It was a bizarre scene on Thursday’s Ellen show: The pop-country group Florida Georgia Line performed, and in the interview that followed, host Ellen Degeneres told singer Tyler Hubbard, expecting a baby with his wife, that she knew his baby’s sex. After conferring with his bandmate, wife and friends on stage — they predicted it would be a boy — Degeneres hit a big red button, and blue confetti flew. In case that wasn’t enough of a clue, the words IT’S A BOY appeared in bubbly letters behind the group.
Forget the stork, or even the doctor’s office. The gender reveal event has become A Thing, often in the form of a party, and it’s not going away any time soon. Like wedding hashtags, painstakingly planned children’s birthday parties, and public prom date invitations, there’s a premium on creativity, with the most attention-hungry among us going to ever-greater lengths to make their special event a social media hit. Particularly viral gender reveals in recent years have involved lighting up a Ferris wheel, shooting guns (nothing says responsible parent like the excessive and unnecessary use of firearms), and bringing a live alligator into the mix (same, but potentially deadly reptile). Many of our most hyper-performative social media moments tie back to traditional gender roles — it is, after all, usually the boy who goes viral for hounding a celebrity woman to go to prom with him; it is usually the man who puts together a flash mob or interrupts a marathon to propose to his girlfriend; it is usually the mom whose hands are sticky with glue from crafting Pinterest-worthy birthday party decorations. But gender reveal parties put those conventions on steroids, and we would all be better off to skip them.
Finding out the sex of your baby has always been a big deal, whether that happened when you were passed a mewling infant, burrito-wrapped in a pink or blue blanket, or when the doctor told you the results of an ultrasound. This news has also always been followed by a series of conventions, aesthetics, and expectations layered onto that baby or fetus, very few of which have ever had much of a real relationship to the presence of a penis or a vagina, let alone XX or XY chromosomes.
But since the advent of social media, finding out a fetus’s sex has changed from happy news into A Moment — and on social media, Moments must be carefully planned, appealingly captured, and widely shared. According to a HuffPost article from last year, the first gender reveal party videos were uploaded to YouTube in 2009. The term began appearing on Google in 2010 and its popularity has gone up ever since, making this a relatively new and still-growing phenomenon. A great many children born in 2019 will make an internet footprint before their feet even exist in the world outside of their mother, with sonograms of them as fetuses posted on Facebook and their sex announced soon thereafter in Instagram-friendly fashion.
While many popular social media trends have troubling gender implications, the gender reveal party is a living feminist nightmare. There is, first, the strange dynamic of seeing parents cry happy tears at learning their child is a boy or a girl, as if they may have had a different reaction had the smoke bomb been pink instead of blue. And then there is the issue of connecting genitals at birth to gender in life — something intersex and transgender people have long criticized. You might know that your fetus has XY chromosomes and a penis, but that doesn’t mean the baby is going to identify as a boy. Gender reveal parties entrench not just a gender binary, but the assumption that one’s sex assigned at birth is a permanent state.
They also entrench the idea that “it’s a boy!” should mean something significantly different than “it’s a girl.” There’s a reason you don’t see a gender reveal party cake cut to expose yellow inside; from the colors we use to the much more significant weight of social expectations and disparate treatment, from the time children are separated as boys and girls, they begin to live very differently. Feminists have long criticized this — not the existence of boys and girls, but the unequal ways in which we raise them. Gender reveal parties ingrain exactly what we have been trying for centuries to root out.
The evidence is right there in the blue glitter spraying for a boy and pink for a girl. It’s even more obvious (and disturbing) in the themed parties, which have names, according to the HuffPost piece, like Guns or Glitter, Wheels or Heels, Tractors or Tiaras and Pistols or Pearls. Notice a theme? Boys do things — they shoot guns (apparently a lot) and drive cars and tractors. Girls perform, are objects to be admired, and should work at being pretty.
Gender reveal parties, then, exacerbate existing social problems without solving anything. Is it nice to celebrate the impending birth of a new baby? Absolutely! Which is why, for decades, new mothers have enjoyed baby showers. Those showers have also been sex-segregated, froofy, and usually involving a series of games everyone hates, so why not make them better? Lots of couples already are, using a baby shower as a co-ed celebration of an incoming family member, not a competition for the most creative mechanism by which to utilize blue food coloring.
The sex of a fetus is interesting news, and something lots of parents want to know in advance. But there is very little it tells us about a child — nothing about their future interests, personality, potential, or even identity. A party celebrating it isn’t just pointless — at least pointlessness would render it harmless. It sets us back. It’s hard enough to find a baby gift that isn’t pre-sorted into pink or blue, and harder still to raise a child who is fully able to be themselves in a world that is quick to put them in boxes based on our wholly invented and distressingly limited ideas about what it means to be female or male. Imagine if even a fraction of the creative energy and effort put into producing original gender reveal moments on social media were put into reshaping all of the ways we think about girls, boys, men and women (and into making room for those who might say “both” or “none of the above”).
That might actually be worth celebrating.
Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Nairobi and New York City, and the author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.