Earlier this month, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined the catastrophic El Dorado wildfire was caused by a “smoke generating pyrotechnic device.” The device was set off during a party, intended to release pink or blue smoke to signal that the gathering’s unborn honoree was either a girl or a boy. Instead, it was baby’s first introduction into a world of inferno, destruction, and gender.
In a very short time, gender reveal parties have become a new tradition in popular culture. It started with a piece of cake, dyed pink or blue on the inside. Now they’ve grown exponentially and resulted in not one but at least two acre-scorching wildfires, a fatal explosion, a fiery car crash in Australia, and party attendees burned by fireworks. We’re at the point now that the woman who’s credited as creating these parties is begging for them to stop or at least calm down — the same plea she made on Vox a year ago.
But given that people are risking social distancing measures in the middle of a pandemic and setting off smoke bombs during wildfire season, it seems as though that plea will go unheeded. It’s particularly hard to get people to stop a behavior without fully examining that behavior.
Gender reveal parties are a young tradition, and so they haven’t been studied extensively and academically yet. But gender and social experts have ideas, some more abstract and some more tangible, that explain why these parties have become more explosive and more destructive as time goes on. And at the heart of it, they explain how we think of parenting today.
It’s a last gasp of gender construct
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s at the moment when the gender binary system is being challenged more intensely than ever before that we see gender reveal events become more and more performative and over-the-top,” Gayatri Gopinath, the director of NYU’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, told me over email. Gopinath explains that this long-clung-to binary is facing examination “due to the increasing visibility and activism of/by trans and nonbinary folks and their allies.”
Gopinath’s assessment of gender reveal parties — she said it was a quick take — was something other experts I spoke to mentioned as well. The idea is that Americans have become more and more progressive when it comes to understanding the nuances of gender and have shown a growing support for trans rights (a work in progress, however, especially when you consider the number of violent acts against trans people). In fact, experts say that “gender reveal party” is a misnomer since gender is a social construct: It’s actually a baby’s biological sex reveal party.
We’re growing more comfortable with the idea that there’s nothing wrong with allowing our kids to be who they want to be, that maybe the pinks, blues, and behaviors we assign kids based on their sex isn’t really that helpful or that important.
Gender reveal parties and their fixed concepts about boys and girls, masculinity and femininity, and the men and women they’ll become, are the last vestiges of those “traditional” ideas. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that straight couples tend to be the drivers behind the gender reveal party phenomenon.
“It seems to me to be an anxious and reactionary response that attempts to stabilize the meaning of gender at precisely the moment that it is becoming less rigid and more unstable,” Gopinath said.
According to Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University, this “last gasp” concept has been written about in regard to rapid social and political change in the US. An example: President Obama’s election and reelection met with a flare-up of vociferous racism. Gender reveals, in the context of Americans’ progression on gender, could implicitly be about resistance. That could definitely be what’s happening here, she said, but we need more information.
“When you’re about to extinguish a behavior” — in this case, antiquated and fixed gender norms — “there’s oftentimes a burst of the behavior before the behavior is fully extinguished, like one last-ditch effort,” Solomon said, describing the phenomena. “I don’t know if that’s exactly part of it.”
She explained that more research about who is conducting these parties needs to be done, but it wouldn’t surprise her if the couples who arrange gender reveals tend to lean more conservative and less inclined to recognize gender as a social and psychological construct.
Occam’s razor: Gender reveals are so big because social media demands it
The simplest answer for why these parties have become ceremonies of destruction is that tame gender reveals seldom gain viral status. Gender revelation has become an industry — books, blog posts, hashtags, party planners are devoted to the event — and an arms race.
“People want it to be dramatic, celebratory, an event,” Peter Glick, a professor of psychology and social sciences at Lawrence University, told me. “And to go viral above all, which means an explosion or something else eye-catching or funny or sweet.”
