Don’t Let This Become a Tradition

Gender reveal parties were never a great idea; now they’re indefensible

Photo by Ruvim Noga on Unsplash

As I write this, a procession is underway to honor a fallen firefighter

The identity of the deceased is being withheld, but what we do know is that the firefighter was killed while battling the El Dorado Fire near Yucaipa, California, on Sept. 17. One of the many wildfires devastating the state, the El Dorado, which has now grown to over 10,000 acres, was sparked on September 5 by “a pyrotechnic device used during a gender reveal party.

Certainly, the couple who planned the party intended only to celebrate an impending life event and never imagined such devastating consequences. But even before the death of the firefighter, the San Bernadino County district attorney was considering criminal charges.

These are not the first casualties of the gender reveal party trend

In 2017, an off-duty Border Patrol agent shot his gun at a homemade device filled with colored powder and the explosive Tannerite to spread the news of the sex of the baby he and his wife were expecting. Alas, what spread as a result was the Sawmill Fire, which grew to over 45,000 acres and required approximately 800 firefighters to combat. The Border Patrol agent, who reported the fire as soon as it began and who pleaded guilty to charges, was sentenced to five years’ probation and required to pay restitution of $8.1 million in damages. Not what an expectant father has in mind when preparing to welcome his firstborn.

And sadly, the firefighter who is being memorialized in California is not the first to die as a result of a gender reveal. In October of last year, an Iowa woman died instantly when she was struck in the head by what amounted to metal shrapnel from a homemade pipe bomb — again, filled with colored powder meant to splash the baby’s sex to gathered family and friends. A statement from authorities at the time said,

“Our investigation showed that members of the . . . family were experimenting with different types of explosive material on Friday and Saturday in an attempt to record a gender reveal that could be posted on social media for friends and family. . .” 

How did we even get here?

There was a time when parents were obliged to wait until their baby was born to discover its sex, but since the advent of sophisticated prenatal testing such as amniocentesis and ultrasound, asking a pregnant woman whether she’s having a boy or a girl has become commonplace. Even if it’s questionable from the standpoint of etiquette, let alone sensitivity to gender stereotyping. 

But as with so much in 21st Century life, social media is the force that’s transformed the notion of the gender reveal from a trend into a frenzy — one that’s gone so over the top as to cause presumably otherwise sane adults to craft improvised explosive devices in order to publicize their fetus’s genitals.

The gender reveal party may or may not have originated with Jenna Karvunidis, she of ChicagoBlog High Gloss and Sauce semi-fame, who during her pregnancy in 2008 posted about cutting into the (pink) cake she’d created to announce her baby’s sex. 

By July 2019, Karvunidis publicly evinced regret about starting the whole trend, since her daughter had begun “expressing herself in nonbinary ways.” Karvunidis noted:

 . . . that assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what’s between their legs.

After the El Dorado Fire began raging, she took to Facebook to condemn gender reveal parties altogether:

Stop it . . .stop having these stupid parties. For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid’s penis.

Expectant parents are not the problem

Social media has a weird power to amplify the energy around any occasion  — from the impending birth of a baby to the completion of a halfway decent-looking meal — into a need to share the news via ever more spectacular methods. It’s as though we’ve all absorbed the belief that nothing in our lives registers until, at the very least, we’ve put it on Insta. “Pics or it didn’t happen,” is our operating assumption.

And if a well-constructed sandwich merits sharing with the world, the impulse to amp up the visuals has created an overwrought level of FOMO frenzy around what used to be routine celebrations. 

I know I sound old when I say this, but I recall with affection the Hallowe’ens of my youth, modest affairs that involved a homemade, spur-of-the-moment costume, a single jack-o-lantern on the front porch, and trick-or-treating around a few local blocks. Today’s parents are pressured to deck out their homes, their children, themselves, and even their pets with displays and costumes worthy of a theme park, and to throw costly, macabre galas, lest they or their kids’ social platforms suffer.

And don’t get me started on Christmas. It was fraught enough before somebody came up with the noxious concept of Elf On The Shelf, an industry disguised as a tradition that ratchets up the expectations, stress, and overweening commercialism of the holiday to new levels — but results in super-precious Insta posts and Pinterest boards.

Consider what’s happened to weddings, occasions which now demand their own dedicated websites, along with hyper-marketing on social media by all of the participants in its tributary events, from the proposal to saying Yes To The Dress, to the bachelor and bachelorette parties, to the multiple showers, and, yep, the honeymoon. 

No mystery, then, that in this environment, one of life’s most monumental events — the birth of a child — can cause prospective parents to lose their grip on their better judgment.

We all have to learn where to draw the line — and then hold the line

I know better than to hope popular culture will suddenly dial back on all the social-media-fueled hoopla that surrounds us now. But some things shouldn’t be left up to popular culture, or we might as well spend the rest of our lives in seventh grade. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean we have to, or that we should.

And now that the gender reveal party has crossed the line from being questionable in its focus to being outright deadly, it’s time to stop.

It hasn’t been around long enough to accrue the weight of tradition, so let’s not let it. Have a party to announce a pregnancy, if you like, or just go the traditional baby shower route. It’s an exciting time, worthy of celebration.

Just don’t color-code your kid based on their genitalia. And for god’s sake, step away from the explosives.

6 Replies to “Don’t Let This Become a Tradition”

  1. Laurie

    Yes on all counts, Jan. I am dismayed to see what the obsession with social media has caused in terms of gender release parties, over-the-top weddings, and my personal pet peeve The Elf on The Shelf. Ugh! Luckily, I follow mostly runners on social media. We stick to bragging incessantly about our runs and commiserating about injuries.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Laurie, you and your runner friends make wise and appropriate use of social media — without becoming its tools. Whoever dreamed up Elf on the Shelf should be stricken with permanently pointy ears 🙂

  2. Hannah

    I agree whole-heartedly with you! I especially like the point you make about social media playing a huge role in occasions like gender reveal parties spiraling out of control. An observation from my personal life is that my friends who used to post CONSTANTLY on social media are doing so less during the pandemic – I really hope this means people are realizing that the effort that goes into curating/maintaining a social media presence is not worth it.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      I sure hope you’re correct — the exhaustion and shallowness of fretting over one’s social media “brand” (ick) certainly should be one of the secondary lessons of the pandemic.

  3. Book Club Mom

    Hi Jan – I’m totally with you on this – the gender reveal is so over the top. As well as sharing every dull moment of our lives and spinning them into works of art on social media. Remember when the gender reveal was at the moment of birth?

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