Explosive ‘gender reveal parties’ are the ‘rolling coal’ of cis-heteronormativity.
Like so many 21st century trends, the practice of throwing a party to announce what kind of genitals your baby is going to have was made possible by technology.
The first technology behind the trend is the ultrasound, a 20th century sonic imaging technique that makes it possible to peer into the womb and determine, among other things, the general shape of Baby’s swimsuit area. The second technology behind so-called “gender reveal parties”—more accurately termed “genital announcement spectacles,” as a fuzzy shape on an ultrasound is not a “gender”—is the internet, especially social media, which has made it possible for especially theatrical reveals to rack up ‘likes’ and shares.
In July 2008, blogger Jenna Karvunidis baked a cake whose icing concealed a pink interior, generating the world’s first viral “gender reveal” party. (Despite the misnomer, I am using this term because this is what the people throwing these parties call them.) Over the last several years, this trend has blossomed into a cottage industry, where expectant parents aim to outdo each other on social media by staging elaborate spectacles—often incorporating improvised explosive devices that send pink or blue powder billowing into the heavens. In October 2018, an off-duty border patrol agent from Tucson shot a rifle at a container of flammable powder, sparking a wildfire that burned 47,000 acres of Coronado National Forest. This past weekend, an Iowa grandmother-to-be was killed by flying shrapnel from a smoke bomb packed with gunpowder. Just one day later, another gender reveal in Iowa sparked an explosion that rattled a rural area.
One subtext of these catastrophic gender reveals is the increased politicization of what that fuzzy bump (or lack thereof) on an ultrasound means. The very premise of a “gender reveal” conflates “gender,” a socially inscribed concept, with what kind of genitals a fetus appears to have—a conflation that has been criticized as being both transphobic and inaccurate. Social scientists and medical doctors are increasingly in agreement that genitals do not determine gender (and also that physical sex isn’t a hard binary). But this hasn’t stopped people from, uh, exploding a hand-held bomb into their own balls to demonstrate that their baby is gonna be a MAN, damn it.
At their core, gender reveal parties appear to represent a sort of doubling-down on the gender binary—using the outward appearance of genitals to draw a hard line between “male” and female,” and policing that boundary with confetti and pyrotechnics. In an era when the very construction of such a boundary is widely contested, an exploding cloud of pastel smoke is a method of dramatically reasserting its primacy. It’s a way of saying, “this is who we are, and this is who our child is going to be” with a literal bang.
Except we don’t actually get to decide who our children will become. Jenna Karvunidis, whose 2008 post arguably sparked the gender reveal trend, has come around to a different way of thinking about gender — prompted, in part, by the very child whose sex was revealed in 2008 growing into a girl who prefers to wear suits. Earlier this year, Karvunidis wrote:
“Who cares what gender the baby is? I did at the time because we didn’t live in 2019 and didn’t know what we know now — 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.”
Unpacking our cultural obsession with what’s between a baby’s legs is no simple endeavor. It requires an understanding of the history of the practice of dividing human bodies into two tidy categories based on their genitals, surgically mutilating the genitals of babies who don’t obviously fit into either category, and ostracizing those who fail to conform to their assigned category later in life. This binary division is by no means an essential part of human nature, as there are traditional cultures around the world whose gender systems are far more complex than a hard, genitally-determined binary. Rather it has to do with the history of an economic system based on an agricultural approach to engineering human sexuality.
Designating bodies either “male” or “female,” and then systematically denying certain rights (property rights, inheritance rights, voting rights, etc.) to those born in bodies deemed “female,” effectively forces those individuals to be dependent upon men for their livelihood—a dynamic which has a long and storied history in those societies which have sought to control resources through a system of ownership and inheritance.
Generally speaking, those who argue that this kind of sharply gendered social hierarchy reflects a “natural order” have earnestly mistaken a highly engineered, not-even-remotely-universal approach to controlling gender and sexuality for a “natural” one.
That the two most recent gender reveal disasters happened in Iowa is a fact that resonates strongly with this history. (Hey, I’m from Iowa, too!) The entire economy is dependent upon farming, which in turn is dependent upon sorting plants and animals by sex in order to control their heavily engineered reproductive processes. The idea that this sort of engineering is “natural” is reflected in the dominant mythologies that guide the worldview of people with an ongoing economic and social investment in sustaining it. And so just as some truckers have modified their rigs to burn more fuel in order to “roll-coal” as an anti-environmentalist statement against climate change science, perhaps the explosive gender reveal—which has grown all the more explosive in response to accusations of transphobia—may ultimately be seen a statement of resistance to those who want to shove contemporary sex and gender studies down the good people of Iowa’s throats.
As a person who grew up in Iowa, in a Lutheran church where women were neither ordained nor allowed to vote, I used to think the gender binary was a given. I have felt my own faith in its naturalness erode over time in the face of new information. That erosion has not brought about a lack of stability but an enriched sense of empathy and openness to the astounding, beautiful difference that exists in the world. I love that Jenna Karvunidis, the original gender reveal mom, has revised her understanding of what a baby’s physical sex does and doesn’t mean. It gives me hope that some of the people currently setting off smoke bombs to reinforce inaccurate assumptions regarding sex and gender might come to feel differently with the benefit of time and new information.
On that note, my heart sincerely goes out to the woman who was killed in a gender reveal mishap, as well as the family who accidentally killed her. Not the least of all because she has been deprived of the opportunity to discover for herself what kind of person her grandchild will actually grow up to become.
The only reliable “gender reveal,” of course, is time.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this, a small plane crash near Turkey, Texas has been attributed to yet another gender reveal mishap. Is it time for a moral panic?