A woman died at a gender reveal party. But it has long been clear this fad is out of control.

At some point, this all feels like it's less about the baby and far more about the parents loudly pledging public allegiance to gender norms.
Drawing of a frown  a pink background.
Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Getty Images
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By Erika Nicole Kendall

To some degree, I understand the recent trend of lavish "gender reveal” parties. As expectant parents, every little detail that you learn about your new family member is a detail that makes the journey feel more real.

I can remember the moment I picked out my two children's cribs, high chairs, car seats, and even their first pairs of shoes. Their first outfits — hers, a full body romper covered in tiny blue flowers, and his, a blue- and white-striped onesie with matching blue pants — still occupy a small space in the drawer where I store all of their keepsakes. Everything about their entrance into the world was a cause for memory and for celebration.

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So I get the impetus behind the cakes, colored pink or blue beneath mountains of frosting; the balloons filled with pink or blue confetti and/or glitter; and the device that’s supposed to shoot colored powder into the air but accidentally sends shrapnel into the head of a family member, ultimately causing her death.

Wait, what?

Yes, you read correctly: A 56-year-old woman was killed instantly last weekend when a homemade contraption crafted to send pink or blue powder into the atmosphere at a gender reveal party accidentally exploded like a pipe bomb, traveling hundreds of feet and striking the woman in the head and killing her.

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This isn’t the first time a stunt has turned tragic, either. In Arizona, a 2017 gender reveal sparked a wildfire that destroyed tens of thousands of acres of land and required a week of firefighting to get under control. (The man who set the Coronado National Forest ablaze was fined $8,188,069 in restitution for the damages.) Another man doing a burnout in his car in Australia as part of a gender reveal in 2018 nearly set himself on fire instead.

All this, and for what? A clip intended to go viral on social media?

With a gender reveal, we need to start asking ourselves what we are really celebrating. Of the (nontragic) gender reveals that spread across the internet, the overwhelming majority include two parents: one man and one woman. It's much more rare to see ones for those going it solo or for nonheterosexual married couples; they simply don't receive the same level of prominence, as if their new additions don’t deserve the same sort of over-the-top celebration.

And then there are the videos where family members express disappointment that the baby will be a girl, or over-the-top excitement because it will be a boy — suggesting that, for some people, they're not really about celebrating the birth of a baby as much as rooting for mother-to-be to live up to an outdated stereotype about providing "an heir."

Plus, allowing a child to be represented by pink or blue food coloring, confetti or smoke has little to do with legitimate color preferences and far more to do with corporations, which once needed to boost sales, deciding to create “color by gender” as a way of encouraging families to buy two of particular items. That's right: The origins of “pink is for girls” and “blue is for boys” are as intrinsic to our celebrations of parenthood as Mother's and Father's Day cards are to loving your parents.

The results of this early gendering have been dramatic: Kitchen toys, once entirely gender-inclusive, were color-coded for girls; toys that encouraged the kind of critical thinking used in hard sciences were not. A study done by the University of Hong Kong identified that when toys were coded in neutral colors not identified with any particular gender, young school-age boys and girls performed at equal levels. But when the toys were coded in colors understood to be gender-specific, girls not only preferred not using the “boys” toys, they also performed more poorly than when the toys were gender neutral.

In other words, boys and girls learn from a young age how we sort and value ourselves and each other by gender.

Furthermore, there are sincere questions about what these kinds of strict gender identity adherences mean for relationships between boys and girls. If our society codes pastel colors to mean “softer” and “more vulnerable,” does that explain why we’re keeping boys away from them and steering girls toward them? Are we saying that masculinity is somehow in opposition to vulnerability? Are we teaching empathy toward the vulnerable, or are we teaching that vulnerability is only acceptable for some and, if we feel vulnerable, we should overreact with violence … usually against the vulnerable?

Crafting a pastel palette “for girls” and a more sharp color scheme “for boys” has become so inscrutably rigid that some people believe that boys or men in pink — something that was quite common prior to this gendered segregation of toys — are something less than entirely masculine. And that’s ultimately the most uncomfortable part of the gender reveal conversation to me.

In a time when the transgender community is more prominent than ever before — despite transgender people existing for much of human history across cultures — people still confuse the difference between sex and gender. Sex is genitalia; gender is presentation. Therefore, a gender reveal party isn’t about gender at all — it’s celebrating the knowing of the sex. And, really, celebrating what’s in your baby’s diaper feels far more weird than whether or not your son ever wears pink, when you think about it.

At some point, the gender reveal party itself starts feeling less and less about the expected arrival of a baby and far more about the parents pledging a public allegiance to gender norms that have been questionable at best and life-ending at worst.

Listen — I love children. Every detail about them during my pregnancies brought me joy, anticipating the moment I could welcome them into the world. But the world into which I wanted to bring them should welcome them with open, empathetic arms — regardless of their identity — and wouldn't cherry-pick which aspects deserve celebrating.

If we commit to doing that work, we might not get viral photos out of it — or, thankfully, any more brush fires or funerals, for the matter — but we’ll get a better society for everyone.