If the Germans hadn’t invented the term schadenfreude several centuries ago, we would have needed to create it to describe the most 21st century of phenomena: laughing at gender reveal fail videos.
These videos are (unintentionally) hilarious not just because when they go wrong, they go very wrong. With people coming up with increasingly intricate and in many cases bizarre scenarios to ‘stand out’, the potential for things to go awry has grown exponentially.
They are also deeply funny because the concept of a gender reveal party itself is inherently problematic, which means that laughing at the misfortunate of those involved is usually a guilt-free pleasure.
If you’re reading this and still think gender reveal parties are just a bit of harmless fun, perhaps it is useful to consider what exactly it is these parties are revealing – which is far more about the parent(s) than about their child(ren).
First, they reveal that some parents don’t seem to understand the difference between sex and gender.
Sex is biological (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions’).
On the other hand, gender is identity-based (with the Yogyakarta Principles defining gender identity as ‘each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms’).[i]
Given it is impossible to know a child’s gender identity before or at birth (and usually for years after that), this means these celebrations should at the very least be renamed ‘sex reveal parties’.
Second, they reveal that some parents don’t seem to understand that both sex and gender are much more complicated than just male and female.
At its very core, a gender reveal party is an attempt to place an unborn child (or children) into one of two boxes: boy or girl.
And yet, in 2019, we know that gender identity is a spectrum, and there is a wide range of other options, including non-binary.
We also know that some children will be ‘born with physical sex characteristics that don’t fit medical and social norms for female or male bodies’ (the definition of intersex from Intersex Human Rights Australia).[ii]
Gender reveal parties therefore deliberately exclude some of the beautiful diversity of the human experience.[iii]
Third, they reveal that some parents are willing participants in a reductivist view of gender.
Gender reveal parties simplify the concepts of male and female into blue and pink respectively, as though entire genders can be signified by, even summed up by, a colour. When there is obviously more diversity within genders, and more similarities across people of different genders, than such a basic dichotomy can hope to represent.
Somewhat amusingly, these colours are also the exact opposite of those from just a century ago. From US Ladies Home Journal in June 1918:
‘The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.’
Mush less amusingly, while the colours have changed, some of those gender stereotypes remain and gender reveal parties tend to entrench, rather than question, them.
Based on these three factors, gender reveal parties can actually be harmful. By supporting a view that gender will match sex assigned at birth, they can make life much more difficult for trans and gender diverse children.
By raising expectations that babies will be born with sex characteristics that are exclusively male or female, they can erase intersex children (and even potentially increase pressure for unnecessary surgeries post-birth to ensure their bodies match these societal ‘norms’).
And by entrenching the notion that boys and girls are inherently different, and reinforcing stereotypes about how they will (or should) behave, gender reveal parties place artificial restrictions on all of us, and our behaviours.
It may sound like I am unsympathetic to the parents who hold gender reveal parties. I’m not, at least in part because most are simply replicating the actions of those around them (and those they follow on social media), and probably haven’t considered any of the issues described above. They are acting out of ignorance rather than malice.[iv]
I’m also sympathetic because, as a society, we seem to be placing an ever-greater emphasis on gender, certainly much more than I can remember as a child growing up in the 1980s. From unnecessarily gendered toys, to unnecessarily gendered toiletries, and even unnecessarily gendered grocery items, heightened expectations of ‘gender conformity’ are all around us – so it is perhaps only natural they will be felt most keenly by expecting parents.
The challenge then is what we can do to overcome these norms, especially the emerging norm that parents will hold gender reveal parties in the first place.
I have four suggestions to start, from the easiest to the most difficult:
- Don’t hold a gender reveal party
If you are having a child, simply refuse to have one of these ‘celebrations’. Which is easy for someone like me to say (a cis gay man who has decided, with his partner, not to have children, at least in part because of the climate emergency), so let’s move on…
- Don’t attend gender reveal parties
If you are invited to one of these ‘celebrations’, don’t attend. If people all stopped going, parents would stop holding them.
- Let the person know why you’re not attending
This is clearly more difficult than simply not turning up, especially because many of us prefer to avoid confrontation. But if we are to do the hard yards of ending this social norm, then we should take the time to explain to the person who has sent the invitation why you won’t be there.
- Stop asking ‘What are you having?’
Obviously, this is another degree of difficulty again, especially because this is something we’ve been conditioned to ask, usually first, when someone says they are pregnant (and something I have been guilty of, on more than one occasion).
But what does it actually matter? And aren’t there more interesting and/or important questions to ask, like ‘What are you looking forward to?’ ‘What are you nervous about?’ ‘Are you prepared?’ and ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
For those having difficulty making this mental adjustment, consider thinking of it this way. When you are asking ‘What are you having?’ what you’re really asking is ‘What are your child’s sex chromosomes and/or genitalia?’ and ‘What gender do you currently intend to raise your child even though you cannot know now their eventual gender identity?’
Rationally, an expecting parent who knows the difference between sex and gender could also respond to the ‘What are you having?’ inquiry by saying that they’ll get back to the questioner in five, ten, 15 or even 20 years, when the child decides for themself.
Which brings me to the primary exception to my ‘no gender reveal parties’ stance: where trans and gender diverse people announce their own gender identity. This is truly something to celebrate, especially for those who’ve overcome years or even decades of transphobia from families, schools, and society in general.
[I suppose I would also make an exception for parents who hold a gender reveal party and then release a colour like green or brown and tell attendees that they’ll let their child determine their identity for themselves.]
Other than that, gender reveal parties are a social phenomenon that has risen to prominence incredibly quickly over the past decade – and hopefully will recede just as quickly in the early 2020s.
Indeed, that’s the view of the woman whose 2008 post is widely-credited as popularising ‘gender reveal parties’, Jenna Karvunidis. From NPR in July 2019:[v]
‘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 that, but you know she really goes outside gender norms’.
… Karvunidis says her views on sex and gender have changed, especially when she’s talking to her daughter.
‘She’s telling me ‘Mom, there are many genders. Mom, there’s many different sexualities and all different types,’ and I take her lead on that,’ Karvunidis says.
She says she does have some regrets and understands these parties aren’t beneficial to everyone.
‘I know it’s been harmful to some individuals. It’s 2019, we don’t need to get our joy by giving others pain,’ she says. ‘I think there’s a new way to have these parties.’
And that idea is as simple as just eating cake.
‘Celebrate the baby,’ she says. ‘There’s no way to have a cake cut into it, to see if they’re going to like chess. Let’s just have a cake.’
Which is a great idea. And then to eat any leftovers while watching videos of gender reveal party fails because, let’s face it, some of them are funny as hell.
[i] Yes, I’m aware that both the concepts of sex and gender, and the relationship between them, are far more complex. However, in the context of ‘gender reveal parties’ it’s clear these celebrations are based on biological sex (chromosomes and/or genitalia) rather than identity-based ideas of gender.
[iii] We should note here that variations in sex characteristics is separate to non-binary gender identities, with many intersex people identifying with the ‘sex’ they were assigned at birth. Again for the Intersex Human Rights Australia website:
‘Some intersex people and some non-intersex (‘endosex’) people use nonbinary terms to describe their identities and sex classifications. Often, however, we encounter assumptions that to be intersex is to be nonbinary, or to be nonbinary is to be intersex. These assumptions are harmful. They fail to recognize the diversity of the intersex population, and in this case even the existence of intersex boys and girls, and intersex women and men.’
[iv] Of course, some parents possibly are deliberately setting expectations that their children will be either male or female, and that they will ‘act accordingly’ (including not identifying as trans or gender diverse), to which I say ‘fuck you’.