The gender reveal party has proven itself to be shallow, consumerist, queerantagonistic, and dangerous. It’s time to retire it.
By Nylah Burton
Recently, a few “gender reveal” parties have gone awry, prompting many to ask if it’s time for this relatively new practice to come to a swift end.
In the past, birthing people had to guess what their baby’s biological sex was by analyzing the way they were carrying, sprinkling salt on their heads, or swinging rings over their bellies. These methods were unreliable, making it nearly impossible to know the biological sex of a child beforehand.
But now, with fetal ultrasounds—and more invasive procedures like amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling (CVS)—parents can get a glimpse at their children, and their children’s genitals, before birth. And in a society that has always viewed the gender binary as sacrosanct, this technology has made “gender reveal” parties become a popular pregnancy ritual. During these parties, parents reveal their child’s assigned/assumed gender—boy or girl—with elaborate, showy, or expensive displays. Recently, one woman even farted out blue powder.
But these bombastic celebrations aren’t just strange; they’ve somehow become incredibly dangerous to people’s physical safety, even lethal.
A small plane crashed on September 7th, injuring one passenger, as the pilot attempted to dump 350 gallons of pink water. Another party led to the Sawmill Fire, one of the worst forest fires in Arizona’s history. An off-duty border patrol agent ignited Tannerite—a highly explosive substance—intending for it to merely reveal blue or pink powder. Instead, the ensuing explosion burned nearly 47,000 acres of land, forcing over 100 people to evacuate, and racking up $8 million in damages. And a grandma-to-be died in a gender reveal party after her family inadvertently created a “pipe bomb,” striking her in the head with shrapnel.
Not every gender reveal party ends in catastrophe, but these recent events highlight the pressures of both capitalism and cisheteronormativity. In capitalism, rituals and celebrations are less about spending time with family and friends, and more about performing social theater and profiting. For instance, particularly creative gender reveals—like the farting video—often go viral, and parents are sometimes able to capitalize on that social media recognition.
Also, people who don’t celebrate gender binaries may not notice, but the gender reveal party industry is quite a healthy one. On Amazon, parents can buy everything from voting boards to exploding basketballs to announce their child’s assigned gender. A company called Poof There It Is takes part in at least 200 gender reveals each day, the owner told The Atlantic. One mother, Megan Langford, wrote of the successful gender reveal party business she started before she quit, after realizing that gender reveal parties reinforce incredibly harmful, false conceptions of a gender binary.
If you understand gender as a social construct—not a biological one—and that gender expression and identity can change and shift over a person’s lifetime, then you must understand that “gender reveal” parties are functionally useless. Gender isn’t dependent on genitals; parents have no idea what their child’s gender will be—or if their child even has an internal sense of gender—until that child is ready to express their identity to them.
In this context, “gender reveal” parties are really “genital reveal” parties. And it’s incredibly creepy to sexualize unborn children this way, throwing an elaborate celebration to announce what their genitals look like. Thanks to tireless activism and education from trans and non-binary people, knowledge and ideas about gender have expanded so greatly in recent years that there’s really no reason to persist in this strange ritual.
And even the inventor of this trend has since shifted her views. Jenna Karvunidis, who popularized the gender reveal party when she wrote a viral blog about her own, said this year that she regrets igniting the trend.
“Who cares what gender the baby is?” Karvunidis said in a Facebook post. “I did at the time because we didn’t live in 2019 and didn’t know what we know now―that 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.”
Then, Karvunidis said that her child—the one she threw a gender reveal party for—now expresses her gender in non-binary ways. “PLOT TWIST, the world’s first gender-reveal party baby is a girl who wears suits!” Karvunidis said at the end of her post.
Some might argue that gender reveal parties are harmless, but they project unnecessary and hurtful expectations onto children before they’re even born. It means that the child has even less room to express themselves and feel safe with their parents. That’s the definition of harmful. What’s more, the pressure to perform cisheteronormativity and catapult to social media fame is literally killing people.
Pregnancy and birthing rituals are incredibly important. They help to comfort and ease the birthing person, and they are opportunities for friends and family to express love, support, and excitement. But as a ritual, the gender reveal party has proven itself to be shallow, consumerist, queerantagonistic, and dangerous. It’s time to retire it.
Nylah Burton is Denver-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk.