Sex and the Baby Industrial Complex: Why gender reveal parties persist despite multiple tragedies

"For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid's penis. No one cares but you"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published September 8, 2020 7:41PM (EDT)

Blue and pink baby booties and pacifiers (Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Blue and pink baby booties and pacifiers (Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images)

On Sunday, California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) announced the origin point of the El Dorado Fire, which has been raging through San Bernardino County since Sept. 5. It began at a gender reveal party held at El Dorado Ranch Park where a pyrotechnic device was used to create colored smoke. The fire has since overtaken 10,574 acres and is 16% contained as of Tuesday morning.

This actually isn't the first time that a gender reveal party — during which an expectant parent or couple announce the sex of their baby, usually by displaying blue items for a boy and pink for a girl — has resulted in real-world tragedies, such as other large-scale fires, a deadly explosion and even a plane crash. But this stunt feels particularly egregious given both current local and global conditions. 

Cal Fire officials say that the party took place during what they classify as "critical fire weather conditions," meaning that there was a combination of low relative humidity, strong surface wind, unstable air and drought, which could produce "extreme fire behavior" if one was ignited. Combine that with a triple-digit heat wave over much of California and a global pandemic in which public gatherings, like parties, are "generally prohibited" by the state health officer — and the response, specifically on Twitter, to the news of the fire's origin has been overwhelming. 

It's largely a mix of disbelief, exasperation and memes (oh, so many memes), all of which highlight two cultural narratives that have come to run parallel to gender reveal parties: the "reveal" portion of these parties are becoming increasingly elaborate, while contempt for such events continues to grow. 

The early days of the gender reveal party

Many people credit Jenna Karvunidis as the "inventor" of, or at least the woman who popularized, the gender reveal party. In 2008, she held a party where she cut into a cake, knowing that the inside would reveal the sex of her child. 

"We had a knife and we cut into it all together and we all saw the pink icing at the same time, and found out that we were having a girl," Karvunidis told NPR in 2019. She went on to write about the party on her blog, High Gloss And Sauce, and it was then written up by a local Chicago magazine. 

Keep in mind, this was before the invention of Instagram or Pinterest — both of which were released in 2010 — but the eventual advent of those platforms helped solidify the gender reveal party concept as something distinct from a typical baby shower. 

The baby shower as we know it started during the postwar Baby Boom in the late 1940s and '50s (though celebrations and rituals surrounding fertility and birth are as old as time), where expectant mothers were "showered" with useful gifts: baby clothing, diapers, toys. In contrast, the main focus of the gender reveal party is simply letting guests know the sex of the fetus, which may inform what gifts the expectant couple receives at a later date. 

Search for #genderreveal on Instagram and you'll be met with over 1.5 million results. Similarly, a search for "gender reveal ideas" on Pinterest returns thousands of collections like "500+ Best Baby— Gender Reveal Party" and "200+ Best Gender reveal parties images in 2020." 

The commodification of gender reveal parties

As gender reveal parties began to grow in popularity during the early 2010s, so, too, did the creation of products specifically meant to help expectant parents announce the news. This was inevitable because, you know, capitalism. We're talking piñatas filled with pink or blue candy, confetti-filled balloons, "pop the belly" dartboards and a whole new business opportunity for bakers built on pink and blue food coloring. 

This marketing development, in concert with the inception of "social media challenges," pushed some expectant parents towards more extreme visual aids. Cannons that shoot colored powder, Mardi Gras-style parades, light shows, hair dye, motorcycle burn-outs featuring pink or blue smoke. 

At this point, it was clear that gender reveal parties had turned a corner from celebration to spectacle. The reveals were meant to be filmed, posted and rack up likes, shares and subscriptions. As Carly Gieseler, an assistant professor of gender and communications at York College, wrote in a paper for the "Journal for Gender Studies," the performative nature of gender reveal parties feeds into the increase in products advertised to create the "perfect party," which is then shared on social media — it's a pink-and-blue-scaled ouroboros slithering around the Baby Industrial Complex.

"The communicative spaces dedicated to this trend not only offer ideas but market products to achieve the ideal image of the celebration so that this image can subsequently be plastered across social media sites like Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram," Gieseler wrote. 

The backlash begins 

As the "reveals" at these parties became more extreme and more ubiquitous, the entire concept was met with a certain amount of backlash — much of which was centered on the inherently binary nature of the  event and the purposeful misuse of the word "gender." It's 2020; I think we all are at least familiar  with the differences between biological sex and gender presentation. 

As a result, the celebrations feel pretty antiquated, despite the fact that until the late '80s, ultrasound technology that could actually be used to predict fetal sex wasn't commonplace enough for most expectant parents to use it as a means to construct an elaborate party theme. Themes like "Tiaras or Trucks?" or "Pearls or Putters?" Thought we were in an era where an expectant child could have both? Think again! 

"It doesn't strike me as a coincidence that this semi-elaborate ritual sprung fully formed from the bowels of Pinterest around the same time that our culture at large began to grapple with our understanding of gender," Salon's Erin Keane wrote in 2017. "I mean, it's an extraordinary period: Previously held absolutes are challenged and expanded every day. Periods of rapid and intense social change can prompt backlashes, even through relatively benign if somewhat eye-roll-inducing  phenomena like this. I suspect that the lack of a 'nonbinary' option in the gender-reveal cultiverse provides some unarticulated comfort."

This makes sense, too, considering who is throwing these parties. Demographic research done by Florence Pasche Guignard — which was reported in her 2015 article "A Gendered Bun in the Oven. The Gender-reveal Party as a New Ritualization during Pregnancy" — shows that "most gender-reveal parties are done by expecting parents that are middle-class, heterosexual white Americans who are married or partnered." 

