By Riley Runnells
On Sept. 17, a firefighter died in the line of duty while putting out the El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino. Though dozens of wildfires are burning on the West Coast, El Dorado sparked because of a smoke-generating device used during a gender reveal party, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The tragic incident poses an ever-burning question: have gender reveal parties gotten out of hand?
Gender reveal parties initially began in 2008, when Jenna Myers Karvunidis got pregnant and wanted to throw a party. She asked her midwife to keep the baby’s gender a secret, and she brought a cake to the party filled with pink icing. When the family cut into the cake and discovered it was a girl there were gasps and tears, but also the unknown notion that her party would spark a chain of theatrics revolving around a baby’s gender reveal.
Since Karvunidis’ cake, parents have used confetti cannons, piñatas, balloon darts, and smoke bombs. Name it, and there’s probably been a gender reveal party with it. Steve Swaggerty, a father of three from Sylvania Ohio, did a March Madness themed reveal for his twin sons.
“It was just wanting to celebrate with family,” Swaggerty said. “We were very excited. We did a March Madness NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) bracket and put 64 names on the bracket lines. People filled out their bracket, came over, and we just hung out and had a few drinks.”
For most, that’s all a gender reveal party is: a way to celebrate with family. There are the prim and proper celebrations of baby showers, where the parents receive gifts from their registry and the mothers are able to celebrate their miracle of life, but the gender reveal party is more of a traditionally-relaxed way to make a fuss about one’s pregnancy.
Diving deeper, gender reveal shouldn’t even be the party’s name at all, as that is biologically inaccurate. What the parents are actually revealing is the child’s sex, which is based on genital anatomy. Gender is about identity, and may or may not match the sex assigned to the child at birth.
The American Psychological Association refers to gender identity as a person’s deeply-felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman or female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender non-conforming…) since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.
Simply put, gender is how you identify yourself: boy, girl, nonbinary, or otherwise.
Patty Stokes, an associate professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at Ohio University, had children before the tradition of gender reveal parties was born. Regardless, she is adamant that she wouldn’t have had one for any of her kids.
“I don’t want my child being stereotyped or pigeon-holed before they’re even born,” Stokes said.
Though she worked to avoid stereotyping for her kids by not conforming to specific gender associations, i.e. the color pink for girls and blue for boys, she still found that people were making assumptions.
“For my younger son I had this sweet little lavender blanket,” Stokes said. “I remember somebody one day telling me while we were out, ‘Oh, you’ve got an adorable little girl,” and I said ‘Thanks, he’s my little boy.’ I wasn’t trying to educate her on gender or anything, it was just a public interaction, and she was visibly offended.”
Back in the Victorian era, babies would all wear white so that if they made a mess, the garment bleached clean easily, Stokes said. Boys and girls would even wear similar dress-like garments, further showing that clothing and babies in general weren’t as gendered.
Stokes also attributes a lot of the excitement around gender reveal parties and the thorough gendering of children to the large stake capitalism drives into the system. A blogger on bumpreveal.com details the budget of an average gender reveal party, breaking down the costs for each part of the occasion. She estimates an average of $100 for food, $20 for the reveal method, $50 to $100 for decor, $1 per invite, and $15 for a miniature cake instead of a larger one. Even with the cheaper methods like the blogger suggests, it’s still over $200 in charges.
“I think they are a waste of money,” Rachael Bracken, a mom of three, said. “I feel like there’s so many parties and so many this or that. There are a lot of things that are overdone. For me personally, I’m just like ‘Yay, it’s a boy,” or ‘Yay, it’s a girl.’”
Bracken didn’t have a gender reveal party for any of her children, and emphasizes the fact that it wouldn’t matter how her children wanted to identify, she would support them.
“I think with any kid, you support what they like,” Bracken said. “So if Charlie liked to wear dresses, then I would support that. I think it’s up to the parents to support [their children] in what they want to be and let them be themselves. And if that ends up changing… love your kids no matter what.”
Not all parents have that same open mind. In a 2011 study from FORGE, 57% of transgender children experienced some level of familial rejection when coming out and being true to their identity. Many in the LGBTQ+ community regard gender reveal parties as harmful because they perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes. Though it may not have as large of an impact on the child because they aren’t born yet, there is the potential that it could contribute to the closed-mindedness of parents when it comes to gender transitioning or fluidity.
The El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino proved that the extravaganza of gender reveal parties aren’t just an emotionally-taxing problem, but a safety issue as well. As parents continue to work to outdo themselves, their methods increase the danger of the occasion. The El Dorado Fire burned down four homes, six other structures, and burned throughout 22,576 acres, according to an article from LAist.
To answer the question; gender reveal parties aren’t getting out of hand, but are already out of hand. Swaggerty, Stokes, and Bracken feel the cons outweigh the pros.
Swaggerty counters the question of whether gender reveal parties make parents narrow-minded, saying “[Do] we have a gender reveal party because our minds are already narrowed based on our own experiences? I didn’t have to live through that type of experience where you had that internal struggle going on of what society expected of you versus how you knew you were. So I don’t know that it narrows my mind; I think my narrow mind is what led me to have a gender reveal party.”