Over the last decade, as more people have filmed their "gender" reveals for social media, gender reveal parties have become more extravagant. The trend first began in 2008, when Jenna Karvunidis, widely credited as the "inventor" of the gender reveal, ordered a cake that, when cut, revealed pink icing. In the last few years, couples have taken things up a notch, to say the least, using huge balloons full of confetti or even fireworks to announce their future child's "gender," which is actually an announcement of what their future child's genitals look like.
Gender reveal parties are also facing more criticism as more people understand that gender is a spectrum beyond blue or pink, buck or doe, and become more supportive of transgender people. Medical experts and trans people say that revealing a child's sex can reinforce harmful cultural norms and expectations. Given all this info, why are they still a thing?
Views of sex reveal videos on YouTube increased 60% from 2016 to 2017, HuffPost reported. Some people told the outlet that sex reveals were a fun way to celebrate a pregnancy after struggling with infertility; for others, they were a light-hearted break from the nonstop, often negative news cycle.
Carly Gieseler, an assistant professor at the City University of New York, wrote in an academic paper that the sex reveal party “is but one example of the growing trend in making the private events of parenthood public,” HuffPost reported. Expecting parents increasingly share more intimate details of their pregnancies as they've progressed, with photoshoots to announce the pregnancy, and regular photos of their growing "bump." Sex reveals are part of this sharing with family or friends.
At the same time as more videos flood social media, sex reveals have become over the top in their quest to go viral. In 2018, Louisiana's "Gator King" Mike Kliebert employed the help of a 60-year-old alligator named Sally in his family's viral reveal. In November 2019, a private plane crashed in Texas after dropping 350 gallons of pink water as part of a sex reveal stunt. (The two people in the plane suffered minor injuries.)
Some parties have led to serious disaster. In April 2017, an off-duty border patrol officer held a gender reveal that set off a wildfire that burned 47,000 acres of land. In October 2019, a woman died at a gender reveal party after being hit by shrapnel from an explosion associated with the festivities.
The backlash to sex reveals has to do both with the extreme or dangerous immediate impacts of these events, but also with people's understanding that gender and sex are different, according to science, and that a person's gender does not always match up with the sex they were assigned at birth.
The number of people who know someone who is transgender has also been steadily increasing, especially among younger people. Pew Research data from January 2019 found that more than one-third of Generation Z knows someone who uses the gender-neutral pronouns they/them, which was also Merriam-Webster's word of 2019. More people than ever also support trans rights. A 2019 survey by the nonpartisan research organization the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than six in 10 Americans say they have become more supportive of transgender rights compared to their stances five years ago.
And medical experts, trans people, and expectant parents have all written about the problems with sex reveals. Karvunidis, the "inventor" of sex reveal parties, even wrote in a Facebook post in July that she now has mixed feelings about her "random contribution to the culture."
"Who cares what gender the baby is?" she wrote in the post, pointing to the evidence of how harmful it is to focus on a baby's genitals and on gender stereotypes. At the end of the post, Karvunidis revealed that her daughter, the world's "first gender-reveal party baby," is a girl who wears suits.
Dr. Katie Baratz Dalke, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine, told Marie Claire the "popularity of gender-reveal parties speaks to how powerful and central this binary is to our sense of identity." But at a time when more people than ever know someone who is non-binary, why is this the case? Even among people who aren't well-versed in the fight for trans rights, rejecting gender stereotypes is popular (see the rise of the pant suit for women). The harmful effects of gender stereotypes aren't a new concept, and as a result, support for raising kids in a gender neutral way is also growing.
They might not understand the negative cumulative effects of gender stereotypes and the gender binary on children and trans people. Or they do understand and they just don't think it applies to their life.
But if the public's concept of gender is evolving so much, why do sex reveals still happen? The 2019 Public Religion Research Institute survey offers some insight. It found that, though more people say they support trans rights, the number of people who support transgender people in the military has stayed the same since 2017. Mother Jones noted that in the same time, there has also been a 7% increase in the number of Americans who support “bathroom bills,” which require people to use the bathroom that matches their assigned sex at birth rather than their gender identity. The survey also found that 55% of Americans believe that gender is binary, despite science that says otherwise and the growing numbers of out non-binary people.
Why is there such a disconnect between how people say they support trans rights and their support for ideas and laws that hurt trans people? Melissa Michelson, professor of Political Science at Menlo College, told Mother Jones, “People answer favorably to questions about lofty ideals. They know that supporting transgender rights is the right thing to say.”
But when it comes to walking the walk, people are slow to change. They might not understand the negative cumulative effects of gender stereotypes and the gender binary on children and trans people. Or they do understand and they just don't think it applies to their life.
As a viral internet trend, sex reveal parties also take place in relation to the dopamine economy, a relatively new term for the ways that technology can have addictive qualities. Studies have shown that when people receive likes or shares on social media, their brains produce dopamine, a chemical that is involved in pleasure, reward, motivation, and memory. When people create and share sex reveal videos or photos (or engagement videos or photos, or anything else from their personal lives), they feel pleasure from the likes and comments they receive on social media. The strong pull of the dopamine economy is likely behind why some people are comfortable bypassing or ignoring the negative effects of "gender" reveals and gender stereotypes. They want likes on social media and the congratulations from friends and family — many of whom probably also aren't aware of, or don't care enough about, the effects of sex reveals either.
The evolution of sex reveals over the last decade summarizes a general theme when it comes to trans rights and acceptance: people will say they support people's rights, because it's wrong to say otherwise. But they are reluctant or slow to change their own actions. Trans people often feel this in our own lives — many people say they "support" non-binary people when they come out, but they "just don't know how to" use they/them pronouns. Their respect for trans people has a limit, and the limit is whether being respectful imposes on their lives, actions, or even their social media presence.
Sex reveal parties will persist until people are not only willing to recognize that they harm others — but are also willing to change their own actions as a result.