For Heliena, throwing a gender reveal was a turning point in a series of turning points. She had found herself pregnant and single at 20, unexpectedly expecting.
Heliena moved into her first apartment, held down two jobs, and kept all her doctor’s appointments while also coping with the emotional reality of becoming a parent by herself. “It really marked the ‘I need to care about what happens to me’ point in my life,” she says. It was daunting, and left her with little energy for excitement or anticipation.
After finding out she was having a girl, Heliena told only her stepmother Carolyn, who baked a cake filled with pink candies — “those almost inedibly terrible shiny round chocolate candies,” Carolyn recalls — which they cut open with the immediate family. “It was very sweet. We cried,” Heliena tells me. “And hugs all around,” Carolyn adds.
That small party and the cake full of awful candy was transformative for Heliena. “It took the spotlight away from the logistics and onto [my daughter] as a human being,” she says. With the weight of negative stereotypes about young single mothers worrying Heliena throughout her pregnancy, her gender reveal party reminded her that this was also a time for celebration, and that she had a community to see her through. “It validated everything I was doing to make sure she was going to have a good life, and reassured me that she would have the best family to support and love her.”
Heliena’s pink candy cake is a small part of a massive trend. Over the past decade, gender reveals have spread like wildfire, spawning countless Pinterest boards, think pieces, and a 47,000-acre wildfire. Future parents can choose from endless options for surprising party attendees with a telltale glimpse of pink or blue, from piñatas to candles, and at least one bakery that only makes gender reveal cakes.
Police have stepped in after a gender reveal ceremony took a turn for the worst.— Nine News Gold Coast (@9NewsGoldCoast) July 9, 2019
The explosive finale was captured on video, with the daredevil driver slapped with a hefty fine: https://t.co/V7DkwMkN2l @njkelly9 #9News pic.twitter.com/voh5QeTRqy
The concept of a gender-reveal party feels retro, especially when you consider themes like “Pistols or Pearls?” and “Tiaras or Trucks?” that assign unborn infants not just names or pronouns but entire personalities based on their anatomical sex. However, this is a very modern phenomenon. Announcing the sex of a fetus that has yet to enter the world could only have happened in the era of ultrasound imaging. And the trend never would have taken off without the accelerant of social media, which allows intimate personal moments to be shared with a vast, faceless audience.
The point of a gender reveal is not just to learn something new about a growing but as yet unknowable life — it’s to make a spectacle. Like all kinds of social media challenges, gender reveals are made to be recorded; if you’re going to really go for it, it would be wasteful to confine that viewing experience to those who can be there in person.
Using social media to share a gender reveal can also be a way for long-distance friends and relatives to stay in the loop, to approximate the feeling of community that comes from attending a baby shower or feeling the fetus kick.
“Social media has unleashed an era of disclosure and access transforming the intimate phases of pregnancy into public knowledge; the gender-reveal marks one of the more pivotal points in this public process,” writes Carly Gieseler, an assistant professor of gender and communications at York College, in an article for the Journal of Gender Studies. By sharing moments like this, parents-to-be invite others along for their journeys — and, in some cases, attain material as well as emotional support.
Kimberly Jolasun found a way to turn far-flung loved ones’ curiosity about her pregnancy to her advantage. Her husband’s relatives were convinced she was having a boy. She began allowing family members to place bets on the sex of her fetus for $20. After bringing in $800 from her friends and family, Kimberly placed all the correct guesses in a hat at her baby shower and drew a random winner to receive a Fitbit. She passed on the idea to two of her friends, who both raised several hundred dollars. “I knew then that I was onto something,” Kimberly says.
With her infant son in tow (yes, her husband’s family was right), Kimberly set to work creating the Gender Reveal Game, where future parents create betting pools for the sex of their future offspring and raffle off prizes to those who guess correctly. Kimberly launched her website in May of this year, and has had over 400 games created so far. The Gender Reveal Game has become Kimberly’s full-time job: the site is free for parents to sign up, but the company takes a cut of the funds raised.
As pregnant people go to more and more dramatic lengths to share what’s happening inside their bodies, retailers are finding ways to capitalize. “The gender-reveal trend commoditizes a major event in parenthood and feeds several capital interests that might never have been involved with this stage of parenting,” Gieseler writes.
Gender reveals are a thriving commodity, with parents spending major cash to announce the news via skydiving, at minor league baseball games, or via customized sneakers. “Future moms and dads increasingly feel social pressure to participate and outdo their peers or risk coming across as subpar parents before their child is even born,” writes Diane Stopyra for Marie Claire.
