The problem with gender reveals doesn’t stop at forest fires

Our obsession with making a spectacle out of babies’ genitals traps children in the gender binary before they’re even born

The trend has dangerous implications.

On Canada’s West Coast, smoke from forest fires in California, Oregon, and Washington has drifted up north to create hazy skies and some of the worst air quality British Columbia has ever seen.

One of the largest of these fires, just east of Los Angeles, was ignited by a smoke bomb used in a gender reveal. The gimmick was intended to set off coloured smoke to indicate the genitalia of a couple’s future child: blue for a penis, pink for a vagina.

This isn’t the first time a gender reveal has caused a major wildfire: in 2017, a similar incident caused a 47,000-acre fire that inflicted over $8 million in damages.

Gender reveals are part of a trend that has exploded in popularity in the last few years. While announcing the sex of your baby used to be a quiet moment between close family and friends, social media has turned the revelation into one worthy of its own party.

The ‘gender reveal party’ was popularized in 2008. Jenna Karvunidis, the woman credited with inventing the phenomenon, kicked off the trend with something simple: a cake with a pink filling that announced she and her husband would be having a girl. Although Karvunidis has since spoken out against the trend she unwittingly started, the damage was done.

Since 2008, gender reveals have transformed from a simple slice of cake to a social media contest, with prospective parents in competition to outdo one another with greater and bigger announcements. This has spurred some truly bizarre content, from giant baby costumes to skydiving to gator wrestling. The trend has also spawned a whole new capitalist enterprise, with Etsy shops specializing in creating themed gender reveal products for parents who love Harry Potter or Pokémon.

What’s been lost in the growing spectacle of gender reveals is the danger of pedalling the gender binary. While gender reveal parties might seem like fun creative outlets, the celebration of your future child’s genitals feeds into the value we as a society place on gender and damaging gendered expectations.

The appeal behind a gender reveal is the idea that it’s a revelation—that the parents are revealing something momentous about who their future child is going to be.

This mindset sets up expectations for the child that have everything to do with stereotypes and nothing to do with genitals. Will this baby like trucks or tutus? Will they be strong or weak? Emotionally intelligent or a logical thinker? These are gendered biases most of us hold, even if we don’t realize it.

While the West Coast forest fires expose how reckless the spectacle of gender reveals can be, there’s another conversation to be had about the practice, beyond the obvious ‘don’t use pyrotechnics for a party.’ Enforcing and celebrating placing gender roles on our children creates baggage they carry with them their entire lives.

Teaching girls to be complicit and boys not to cry leads to a society in which men suffer increased rates of untreated mental illness and women are expected to embrace sexual harassment as complimentary. For transgender and nonbinary people, gendered expectations ostracize them and contribute to the incredibly high murder rates of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

By throwing a party for the sex of their unborn baby, parents are, often unknowingly, locking their future child into a binary that will define their entire life. Prospective parents need to think carefully about whether the gender binary and all its consequences is something they want to promote for the sake of a cool Instagram post. If not, gender reveal parties might be a trend best left in the 2010s.

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