The last book of the Bible is called Revelation, and it describes for us mortals the end of the world. At the beginning of the book, a prophet named John (classic boy name) narrates the visions he has experienced, in which many-eyed angels and a wrathful horned lamb commence the destruction of the human universe, scorching the grass, poisoning the water, and blocking out the sun with unbearable smoke. The book is called Revelation because Protestants are lame; alternate translations call it Apocalypse. We tend to think of these words as having quite separate meanings, since apocalypse has now come to mean the end of the world, but the two words are actually synonyms. Apocalypse is a Greek word for “the uncovering of that which was hidden”, or to put it more simply “the reveal”.
Heterosexuality has always been bolstered by strange rituals, although we don’t always tend to think of them that way. A few years ago I attended the wedding of a couple who were staunchly Christian, and the priest began the ceremony by reminding us that a wedding was a joining of a man and woman “in sexual union”. This made me feel a little squicky: announcing to everyone the couple knows, including their closest relatives, that they’re probably going to have sex later? Isn’t that a little weird? But I was forgetting that even secularized weddings keep much of the ritualised aspects that enforce cultish patriarchy, even if they’re not as explicit: the woman wears an elaborate white dress to symbolize that she has not been “spoiled” by other men, her father “gives her away” to her new guardian, she takes a new name to confirm that she is now part of her husband’s family instead of her father’s family, and so on. (The man, I don’t know, wears a slightly more expensive tie than usual.)
Even non-traditional couples, and even non-hetero couples, often adopt many or all aspects of these rituals, and what’s more, these rituals have a tendency to multiply and metastasize, often egged on or outright fabricated by corporations. Once upon a time it was normal for an engagement ring to be a plain band. Then De Beers started a campaign claiming that diamonds were the ideal stone for such a ring, which eventually morphed into the norm that they were the only acceptable stone for such a ring. After that, De Beers promoted the idea that an engagement ring should cost “two months’ salary”, which in many quarters has become three months’ salary. Anything less would suggest you are not paying the adequate price for your bride; not showing deference to the twin pillars of society that are “traditional values” and irrational capitalism.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to engagements, but spreads into all rituals of heteronormativity: anyone who’s read a bridal magazine can tell you the absurd prices napkins suddenly reach when they’re “wedding napkins”, or balloons when they’re “wedding balloons”. Bachelor and bachelorette parties have grown from single nights of debauchery into entire weekends or destination vacations, supported by an industry that grows stronger by the decade. Pregnancies are no longer a medical state but a signal that hordes of your fellow cis women must start dictating to you the ever-growing number of correct rituals to follow: whether to play Mozart or whalesong to the baby, whether to ingest flaxseed or acai, whether you should be in a bed or a pool or a pit of imported French soil when the baby is finally pulled from your screaming, exhausted body. (All of this, of course, is an acutely class-based phenomenon, pioneered and promulgated mainly by well-off white couples; a lot of people are too broke to even consider any of this shit.) Every year new rituals seem to pop up related to reproduction of the human species: babymoons, “push presents”.
Which brings us, of course, to the gender reveal.
Ultrasound technology has allowed us to see a fetus’s genitals since the 1960s, but “gender reveals” have only been around for about ten years. (One of the women who popularized the concept, Jenna Karvunidis, has since expressed regret that she was ever involved with such a thing, especially since her own child is actually gender-nonconforming and wears suits better than any cis man could ever.) The initial wave of “gender reveal” parties relied on simple if reductive gimmicks, such as cakes that would show themselves to be either pink or blue on the inside once cut. Just like many other expensive and unnecessary rituals of heteronormativity, these parties were mainly popular amongst white and relatively affluent couples, and spread like an uncontrolled fire on social media. Prurient fascination with fetal sex is nothing new; every culture has its superstitions that claim to predict it, and I don’t think any of Henry VIII’s wives would have said “I don’t mind if it’s a boy or a girl, so long as it’s healthy!”. But we’ve had the ability to determine fetal sex for a long time, yet the phenomenon of publicly ritualising and celebrating the discovery of the fetus’s genitals does appear to be new—and not only new, but new at a time when binary divisions of sex and gender are more contested than ever. This might not be a coincidence.
The engine of culture war is backlash: rarely does a vigorous retrenchment of cultural values come from nowhere, instead rearing its ugly head in response to the mildest hint of threat. Liberals say SUVs are bad for the environment, let’s buy even bigger ones just to fuck with them. A woman complained about videogames, let’s start a movement driving as many women out of gaming as possible. These people criticised our society, let’s say whatever we think will “trigger” them. And the increased visibility of trans and non-binary people in the last few years has prompted an intense and vicious backlash, one that has trickled down from media niches and obsessive ideologues into the more general mainstream. People who never thought about other people being trans until about 2014 are suddenly joking about pronouns, and glancing nervously at the door whenever a woman over five foot seven enters the ladies’ room. One has to wonder why “gender reveals” became popular just as society was being introduced to the idea that gender isn’t about a baby’s genitals.
This is not to say that everyone who has a “gender reveal” party is a virulent transphobe, though even the name itself is inaccurate and transphobic. (Wikipedia prefers to coolly classifiy it as a “fetal sex reveal event”.) Rather, the creation of the “gender reveal”, as well as its deadly mutation, has grown out of a society that is in the midst of a backlash, a desperate scramble to hold on to “traditional” norms, especially in the white rich suburbs which are supposed to be the stronghold of American values. This backlash is not just about gender, either, but about “the American way of life” in general—the perfect heteronormative family, with the little boy or girl who fits the image their parent had of them before they were even born; the luxurious party in the beautiful house that you’re proud to put on your Instagram; the ability to buy an enormously expensive cake that can be customised any way you want no matter how ludicrous; the right to set off pink or blue fireworks in your enormous backyard that has a bright green lawn even though you live in Arizona and the planet is dying. This is the life that American culture war is being fought over right now, and as the situation gets more urgent, the reveals only get more violent.
The past two or three years have seen “gender reveals” go from parties to increasingly expensive, elaborate and extreme rituals. In Dubai, perhaps the world’s epicenter of profligate luxury and absurd inequality, two Youtubers announced the sex of their baby by projecting it on the Burj Khalifa. Many now involve explosives, often seeming more like military exercises than celebrations. At least one person has died in a gender reveal gone wrong. This guy got hit in the crotch with a flare. A gender reveal in Australia led to a car bursting into flames. And two have caused massive wildfires that have damaged the ecosystem and endangered lives. The cult of the gender reveal is increasingly showing its face, not as a symbol of love for a new child, but as part of a violent assertion of the right of wealthy families to do whatever they want, to label their child what they want, to spend their money on what they want and launch their rockets wherever they want. I’m sure this is not the conscious intention of most parents who practice “gender reveals”, even the ones who go to extremes. But I have to ask you: when you’re willing to start a 50,000 acre fire just to tell the world that your fetus has genitals, what exactly do you think you’re revealing?
It’s hard not to think of the world ending these days. The sky is literally blood-red. Fires and floods everywhere. Plagues. It’s not exactly subtle. But despite the cartoonish obviousness of the symptoms, the world isn’t ending immediately. We still have time to change things, to radically reorder our society. But it appears our society is not in full agreement on this matter; as we fight for our planet and for our most vulnerable people, those who fight against us seem to grip even more tightly onto the right to live white, rich, normatively favored and perfectly ordered lives. The “gender reveal” is just a symptom of a dying society trying to reassert itself, even as the grass is scorched, the water is poisoned, and the sun is blocked out with unbearable smoke.
Activists are correct when they say the term “gender reveal” is wrong. Might I suggest: gender apocalypse?