There’s a clear connection between the gender reveal arms race and other forms of intensive parenting. Like Pinterest-perfect birthday parties and toddler music camps, dramatic gender reveals require lots of resources — time, money, or both — making them a subtle way to impose class restrictions on who can be a good (prospective) parent.
This isn’t the only way that gender reveal parties are intensely divisive; if they reveal anything, perhaps it’s how polarized Americans have become on the topic of gender. The decade in which the gender reveal rose to prominence also saw a massive increase in visibility and protections for trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary Americans — followed, perhaps inevitably, by vicious social and legislative backlash.
The truth is, of course, that you can’t see gender on an anatomy scan. “Gender is the social, behavioral, and psychological characteristics that we use to distinguish the sexes,” writes Daniel L. Carlson for Psychology Today. “By definition, parents have no idea what the gender of their child will be since they have yet to interact with the child.”
Biological sex and gender identity are not perfectly correlated, and for those who have fought to break down the rigid adherence to binary stereotypes, seeing them resurface as a way of categorizing people not yet born is frankly painful. “Gendered binaries support patriarchal and hegemonic interests and institutions,” Gieseler writes; “therefore, the foetus is thrust into the hegemony via language and ritual as the pregnant woman is subsumed in the province of patriarchal control.”
It’s tempting to see the pink/blue dichotomy as old-fashioned and not long for this world, but it’s millennials and Gen Z-ers who are jeopardizing acres of forest and countless parental skulls with binary-reifying publicity stunts. If younger generations are not only embracing old ways of performing gender but creating hugely popular new ones, that’s worrisome to anyone who envisions society moving toward a future free of biological essentialism.
In fact, Jenna Karvunidis, the mother whose gender reveal party was the first to go viral in 2008, recently posted on Facebook that she thinks the trend has gotten “crazy.” “I just wish people would calm down with their reveal parties,” Karvunidis tells me. “People need to stop blowing things up for internet likes and focus on loving and accepting their kids.”
But there’s something other than a longing for good old-fashioned patriarchy at work in the ever-growing prevalence of this trend, something that appeals even to people who don’t want to shore up the gender binary.
Heliena doesn’t feel that she parents her daughter, now almost a year and a half, differently than she would have an assigned-male child. “If I had a boy, I would shamelessly put him in pink and purple,” she says, and she acknowledges that her child may not always identify as a girl. Julia Pelly writes for Motherly that she rejects the sex-role stereotyping of “Bows or Bow Ties?” but still felt the appeal of a gender reveal party and “spent hours looking everywhere I could think of online for a non-sexist idea.”
A paper by Florence Pasche Guignard asserts that the gender reveal became a phenomenon “in a context where neither medical nor religious institutions offer ritual options deemed appropriate enough for celebrating joyfully and emotionally during pregnancy.” Expectant parents are trying to meet an emotional need that might otherwise go unrecognized, and as imperfect as it is, a gender reveal party offers at least an approximation of what many parents are searching for.
Parents Joanna and Isaac came upon a possible solution while Joanna was pregnant with their second child. “Gender isn’t something we can assign to our child ourselves and isn’t a strict binary blue/pink thing,” Joanna tells me, but they still liked the idea of doing something to celebrate their impending newborn. “Our friend Marci suggested a chromosome reveal party instead.”
With the help of cookie cutters and a freezer, Marci created two loaf-shaped cakes, one lemon-flavored (Joanna’s favorite) and one chocolate peanut butter (Isaac’s). When sliced, the cakes’ cross sections revealed an X and Y in contrasting colors—gender-neutral green, yellow, and brown. The cake was served at a small party for friends and family, and video of the event has not, as of yet, gone viral. “It was perfect,” Joanna says.
Gieseler tells me in an email that this is one of the ways she sees the gender reveal evolving in recent years. While some parents continue to raise the stakes with elaborate and even dangerous pink-or-blue spectacles, others are choosing intimacy and complexity.
“I’ve noted celebrations that reject the pink-and-blue themes entirely, instead surprising guests with a ‘non-reveal’ or a multi-colored take representing the multiplicity of gendered identity,” she says. “Obviously, no one should feel restricted in celebrating this wonderful, hopeful time, yet there are ways to be creative, subversive, and critically enlightened within this popular trend.”
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