little room the ritual leaves for children that do not conform to the gender binary and the characteristics we attach to it. What about a boy-identifying child who likes to wear heels? What about a non-binary child who is crazy about cars? What about a girl-identifying child who hates both ruffles and rifles?

“I think that when we have this growing acceptance for more progressive ideology, especially in terms of identity, we often see backlash that seeks to reestablish those more traditional confines,” Gieseler said. Though she stresses that she doesn’t believe most couples who participate in the gender reveal trend do so to reify the gender binary, the ritual can still be inadvertently marginalizing, simply by reinforcing the idea that there are only two genders to celebrate. 

“When you’re then reproducing this [party] across social media spheres,” Gieseler said, “it replicates that message over and over again.” 

It’s just kind of funny that nobody took interest until people started physically being hurt.Jenna Karvunidis

This is also how Karvunidis has come to view gender reveal parties. She credits her 11-year-old daughter — the one whose sex was revealed at that very first party and who now wears suits and shaved her head a few years ago — with helping change and expand her ideas about what gender can be. “She’s telling me, ‘Mom, there are many genders. Mom, there’s many different sexualities and all different types,’ and I take her lead on that,” Karvunidis told NPR in July.

“I just think that the danger of the parties needs to be refocused on the social harm of it, because that’s the actual harm,” Karvunidis told HuffPost. “And, it’s just kind of funny that nobody took interest until people started physically being hurt. And, it’s like, ‘Well, think about the psychological damage that we’ve done.’”

The chances of dying at a gender reveal party are very low. The real danger of these parties is more subtle and perhaps more insidious in its mundanity. With every pink and blue post and purchase and share, the pressure to fit into that pretty little Instagram box is repeated, passing along the message that existing outside the lines is commensurate with failure.