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Gender RevealGender reveals can seem over the top and weird on social media. For one Iowa couple, their elaborate plan turned into a deadly nightmare. NBC News reported in October 2019 that a 56-year-old Iowa woman died from flying shrapnel ejected by a handmade device at a reveal party for her grandchild. While most gender reveals aren't that tragic, they are coming under fire for many other reasons. To unpack this trend, we need to look at some history and cultural norms behind gender in the West.

A Game of One-Upmanship?

The Iowa incident is just one example of gender reveal parties gone wrong. In August 2017, an Arizona man’s attempted visual display ignited surrounding vegetation and set part of the Coronado National Forest on fire. CNN reported that the blaze destroyed 47,000 acres and caused $8 million in damages. In 2018, a Philadelphia couple set off pink explosives that resulted in minor injuries. And while a viral March 2018 gender reveal involving an alligator didn’t end badly, it did provoke controversy.

What’s prompting these over-the-top antics? Social media and human competitiveness may be to blame. The Huffington Post’s Caroline Bologna mentions that the number of gender reveal videos on YouTube have steadily increased since 2011. As the trend took off, people strived for better creativity and more spectacular reveals. For some, crafting the most elaborate reveal became an obsession. The goal? Outdoing other reveals and going viral.

Culture and Gendered Expectations

Gender norms aren’t new, but “pink for girls, blue for boys” is a 20th-century invention. Smithsonian Magazine’s Jeanne Maglaty explains that parents put all their babies and toddlers in white dresses until right before World War I. White cotton was considered practical because it could easily be bleached. When pink and blue came on the scene, some retailers first suggested dressing boys in pink because it was a “stronger color.” This changed in the 1940s, as manufacturers judged that Americans preferred their girls in pink and boys in blue.

Once prenatal testing became popular, marketing to these preferences grew more intense. Yet gender norms can dictate far more than the color of one’s clothing: hair length, clothing styles, toys, books, and even hobbies. According to Maglaty, child development experts have determined that children under age seven are susceptible to subtle messages about gender in advertising. 

A Highly Charged Debate 

Gender reveals have attracted both detractors and defenders. One common criticism is that they reinforce gendered stereotypes, especially notorious ones like “Guns or Glitter” or “Pistols or Pearls.” Others argue that they don’t truly reveal a child’s gender, as evidenced by the existence of transgender, nonbinary, and intersex individuals. Slate editor Jessica Winter proposes a connection between the popularity of gender reveals and pushback against our culture’s changing understanding of gender identity and transgender civil rights.

Those in favor of reveal parties usually counter that they’re intended to celebrate the mothers. The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan discusses the dearth of pregnancy-related rituals in Western culture. She also cites psychologist Nick Hobson, who explains that rituals are devised to deal with stressful situations. Rituals have a structure and order, which may provide comfort in times of chaos. Alternatives to gender reveal celebrations can fill this void. Parents Magazine and BabyGaga offer several suggestions, including name reveals and zodiac parties. Meanwhile, some transgender people are turning the concept on its head by throwing gender self-reveal parties. Mashable’s Heather Dockray calls them “subversive, celebratory, affirming, and fun,” placing gender identity within the agency of the individual rather than others.

New Realities, New Solutions

Not every gender reveal party sets off a forest fire, but questions are being raised about the practice. In the face of changing social norms, new customs can develop. Celebrations that value expecting parents and respect their children’s individuality may be the ideal solution.

Category: Society

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