Members of these specific demographic groups are also traditionally members of the communities that uphold cultural norms; hosting these celebrations is just another way to maintain the status quo, albeit potentially behind a literal pink or blue smoke screen. 

Even Karvunidis, who had popularized of the parties, has since publicly expressed regret over starting the trend because of the potential pain that it had caused members of the LGBTQ and intersex communitites. In 2019, she spoke with NPR about her own daughter — for whom the pink icing-filled cake had been made more than a decade earlier. 

"Plot twist! The baby from the original gender reveal party is a girl who wears suits," Karvunidis says. "She says 'she' and 'her' and all of that, but you know she really goes outside gender norms."

Beyond the binary: Performative masculinity and intensive parenting

The restrictive, binary nature of these celebrations aside, gender reveal parties also illustrate two societal norms that merit interrogation: performative masculinity and the pressures of "intensive parenting." 

American baby showers have traditionally been women-only functions — an afternoon of diaper exchanges, delicate food and ooh-ing and aah-ing over almost-impossibly small outfits. Gender reveal parties are different. There are guns! Cannons! In a society where the majority of child-rearing duties are assigned to women, it shouldn't escape notice that it seems some men can only be coerced into enthusiastically participating in these functions if they're built around a theme that is typically coded as "masculine," like hot rods or catfish noodling

This is a phenomenon that Karvundis noticed, as well, writing on her blog's Facebook page on Sept. 7, "Stop it. Stop having these stupid parties. For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid's penis. No one cares but you.

"Toxic masculinity is men thinking they need to explode something because simply enjoying a baby party is for sissies," she continued. 

But underlying these parties is something that is less "in your face," though perhaps more insidious, than an expectant father's display of machismo that is literally on fire. Pinterest-perfect gender reveal parties — with elaborate cakes, decorations and just-so gift bags — are a training ground for what Cornell University researcher Patrick Ishizuka classified as "intensive parenting" in 2018. 

It's a parenting style that has become common in upper-middle-class households for at least a generation, but has achieved a much broader appeal in the social media age. The Atlantic characterizes its hallmarks as such: "Supervised, enriching playtime. Frequent conversations about thoughts and feelings. Patient, well-reasoned explanations of household rules. And extracurriculars. Lots and lots of extracurriculars." 

As Ishizuka's research found, many American parents describe this parenting style as an ideal, something to aspire to, but for some parents it's simply out of grasp. As Joe Pinsker wrote for "The Atlantic" in 2019, "intensive parenting" was first identified as a middle-class phenomenon, most notably by the sociologists Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau in the 1990s and 2000s, respectively. 

"Lareau in particular called the approach 'concerted cultivation' and contrasted it with a vision of parenting she labeled 'the accomplishment of natural growth,' which entails much less parental involvement and which she found to be more common among working-class and poorer parents," Pinkser wrote. "A big lingering question since then has been why these class differences exist: Did poorer families have different notions of what makes for good parenting, or did they simply lack the resources to practice the parenting styles they believed would be better?" 

Ishizuka asserts that the answer lies in access to resources. 

"Poverty not only limits parents' ability to pay for music lessons, for example, but is also a major source of stress that can influence parents' energy, attention, and patience when interacting with children," Ishizuka told Pinsker. 

But social media has made it so much easier to compare real-life struggles with picture perfect "online parents." You know the kind, with daily schedules posted on black and white letter boards, a selection of specially curated wooden toys (no screen time!) and an Instagram story filled with snaps of creative, colorful school lunches. 

When this is the cultural ideal, it makes sense that — right or wrong — there would be pressure to assert that your own personal parenting abilities and skills align with it as early as possible, the threat of sparking a raging wildfire be damned. 

Cultural catharsis amid tragedy

None of this negates the real-world tragedies that gender reveal parties have caused since their inception. In 2019 an Iowa woman was killed by shrapnel after a homemade device meant to emit colored smoke exploded. Two years earlier, a Customs and Border Protection agent started a 47,000-acre wildfire in Arizona with his color-coded explosives, causing more than $8 million in damage. 

But videos of gender reveal parties gone wrong, where the only thing injured is someone's pride, have their own viral appeal. Carina Chocano wrote about this genre for the New York Times in 2019. 

"The appeal of the gender-reveal disaster video is rooted in contempt: It's a schadenfreude delivery system, comeuppance porn for a new kind of social overreach," she wrote. "Each video originates as a homespun production, documenting a moment of great significance to a handful of people." 

Chocano continues: "Great care and elaborate planning, obsessive pomp and circumstance, have been devoted to announcing the very first thing most parents know for certain about the child they expect and all the cultural baggage that child will be burdened with. And when it all goes wrong, it exposes a surprisingly intimate moment of cognitive dissonance and uncertainty — the very kind of anxiety and lack of control that gender-reveal stunts are designed to dispel." 

The memes and social media posts that have emerged in the wake of the San Bernardino fire speak to that dichotomy between how societally inconsequential the news these parents were attempting to share is when compared to the havoc they've caused. "Gender reveal in 2020 be like" — fill in the blank. The explosion of the Death Star, a scene from "Midsommar," Spongebob screaming into the abyss. 

Chris Franjola, a comedian and writer for "Chelsea Lately" perhaps best summed it on Twitter like this, "You just burned down half of California to have your child tell you they're gender fluid in 18 years. #GenderReveal." 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Explainer Gender Gender Reveal Intensive Parenting San Bernadino Fire Toxic Masculinity