This week, after a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” used at a gender-reveal party set off a devastating wildfire that scorched thousands of acres east of Los Angeles, many internet pundits decided enough was enough.
“Revealing my baby’s gender by crashing a tanker full of pink oil into a delicate coral reef,” one person tweeted sarcastically. Others expressed anger at the decision to host such an event in the midst of a global health crisis and the most devastating wildfire season in modern history.
Gender-reveal parties have divided Americans for nearly a dozen years. Born out of the social media age, these parties turned the private experience of family-making into a public spectacle. And while many parents choose to learn the biological sex of their children for practical reasons, the events — which revolve around a pink-or-blue binary — hammer home essentialist ideas about gender.
The template for these events was established back in 2008, when a blogger named Jenna Karvunidis shared photos of a gender-reveal party for her firstborn on her blog, High Gloss and Sauce. A wave of copycats soon followed, many of them mommy bloggers. The tradition quickly spread on social platforms.
Throughout the 2010s, gender-reveal parties were being captured by professional photographers and staged for Instagram. By 2015, parents on Pinterest were creating elaborate vision boards for kitschy gender party themes like “cowboys vs. tiaras” and “guns vs. glitter.” YouTube hosts hours and hours of gender-reveal party footage; some parents in those videos erupt with joy when they learn the sex of their child, while an entirely separate genre captures family members’ intense disappointment.
As if the very notion of these events is cursed, gender-reveal parties seem to have become increasingly hazardous. At a party last July, a car inadvertently burst into blue flames. That September, a crop-dusting plane crashed after dumping thousands of gallons of pink water across a field in Texas. The following month, a woman was killed by flying debris from a device meant to shoot out colored smoke in Knoxville, Iowa.
The fire this week wasn’t the first that resulted from a gender-reveal party. In 2017, a fire was sparked at an Arizona party, resulting in more than $8 million in damages and 45,000 acres of destroyed land.
Sometimes the mistakes are more benign. A stream of videos documenting mishaps and mistakes at gender-reveal parties have amassed millions of collective views. Many of the videos include tears and tantrums from young future siblings.
Many critics of gender-reveal parties say the events are out of step with current times and over-reliant on the notion of gender as a binary.
And then there’s the pandemic. Many states remain on lockdown as coronavirus cases continue to rise. Asking family, friends and loved ones to risk their heath to find out whether a baby is expected to have a penis or a vagina can seem selfish and reckless.
Why on earth are we still having these things?
Part of it may be a result of societal pressure. As Alia Wong noted in The Atlantic in 2018, young Americans are formally “over-celebrating” many life events that their parents might not consider notable. “For American 20- and 30-somethings, who are in the thick of the milestone-heavy phase of early adulthood, it has become common to have multiple celebratory events to honor landmarks such as births and weddings,” Ms. Wong wrote.
“We go into this traditional checklist thing,” said Carlos Zavala, 25, a communications consultant who hosted a gender-reveal party for a friend at his house. “When you get engaged you think, ‘I have to plan a bridal party, bachelor or bachelorette party, rehearsal dinner.’ Now with babies, it’s like, ‘I have to have a gender reveal, a baby shower, a christening.’”
Gender-reveal parties, like weddings before them, are also plagued by one-upmanship. People feel obligated to create an over-the-top experience that friends and family will remember. Before they know it, they’re prying an alligator’s mouth open, trying to shove a watermelon filled with blue liquid into its jaws.
But not all parents are doing it for the ’gram.
As anyone with young children knows, giving birth and raising children in these times is incredibly taxing and isolating. Many millennial would-be parents are crushed with financial insecurity and stress about the future. Last year, the fertility rate in the United States dropped to the lowest level in recorded history, according to the World Population Data Sheet.
Many people who want children are also unable to conceive. More women are postponing pregnancy, some relying on the help of reproductive technology like I.V.F. For these thousands of women, carrying a pregnancy to the point when a baby’s sex can be read is an achievement worth celebrating.
That was certainly the case for Ashley Csapo, 28, a soon-to-be mother of triplets in Rochester, N.Y. She and her husband hosted a laid-back gender-reveal party last weekend that was more outdoor BBQ than red carpet affair.
“We had to go through infertility treatment to even become pregnant, so it’s about celebrating every step of your baby’s life and even the fact that we made it this far,” she said. “We won’t be having any more, so this was our only chance, that’s why we’re trying to celebrate as much as we can.”
Even for those who haven’t struggled to conceive, a baby is a worthy cause for celebration and a gender-reveal party is a great excuse to get family and friends together, especially during such a brutal year.
“My whole family is literally all girls. The last boy we had was 25 years ago, it was my older brother,” said Morgan Neal, 22, who hosted an outdoor gender-reveal party at her home in West Virginia on Saturday with close family. She said the party was a way to emotionally and mentally prepare for the birth of her first child. “Pregnancy is a big deal to people, especially around here,” she said. “It’s a way to celebrate being pregnant and bringing life into the world.”
Anne Helen Petersen, the author of “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” said that gender-reveal parties, especially during these times, feel like an attempt to grasp some sense of normalcy.
“In the pandemic, people in this moment are like, ‘This sucks, I can’t go to baby yoga classes, I can’t have all these pregnancy milestones I thought would happen, but I can still have this crazy gender-reveal thing,’” she said. “It’s almost an act of desperation to cling to some of those expectations.”
But before going all out on blue and pink cake, balloons, or confetti, consider a gender-neutral baby celebration. They’re becoming more popular.
These parties are really just “an excuse to get together,” said Erin McGlasson, 32, the owner of Erin Elizabeth Custom Events, an event planning business in Houston. During the pandemic, she said, it’s important to do that responsibly.
“Instead of gathering everyone up, I think right now there’s a lot of cool options that are socially distant, interactive and creative,” she said. “People can mail party poppers to everyone, things like that.”