While people do attend gender reveal parties in person, the audience is actually much bigger. The reveal is as much for the people watching on TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook as it is for those present. With that in mind, the stuff that tends to get the most attention on social media sites is videos, preferably videos that have a punchline and an emotional impact. A photo of a slice of pink cake isn’t as dynamic as confetti cannons going off, and confetti cannons firing blue bursts into the sky aren’t as spectacular as a military F-14 flyover.
The bigger the reveal, the better chance it has of going viral, and the more pressure there is to outdo the gender reveals that came before it. But as Glick told me, the bombastic nature of the event is also connected to how important gender is to these parents — something that seems related to Gopinath’s idea about how tightly we’re holding on to old masculine ideals.
“It’s the ‘big reveal’ about who the child ‘is’ or ‘will be,’” Glick told me. That’s a tall order, even for a pyrotechnic smoke device.
But is it really about dudes?
Solomon, who specializes in gender and parenthood at Northwestern, told me that birth is something American society associates with mothers, women relatives, and the feminine. That affects Americans in a personal way — like fathers-to-be feeling left out — but is also reflected in bigger ways, like employment policies that lack paternity leave.
“In relationship education, I talk a lot about the importance of the couple, of really ensuring that they both feel equally connected to the baby, equally responsible for the babies, and setting those good habits right from the start,” she told me. This is particularly a concern in heterosexual couples “because the cultural pressure marginalizes the male role, which has huge consequences for him, for her, for the baby, and that doesn’t do anybody any good.”
The need to break down those cultural barriers and include men squares with the narrative that gender reveals are a way to make straight, cis men part of the pre-birth excitement. Traditionally, baby showers have been thought of as female-centric. A gender reveal opens up the avenue to help men celebrate the imminent birth of a child.
But what if making men a part of these celebrations makes them inherently more deadly?
Do all these explosions and destructive events coinciding with the birth of a child have to do with performative or precarious masculinity? Researchers have observed the social and psychological reactions men display when their masculinity is threatened and discovered that many men double down on risky or dangerous behavior when challenged. Becoming a father is commonly recognized as a test of one’s manhood.
Solomon described to me a 2009 study in which men were asked to braid — some got ropes, others got a baby doll’s hair. “The men who were braiding the hair then went on to choose a more aggressive hostile task next.”
Including men in a traditionally feminine space, like a celebration of pregnancy, could trigger masculinity loss, and this would partly explain why gender reveals have featured explosives, guns, wildfires, and bullet wounds, while traditional baby showers didn’t.
To be clear, there are plenty of gender reveal parties that never make headlines and are no doubt enjoyed by many people; there wouldn’t be an industry around them if they weren’t so popular. But there’s an underlying current of schadenfreude with these freak reports of gender reveals gone wrong.
When a gender reveal fail surfaces — like the wildfire or someone hurting themselves setting off a gender reveal firework — there’s a common reaction: Maybe the people behind it aren’t the best or brightest America has to offer. It’s the opportunity to judge these people’s choices and conduct. A lot of us think of the other ways we would spend pyrotechnic gender reveal money or how we’re smart enough not to be suckered into that kind of behavior. Or, we think, if we were to engineer a gender reveal party, we would do it better and not leave an ecological disaster in our wake.
But as Solomon points out, these explosion-filled fetes and the reactions to them speak to a bigger idea that we’re whiffing on — and a possible solution to the damage and destruction of a gender reveal party gone wild. It’s the opportunity to redefine masculinity, fatherhood, and parenthood so that we don’t need bombastic instruments of obliteration to compensate.
“What we’re missing out on is a chance to have a larger conversation about how men can create for themselves a really sturdy masculinity that is both tough and tender, that is both strong and nurturing,” she told me. “All the data shows that men are healthier when they’re able to access all those parts of themselves. And becoming a parent is an incredibly powerful way to move toward a deeper understanding of what it truly means to be masculine, to be a man, and to be partnered and connected to your family.”