A gender reveal party started the huge El Dorado Fire in California last weekend — and it’s not the first time this type of gathering has sparked a wildfire.
Expectant parents reveal the sex of their coming newborn at gender reveal parties, often with blue or pink cakes but increasingly using fireworks. The problem with gender reveals has grown so out of control, the woman who popularized them begged parents to “stop having these stupid parties” on social media.
The most recent fire in California was started when clouds of blue smoke for a boy preceded the flames, which the expectant parents tried to put out with bottled water. In 2017, an Arizona gender-reveal party explosion started a wildfire that burned about 47,000 acres.
Gender reveal parties blend pregnancy with social media “to make performance a key component of the experience,” says Marymount Manhattan College professor Laura Tropp, author of “A Womb With A View: America’s Growing Public Interest In Pregnancy.”
These gatherings can bring families together and allow partners to get involved in the pregnancy earlier, but people feel pressure to outdo the last gender reveal party they attended, she says. This had led couples to attempt more extreme reveals, from using exotic animals to car tires that burn out with plumes of colored smoke.
When Tropp first heard of someone she knows having a gender reveal around 2004, the expecting mother couldn’t be with her husband in person and wanted to share the moment with him.
“But now it's ballooned into performing it for other people,” she says. “And I think that it becomes this, what is the risk that you're going to take? What's going to make it bigger and better?”
Gender is assigned at birth based on the sex of the baby, but it can change over the course of a child’s life. Some parents are trying to make less of a distinction between their children based on gender so that their kids don’t feel like they were caricatured, she says.
“In many ways, Americans have been making some real progress in seeing gender as both constructed and fluid,” she says. “So there seems to be a real disconnect with these parties because they're so focused on seeing gender in such a dualistic way: girl or boy, bows or bow ties.”
Looking back on the history of pregnancy, women used to control almost every aspect of the experience in private. Now, women share their experience through gender reveal parties, ultrasounds, pregnancy photos and even belly castings — where women mold their pregnant bellies to preserve the experience, she says.
“In some ways, women have gained so much control over their pregnancy and body,” she says. “But in some ways, they've lost control because there's a lot of these rituals and technologies that are bringing other people into the process.”
Despite the loss of privacy, many people feel less alone with others involved in their pregnancy, she says.
For couples viewing pregnancy as a communal experience versus an individual one, Tropp recommends drawing a line on who makes decisions about different aspects of the experience.
“I think that everybody who brings a ritual into their pregnancy — whether it's a gender reveal or something else — should think about what's the purpose of it,” she says, “and then make sure that they're engaging in the ritual in a way that's going to help them gain something from the experience rather than kind of become this just commoditized function or this performance.”
This segment aired on September 9, 2020.