The Mom Who Sparked the Gender-Reveal Trend Knows She Accidentally Created a Monster
Jenna Karvunidis says it has to stop—and not just because of a deadly wildfire.
I didn’t want to say it. Having grown up in the South, I am cursed with the kind of conciliatory attitude that can make asking things like “So, were you aware that your trend-launching gender-reveal cake was kind of lame?” exceedingly difficult. Thankfully Jenna Karvunidis, the so-called “inventor” of the gender-reveal party, said it for me.
“It is ugly!” Karvunidis said during a phone interview of her two-layer Duncan Hines confection with pink frosting in the center—which pales in comparison to the oh-so-perfect towering tortes of today’s gender-reveal celebrations. “I made a duck and it’s just like, oh my God. Now that would just—that wouldn’t even be good enough for a birthday party.”
Lifestyle blogging was a different game back in the early aughts, when Karvunidis began her now-shuttered blog High Gloss and Sauce. It was our pre-influencer age of innocence; YouTube was but a toddler, and Instagram had not yet been born. “There was no money to be had at all,” Karvunidis said—a stark contrast from the sponsored-content game that can make Instagram quite lucrative now.
In the years since 2008, when Karvunidis first posted about her small get-together and cake on her blog, the tradition has exploded. Sometimes literally. Now the cakes that go viral are professionally done and rival wedding cakes with their intricacy. For some, baked goods are no longer enough. A smaller group of gleeful parents have taken to launching projectiles and setting off explosions of pink or blue powder, all in celebration of a “boy-girl” binary that does not actually exist.
In other words, Karvunidis and her cake unintentionally birthed a trend that has spiraled out of control.
The El Dorado fire, which has set more than 10,000 acres ablaze in California, began with a gender reveal party, local authorities have revealed. Two years ago an off-duty Border Patrol agent made the same catastrophic mistake in Arizona, sparking a 47,000-acre wildfire while trying to ignite an explosion that would spread colored powder in the air. At least one person has been killed during a gender-reveal party gone wrong and several have sustained various injuries.
Karvunidis will be the first to tell you that these parties are “dorky, passé, over, [and] socially problematic.”
“The rise of the gender-reveal parties is a rise of the othering of trans people,” Karvunidis said. “At some point, these kids are going to be a certain age and be like, ‘They had the wrong gender-reveal party for me.’ It can really psychologically affect them… There’s such a high suicide risk with gay and lesbian and trans teens as it is that is just an absolute disaster. They need to stop.”
As the source of the El Dorado fire came to light, Karvunidis railed against gender reveal parties in a now-viral Facebook post. “Stop having these stupid parties,” she wrote. “For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid’s penis. No one cares but you.”
But the real wake-up call came with the 2018 fire in Arizona, which left Karvunidis in tears.
Karvunidis has discussed her regret about the trend she unintentionally created before. Her discomfort with the celebrations began around 2013 when her second daughter, a toddler at the time, refused to play with any toys that were not pink. Karvunidis has three children: Bianca, 11, Stella, 9, and Greta, 6. She compares her reasoning for not holding gender-reveals for her Stella and Greta to spotting someone else wearing the same outfit as you. “It was like, I’m not wearing that outfit anymore.”
Last year Karvunidis also noted in another viral post that her eldest daughter, the one child she threw a gender-reveal for, now wears suits—a far cry from the traditionally “girly” pastel-pink frosting that introduced her, in utero, to the world.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all this is that Karvunidis’ party wasn’t really about gender at all. After two miscarriages, Karvunidis was looking for a reason to gather her family together to celebrate her healthy pregnancy. And although strangers have accused her of seeking validation from strangers, Karvunidis noted that she was really trying to get her mother involved in her excitement, despite their distant relationship. (Karvunidis was unhoused as a 17-year-old after leaving her parents’ home.)
“I get a lot of criticism like, ‘Oh, there’s this selfish woman; she just wanted attention on the internet,’” Karvunidis said. “Actually no, I wanted attention from my mom. Like, how sad is that? It’s the truth.”
Although her High Gloss and Sauce post about the gender-reveal party garnered around 25,000 hits, Karvunidis believes it was a spread she did for maternity magazine The Bump that really set the trend off. It was a timeline of her pregnancy, and included a section about the party—and the magazine happened to become the free magazine sitting in OB-GYN waiting rooms across the Midwest.
It was a time before smartphones, when people actually read those waiting room magazines. So the idea spread like, well, wildfire.
As surreal as it might seem that a modest party in 2008 could have sprouted into such a widespread, pastel nightmare, it’s worth remembering that social media incentivizes extremes. Instagram influencers’ glossy, sponsor-hungry personas make High Gloss look laughably unpolished in retrospect. Babies and children are big money-makers for influencers—enough so that influencer parents can be accused of having and adopting children for clout.
“People have babies, entire babies, for web content,” Karvunidis said. She referenced Mormon mommy bloggers—and the families who copy them—as an example. (“It’s when white people don’t appropriate,” she quipped. “All just the artisan teas and homemade brews of different things.”)
And then there are the video platforms, where things going “boom” tend to perform exceedingly well. (And if the explosion happens to injure someone in the process? Even better!)
In this environment, is it any wonder that gender reveals have become increasingly over-the-top fêtes?
“The problem is that it’s monetary,” Karvunidis said. “The platforms are rewarding this more extravagant content because that's how you get the sponsorship opportunities… And so, they have to up the ante with more and more spectacles.”
Karvunidis is glad that some families, like the one that started the Arizona wildfire, are being held responsible for their actions. (In that case, it was $220,000 in restitution.) And she hopes that the family behind the El Dorado fire are asked to answer for the damage they’ve wrought as well. But social media platforms should shoulder some of that responsibility as well, she said.
“Every other industry has oversight,” Karvunidis said. “[The] influencer industry does not have any oversight.”