John Paul Brammer is the writer of the advice column “¡Hola Papi!”
In a year already populated with such characters as Karen, the murder hornet and Jessica “La Bombalera” Krug, a familiar face has reared its pink-and-blue head: the “gender reveal party” gone wrong. A fire sparked by a “pyrotechnic device” during a celebration meant to debut the sex of the hosts’ baby-on-the-way has scorched more than 10,000 acres of Southern California since it was ignited Saturday. This is — somehow — far from the first disastrous reveal party, and it joins a litany of baby gender events that have devastated our homes and crops.
Past reveals have involved wildfires, animal attacks and automobile accidents. Multiple arrests have ensued. The party has a body count. A headline like “Gender reveal leaves several injured and acres destroyed” ought to be an oddity, but here, in our hell world, the story is a full-blown genre. And we eat it up.
We devour these stories because we love to see hubris checked, and right up there between Oedipus and Icarus are those who would claim authority over the slippery domain of gender. The reveal party plants a sometimes-pink, sometimes-blue flag that says definitively, “We have this figured out, for ourselves and for our offspring each.” When it backfires — figuratively or literally — it delights the more humble among us and reaffirms the notion that the construct of gender is, well, at least a little ridiculous.
When they don’t end in disaster, the events are a bit like New Year’s Eve in Times Square — generally misguided, kind of tacky and largely for straight people. But throw in an alligator or a fight in an Applebee’s parking lot, and now everyone on the Internet can crack jokes at the partygoers’ expense. Some offer memes and others unsolicited meditations on why the celebration, although only recently created, is already outdated. For all, there’s a giddy sense of sabotage in reading about how something wrongheaded has rightfully imploded.
One of the meditations this time around came from Jenna Karvunidis, the widely credited originator of the gender reveal party. Now a parent to a gender-nonconforming child, Karvunidis spoke out about the California conflagration, saying, “Stop having these stupid parties. For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid’s penis.”
There’s an on-the-nose symmetry to Karvunidis’s having a child who bucks the gender binary, and her subsequent reversal on the parties she popularized. The events sprang up just as society really started wrestling with an expanded conception of gender — with the idea that gender and sex don’t always align, that a gender binary might not be suitable at all. Reveal parties are a facile response to a vast, nuanced phenomenon; partaking of them with a flare gun seems like an unwise move on several levels. And considering the case of Karvunidis and others like her, it seems forest fires aren’t the only signal Mother Nature is sending for the disastrous parties to stop.
But what of the ones that go off without a hitch? If the offense is making too much of a to-do over a baby-to-be’s private parts, the party that doesn’t cause mayhem is just as guilty as the one that does. A child’s sex is proclaimed and equated with a gender, and their path in society is laid out before they’re even born. What does the existence of such celebrations say about our culture, what we choose to celebrate and who gets thrown under the gender bus in the process? It’s still a hard question for us, which is why, until we figure it out, we so often prefer to focus on the tire fire sending up baby-blue smoke.
In the meantime, so long as these parties continue, it’s surely best if no one gets hurt and, yes, that the resulting wildfire be swiftly contained. But making a mockery of the parents responsible? That’s fair game. It’s funny when human projects implode, especially ones that assert such mastery over a matter we’re just beginning to understand. Consciously or not, we harbor a desire for reckoning, for lightning to strike — like so many blue-or-pink projectiles — at precisely the right target.