The psychology behind a controversial trend By Olga Khazan
Reprinted from The Atlantic
The gender reveals that Jonathan Reilly orchestrated for his first baby didn’t go perfectly. In 2016, he had his mother-in-law secretly write down the baby’s sex and order balloons from a party supply store. The plan was for the balloons, which were all blue, to stay hidden in a bag from Reilly and his wife until the couple hosted a party. The balloons would appear and reveal that the baby was a boy. But the store put them in a clear bag. Reilly inadvertently saw them before the party even began.
The experience was in part what inspired Reilly and his wife, Tori, to start their own gender-reveal company. Called Poof There It Is, its website promises to help people “create their dream reveal” with items like footballs, cannons, and smoke bombs that spit out clouds of fuchsia or teal. The company often works directly with a mother’s obstetrician, so no one at a party knows the result till the big ka-boom.
In recent years, Reilly’s business has picked up as gender reveals have become a viral phenomenon, with countless videos and pictures of exploding whatnots and gleeful couples posted to social media. Reilly says Poof There It Is now plays a part in about 200 gender reveals each day. The most popular products, he says, are the ones that create a monsoon of confetti: “Everyone wants to capture that moment of the confetti raining down. The dad is always running around and screaming and yelling, so you want something that flutters longer.”
Reilly acknowledges that the parties might not be for everyone—and, indeed, gender reveals have suffered fierce backlash for conflating gender with sex and enforcing rigid cultural norms. But Reilly is among the defenders who argue that the new tradition is about more than whether a baby will grow up to be a square-jawed macho man or a dainty lady. They’re meant to celebrate the mother, he says. In fact, some researchers agree with that assessment—and say the discussions around gender in America today might have helped bring about the tradition’s rise in the first place.
We had nigh reached gender-reveal saturation before the backlash came. As gender-reveal parties became more popular, each subsequent proud parent seemed to want to outdo the others. A restaurant introduced “gender reveal lasagna”—complete with pink or blue ricotta—which was immediately decried as “a nightmare” and “not okay.” When one man used an alligator he owned in a gender reveal, one person wished the creature would have bitten his hand. Most recently, a gender reveals that involved a hippo at a Texas zoo chomping down on watermelon was deemed “the worst” reveal ever by one Twitter user.
To be sure, some of the responses are understandable. Some couples have moved on from blue and pink to more cringeworthy themes like “guns or glitter,” committing more firmly to gender stereotypes. Critics point out that the parties leave too little room for intersex or third-gender people, and that they trap babies in a pink-or-blue binary before they’re even born. Some of the talks among the gender-reveal entrepreneurs also aren’t going to earn them a Ph.D. in feminist theory anytime soon. “What are the two things a little girl dreams of?” Reilly asked me rhetorically at one point. “Getting married and having kids.” (I, for one, never dreamed of either.)
On top of that, some gender reveals are outright dangerous: One in the Arizona desert last year sparked a wildfire that caused $8 million in damage. And they can carry a whiff of tacky social-media performance. The point is a “surprise,” but is there really any doubt the parents would be happy with either gender? In fact, the only people allowed to show disappointment are the couples’ existing children, as evidenced by the many gender-reveal videos in which a young boy bursts into tears at the sight of pink cake or balloons.
Despite all this, the myriad ways gender reveals are practiced do undermine some of these critiques—and show that the reveals can be meant for more than social-media fame. Some gender reveals are wrapped into a baby shower, meaning parents bring gender-neutral gifts to the party. And some people who have had a gender reveal say social-media sharing helps spread the word to family members who live far away. Elizabeth Clarke, a mom of four in Wichita Falls, Texas, had a friend wrap a large box and fill it with helium balloons for the gender reveal of her youngest daughter. Clarke and her husband Facetimed all the faraway grandparents, aunts, and uncles, then opened the box. In this case, her older children were the ones who wanted to do the reveal.
With their colorful bombast and collectivism, gender reveals can feel like a new twist on an ancient ritual. And this ritual might be more for the mother’s benefit than the baby’s. Rituals are often created for times of enormous stress, says Nick Hobson, a psychologist, and consultant who studies rituals. Take wintertime, whose depressing dreariness we zhuzh up with candles and presents during the holidays. Similarly, “pregnancy and labor is basically an exercise in managing massive amounts of stress and uncertainty,” Hobson says.
Gender reveals lend structure and order to the chaos, helping parents manage their stress. You don’t know how your delivery is going to go, but you know one thing: It’s a girl, and everyone was so happy to hear it.
Florence Pasche Guignard, a religious-studies instructor at Ryerson University, watched hundreds of videos of gender reveals for her 2015 study on the topic, “A Gendered Bun in the Oven.” She notes that there is otherwise a stark lack of pregnancy-related rituals in North American culture. A baby might get baptized and christened, but pregnant women mostly get told not to drink wine or eat soft cheese. They’re frequently advised to buy baby stuff and read baby books—for the good of the baby. Gender-reveal products can certainly play into that industry by giving women even more stuff to buy, but a special ceremony to celebrate the pregnancy itself also can help fill that void.
Gender reveals can offer some parents a way to “re-enchant pregnancy,” Guignard told me. Most importantly, she writes, they fulfill the ‘‘very American cultural imperative of fun.” (This is perhaps why academics don’t get invited to many parties.)
It makes sense that a new ritual devised for pregnancy would be full of balloons and cake, rather than prayers and blessings. That’s in keeping with the trajectory of modern American society, in which atheists are one of the fastest-growing religious groups. “As society becomes more secular, we do turn to more nonreligious rituals,” says Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut.
It also makes sense that gender would be a part of this new ritual. The elements that get wrapped into rituals tend to reflect whatever’s already swirling around a culture. Communities near water, for instance, develop water-related rituals, notes Michael Norton, a psychologist at Harvard Business School. Right now, he points out, gender is a hot topic in American culture. In recent years, the concept of masculinity has been dissected and debated, the rights of transgender people have been especially jeopardized, and parenting blogs have cautioned against calling girls “my little princess.”
Part of the pushback against gender reveals might even arise because it’s common for people to rebel against new rituals. “The first time you go to your in-laws’ for Thanksgiving, you’re horrified because they’re doing it wrong,” Norton says. Nevertheless, gender reveals show no obvious signs of decline. Clarke, the mom of four, told me, “I really don’t care what other people think or say about it.” As Andrew Lester, who runs Gender Reveal Celebrations, sees it, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. “I’m not gonna try to convince you,” he says.
Reilly, from Poof There It Is, didn’t give up after that first, imperfect gender reveals. His wife is currently pregnant with her third, and recently the couple did get their dream celebration. As a drone hovered overhead filming, the party’s guests fired 100 handheld tubes “cannons” that rained down blue-dyed cornstarch and confetti, a modern fanfare heralding a prince. Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.