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The El Dorado fire, one of the many currently burning on the west coast, is getting attention for its somewhat unusual cause: an explosive pyrotechnic device set off at a gender reveal party, something that might more accurately be termed a “genital and chromosome disclosure ritual.”
The news reports in turn ignited a maelstrom of memes mocking the ceremony. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s now at least two wildfires sparked this way, to say nothing of the rising ticker of accidental injuries and deaths as a result of explosive devices used at gender reveal events.
We might be tempted to call this “just an accident” and to decry any presumption of linking ecological collapse, imperial or civilizational decadence, and the “gender-reveal party” fad itself. After all, at its most anodyne, the “gender reveal” resembles any other event that reaps rewards on social media, and we all like attention.
But there’s more to the story. As Astri Jack recently argued in the International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, these ceremonies provide an outlet for middle-class future parents to signal upward mobility and parental dedication through consumption. The big reveal provides the information parents-to-be and their well-wishers need to start buying pink or blue consumer goods. It shouldn’t be surprising that the gender reveal has left the more basic realm of pink and blue cakes behind and turned instead towards the higher-class realm of Instagrammable experiences. When those two phenomena—the attention economy of social media, and signaling parental fitness under capitalism—combine, they combust in spectacular fashion.
But why this particular experience, the explosion? For, a spectacle entertains not because of its opulence or its ornamentation. And an explosion is more than a virility-signaling feat, although it can do that, too. What matters is its carefully calibrated destructive potential.
These experiences tease with, but ideally never reach, collapse. Consider a theatrical circus, which is “spectacular” if its cluttered scenography cannot possibly balance all the visual and auditory elements—yet somehow pulls it all off, somehow makes a coherent whole. Fireworks, too, elicit the same frisson from the controlled avoidance of conflagration.
These pink-or-blue explosions are attractive precisely because they might run amok. Like a magic show, we’re not quite sure how they don’t. So there are no coincidences here after all. “Why did these gender reveals end in cataclysm?” is not the correct question to ask because such rituals are designed to edge dangerously close to injury or the destruction of nature. Inevitably, some will ignite.
Instead, then, we should ask: What is it about gender in particular that has led so many people to feel an impulse to turn a “gender reveal” into a controlled explosion? What is it about the discovery of the sex of a fetus that begs to be rendered as hyperbole, as spectacle-for-emphasis?
First, such rituals simultaneously conjure into being an idealization of gender. Conjure, because the ceremony itself attributes undue significance to gender. It takes its extreme form from a contradiction, one especially uncomfortable for the macho dads staging these rituals: gender might not ultimately be so earth-shattering. I’ve also wondered if the “gender reveal” signals a backlash against the visible tolerance for sexual and gender pluralism of the past decade. The “cute” (as theorist Sianne Ngai might put it) party reflects broader national displays of gendered hostility (“lock her up!”). Or consider, for instance, the fascist reaction against Weimar moral pluralism and gen/sex liberality.
But another dynamic may be at work, too. By selecting the form of a flash and a bang, the ritual also reflects sincerely held ideas about gender. It may suggest that these future parents earnestly perceive a gender revelation to be a life-changing omen, one that alters the parents’ future with an irrevocable shock. In this reading, the ritual reinforces the notion that early phallic or chromosomal signs-in-the-tea-leaves portend the nature of a parent’s experience across two decades of rearing a gendered mini-human. Are these parents so wrong? Despite gender and sexual diversity, this heuristic may prove useful on average.
Moreover, the ritual also provides some measure of certainty in risky times. If there is so much pent-up anxiety in the increasingly precarious middle class about the challenges and determinisms of raising gendered children under consumer capitalism, then the “gender reveal” urgently signals how difficult childrearing has become in contemporary America.
The mockery of elite leftist moralizers trading internet memes, while delicious for those of us who condemn these ceremonies for their gender essentialism, may not help much. Instead, we should begin to understand the ritual’s meaning for its practitioners on their terms and that means understanding the ways economy, gender, and environmental destruction are linked.
When we think in these terms, solutions seem clearer. First, reinvesting in public support, like childcare, for families with young children. Second, addressing gender equity in ways that make a baby’s sex seems less fraught to would-be parents. Finally, regulating explosives and environmental protections in new ways. Think of it this way: gender studies can help us solve the puzzle of the gender reveal celebration. As a friend quipped, we need less lighter fluid and more gender-fluid.
Benjamin Bernard is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Princeton.