Last April, along a stretch of fecund Australian countryside, a couple expecting a baby performed what thousands of expectant couples now believe is the proper ritual for such an occasion. They gathered some friends and a camera, drove to a remote one-lane road, and waited to discover whether they were having a boy or a girl.
In the third second of the three-minute video, released earlier this month by the local police department, the sedan’s exhaust pipe emits bright blue smoke. The couple celebrates — it means they’re having a boy. At this point, everything is going as planned. In the fifth second, the car’s driver pilots the vehicle in jubilant zigzags while guests jog alongside and cheer.
In the 54th second, the car begins to shoot flames out of its butt. The driver escapes. The car blazes. Guests run out of the frame and then back in, realizing, with cartoonish gestures, that the burning vehicle contains their belongings. One ducks inside for a satchel before they all dash away a final time. Left behind: the Holden Commodore sedan, stewing in a pit of its own melted rubber, still emitting acrid puffs of gender-revealing smoke. Which are now black, not blue.
As best as anyone can tell, the gender-reveal trend began about a decade ago, popularized by mom bloggers who concocted increasingly elaborate affairs: pyrotechnic events that looked like the offspring of a Pinterest board and an episode of “American Chopper.”
One of the original party-throwers, Jenna Karvunidis, has recently been in the news again. In 2008, the Californian arranged what would now be considered a quaint gimmick: After learning she was having a girl, Karvunidis threw a party to share the news, via a cake covered in pink icing. She wrote a post about it, which went viral, which launched insanity.
This weekend, she composed a follow-up post about the child whose gender she’d celebrated. “PLOT TWIST,” she wrote on Facebook. “The world’s first gender-reveal party baby is a girl who wears suits!”
She included a family photo of Bee, sporting a suit and an androgynous haircut, and linked to other pictures in which the 10-year-old wore a mix of “girl” and “boy” clothes.
I spotted Karvunidis’s Facebook post, as it happens, because I was already buried in gender-reveal footage, planning to write a column about the perverse pleasure of watching the ones that fail.
There’s the Australian car explosion, for one. Or, another in which a man attempts to hit a pink-powder-filled balloon off a golf tee, and instead thwacks his buddy in the groin. Or another, of a guy accidentally hitting a softball into his wife’s face.
I’m not entirely sure what it says about the state of heterosexual matrimony in America, but gender-reveal parties are often a hypermasculine affair. There are a lot of footballs involved, an occasional ax. A certain cohort of straight American men have suddenly decided they need to learn the sex of their babies via chain saw, splitting open hollowed-out logs to reveal pink or blue dust.
My favorite reveal of all time is the tasteful, soft-focus photo shoot of a couple sitting together on a beach blanket. She, dressed in a peasant-style dress, holds her rotund belly. He, sprawled on his stomach, holds a semiautomatic weapon. In the next image, they gaze into the distance at an exploded mushroom cloud of blue dust.
We understand, ladies. You are a fertile moon goddess.
But increased stagecraft also leads to increased risk of failure. An off-duty Border Patrol agent caused a 47,000-acre forest fire, after he shot a blue-dust-filled target that exploded more thoroughly than planned. A fireworks-based gender reveal in Philadelphia turned into exactly what you might expect: “A few adults got hit but no serious injuries,” one guest reported after footage was released of the mayhem. “Just minor burns.”
Anyway, I was going to write about that, all of that: the audacity, the Americana, the vanity and consumer excess descending into schadenfreude.
But then I saw Karvunidis’s post, which got to the actual heart of the matter: “Who cares what gender the baby is?” she wrote. “I did at the time because we didn’t live in 2019 and didn’t know what we know now — that assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what’s between their legs.”
The wry poignancy of the gender-reveal fail does not come from watching a sedan shoot flames down an Australian countryside. It comes from the fact that the entire event is based on remarkable hubris: Parents try to concoct a memorable moment out of exhaust pipes, only to have nature inform them that there are no carefully concocted moments when it comes to raising children.
Maybe your balloons will release pink confetti, only for your kid to later inform you they’re a boy. Pre-birth is as good a time as any to figure out the limits of binary color choices.
These parties can be fun, and moving, and celebratory for all involved.
The ones where a toddler bursts into tears because she wanted a sister, only for her mother to explain that brothers are amazing, too. Or the ones where a couple carries a helium balloon into the backyard and presents it to their dogs. The dogs are supposed to tear the balloon open and reveal boy-or-girl confetti inside. Instead, they bop their noses against it a few times and then back away, leaving the unpopped balloon to float away into the summer sky.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.