The rise of the gender reveal party seems inextricably tied to social media. Search YouTube and you can watch more than 500,000 videos of expectant couples slicing cakes, setting off smoke bombs and bashing piñatas to expose one of two colors: pink or blue.
In one filmed last fall, Leela and Joe Krummel of Minneapolis peer into a balloon-filled box in their backyard and to see which color arises. A blue balloon quickly pops up. Then a purple one follows. Then yellow, green and orange balloons fly out — the apparent error of a party store employee, they told the Today show. (Yes, it landed them on the Today show.)
Yet such a mix-up feels somewhat symbolic: Conversations on gender in the U.S. aren't just pink or blue, as the idea of gender fluidity — identities beyond the binary — enters mainstream culture. Transgender celebrities grace the covers of magazines, while debate rages over who can use what restroom. Tinder's 2016 update included 37 gender identity options. A fashion model revealed she's intersex. A transgender boy just won a girls wrestling title.. For the first time, a gender nonconforming actor is playing a character who identifies the same way on Showtime's Billions, using the pronouns "they" and "them."
So what to make of an ever-popular maternity trend that focuses entirely on two options? Experts on gender and culture say that while gender reveal parties further rigid gender norms, they’re likely driven by the nervous excitement common to all parents — and they’re probably not going anywhere soon.
When freelance writer Rhiannon Giles was expecting her second child, she wrestled with hosting a gender reveal. She noted that party themes often peddle in stereotypes (“Rifles or Ruffles?” is a common theme on Pinterest, as is “Wheels or Heels?”). And then there’s name “gender reveal,” she said, itself a misnomer: What’s revealed is the child’s sex, not gender.
Like any mother, though, she was eager to celebrate any detail on her baby-to-be.
“Personally, not knowing information available to me makes me anxious, so not finding out the sex of the baby was never going to be an option,” said Giles, who blogs about parenting issues. “If an ultrasound could tell me hair color or future basketball team alliance, I would have wanted to know that, too.”
Carly Gieseler, an assistant professor at City University of New York, has studied how the gender reveal evolved from a private moment between parents to a publicized party broadcast online.
Before gender reveals, baby showers had long ritualized gender construction by playing up pinks and blues, Gieseler said. Like showers, gender reveals invite a community to rally around and support a child in positive ways, she noted, but unlike traditional baby showers, both men and women take part.
“Like any cultural trend, it can do a little bit of damage while it does a little bit of good,” she said. “Even as we see greater acceptance and recognition of gender fluidity and the idea of a distinction between biological sex and gender as a social construct, there tends to be reactionary moments in media or actual life in things like gender reveal parties.”
Gender reveal parties celebrate a trait that, for some babies, isn't known until later.
“If you’re cutting away all the possibilities of gender and restricting it to just two biological categories, you’re neglecting entire populations of people who may not fit into either,” Gieseler said. For example, Hanne Gaby Odiele, the Belgian supermodel, revealed that she has XY chromosomes more typically found in men and had internal, undescended testes at birth. That makes her part of the up to 1.7% of the population born with intersex traits, according to the United Nations. “That’s totally biology. So how does a gender reveal party account for that, then?” Gieseler asks.
Activities that formally mark gender, such as reveal parties, increase the likelihood of gender stereotyping, according to Campbell Leaper, a developmental and social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He points to Rebecca Bigler, a fellow psychologist at the University of Texas, who had schoolchildren wear red and blue T-shirts and had teachers reference the colors as they might gender (“Good morning, reds and blues"). Over time, the study found kids developed biases preferring their own colors, just as they did with gender.
“When you put things in a category, we all naturally want to make meaning of that category,” said Leaper. “Girl and boy, if those categories exist there must be reasons for that and we start to think about them differently.”
The binary view of gender gives parents two familiar scripts, Leaper said, pre-packaged conceptions for what each means.
“You know what toys to buy. How to decorate the room. What clothes you get,” he said. “As opposed to buying different things and seeing what the child likes. A girl gets a doll. A boy gets a baseball. That takes the guessing out of it.”
But regardless of a parent’s actions, Leaper said, so strong are a culture’s prevailing gender norms that they’ll typically begin influencing a child by age three. And he's careful not to paint all gender reveal celebrants with a broad brush. They’re parents eager to meet their future kid, Leaper said, and relish in every step along the way.
“It’s not a piece of information, but a cause for almost a wedding announcement,” Leaper said. “People are trying to grab at some way to make their child feel unique."
Julia Wang, head of digital content for pregnancy site The Bump, agrees.
“What we've seen is that the majority of parents who do them are simply looking to capture and share special milestone moments throughout their pregnancy journey in a more public way — with both friends and strangers on social media,” said Wang, who called it “one of few true surprises in life.”
That’s partly why Giles, the freelance writer, decided to throw a gender reveal party despite her internal objections: There’s a certain power in the way it makes a baby-to-be feel that much realer.
Giles had a four-year-old daughter who felt left out at the thought of sharing her parents, so the parents let her help throw the gender reveal party. She learned of her future sibling’s gender before even her parents, and decorated the cake that eventually revealed the family would have a boy.
When the daughter lamented not having any “boy toys” to share, it opened the door for a conversation on gender stereotypes.
“I imagine the 'gender reveal' party is a bit of a fad that will fade in and out of popularity on its own,” Giles said. “In the meantime, I hope the emphasis on these parties will lead to better education and understanding, rather than further increasing a gender divide.”
Copyright 2017 WFMY