Why do gender reveal parties exist?

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Though recent years have seen more conversations on gender and the dangers of imposing roles and norms, gender reveal parties have also caught on as a new trend among expectant parents. Illustration by JL JAVIER.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Our family stands in a circle around a table at my sister-in-law’s home. There’s a baby doll on the table propped up on all fours. Not knowing what to expect, we all whip out our phones to capture whatever is supposed to go down. As my sister-in-law’s younger siblings countdown from 10, my brother puts a lighter to a wick sprouting out of the doll’s behind. The wick sparks, and in a few seconds, blue smoke starts to come out of the doll. We hear champagne bottles pop and there’s blue food coloring everywhere. We all run inside as smoke fills the air. In the living room there is excitement and endless chatter over both the reveal and the actual results.

Though recent years have seen more conversations on the fluidity of gender and the dangers of imposing gender roles and norms, gender reveal parties have also caught on as a new trend among expectant parents. These parties commonly involve the gathering of friends and family to creatively reveal the sex of the baby, from the simple yet popular cake-cutting ceremony to reveal either blue or pink fillings, to more interesting ones like turning a baby doll into a colored smoke bomb.

Pregnancy in the time of social media

It’s no coincidence that gender reveal parties have become more popular as social media has, but their connections are layered. Celebrity couples like Sarah Lahbati and Richard Gutierrez, and Iya Villania and Drew Arellano took to social media to post videos of their big reveals, garnering hundreds and thousands of likes, potentially sparking ideas and influencing other parents-to-be. Then there’s the urge to be the most interesting, most compelling version of yourself online, thus the popularity of shocking and novel ways to announce a baby’s gender.  

There’s also the feeling of “owing” friends and family updates about your pregnancy — something that isn’t as affected by the presence of social media as it is helped by it. Social media gives us the ability to document and announce everything, from mundane moments to milestones and important chapters in our lives. It also helps our loved ones keep up. And when it comes to pregnancy, people are often invested in the story. So much so that some parents-to-be can feel obligated to share their stories online. “Nakakapagod din kasi to entertain everyone’s questions and comments. Lalo na ‘yung ‘di mo close,” says my sister-in-law.

That investment that people have in the pregnancy of their friend or relative often extends to a natural tendency to play guessing games with regards to the gender. In Filipino culture, there are a lot of superstitious beliefs about determining the sex of the baby based on the physical appearance of the mother. Many Filipinos still stick to the belief that if the mother has become “uglier” — developing darker underarms and nape, acne, and swollen feet — then it’s likely that the baby will be a boy. If the mother appears to be “blooming” or has nice, shiny hair, a smaller baby bump, and lighter skin, then chances are it’s a girl.

Are gender reveals necessary? Are they harmful?

It’s important to note that gender reveal parties are inaccurately named because “gender” refers to a person’s identity, behavior, and characteristics — aspects that develop through time and social influences, while “sex” is determined by one’s biological and reproductive functions.

Calling the celebration a “gender reveal” can muddle the already often confused difference between “sex” and “gender.” It’s been an uphill battle to get more people to come to terms with the fact that sex and gender aren’t mutually exclusive, and that they don’t always align. This doesn’t help the cause for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming individuals whose biological sex and assigned gender don’t often match up, and for intersex individuals, who are born with atypical anatomies that don’t often fall into the rigid categories of male and female.

At gender reveal parties, colors and gender-specific themes often come into play in decorations and games. We often ascribe certain traits, roles, and behaviors to two distinct genders — blue as the color for boys, pink for girls; strong and sporty themes for boys, gentler, more domesticated ones for girls (think princesses and tea parties); strength, assertiveness, and dominance as common traits for boys, meekness, sensitivity, and submissiveness for girls; and so on. Yet, none of these are traits that boys or girls are actually biologically predisposed to, and studies find that stereotyping can be limiting and dangerous. Gender stereotypes can encourage sexist behavior, especially with the thinking that women are to be submissive, while men are to be dominant. This kind of thinking can encourage boys to feel entitled to the obedience of women, and to be assertive and violent when they don’t get what they want. On the other hand, women lose opportunities in leadership positions due to this stereotyping.

Overhauling the gender reveal party

At the party, our parents would talk about how different things are compared to their time, saying things like, “Back then, we didn’t have these kinds of things. They didn’t even have ultrasounds. We would just find out about the gender once it’s out.” They talked about how the only parties they would throw were baby showers as the due date came close. But the test that determines the baby’s sex is also the test that determines the baby’s overall health. The test is called a mid-pregnancy scan, or anomaly scan, and it’s taken anytime between 18 and 20 weeks. The test allows doctors and the couple to see and count almost everything, from the baby’s brain and heart to all its fingers and toes. For my sister-in-law, the scan gave her and her husband the peace of mind they needed — their first attempt had ended in a miscarriage. Beyond that, the experience also helped her imagine her baby better, making her feel even more connected to her son.

“Gender” refers to a person’s identity, behavior, and characteristics — aspects that develop through time and social influences, while “sex” is determined by one’s biological and reproductive functions.

Admittedly, the party was fun. It didn’t involve games like other gender reveal parties often do, nor did the organizers have any other tricks up their sleeves aside from the eventful reveal. But two families that didn’t get together very often spent the night getting closer, bonding over the health of the newest addition to the family. It was exciting to see how the grandparents-to-be would wrestle with their designations.

Though these parties aren’t necessary, they are good opportunities to have fun. The party redeems itself when it focuses on celebrating the health of the baby and when it gives families opportunities to get closer, and, at least for my family, there weren’t much discussions on gender anyway. Perhaps what all the gender reveal party needs is an overhaul — to shift its focus away from celebrating sex and gender and to allow families to come together to celebrate the baby’s health instead.