What's in a Name?
An article in last week’s New York Times Magazine about unisex or “gender-fluid” names caught my interest. I’ve always liked names (and playing with their spellings), and I happen to have one of those gender-fluid names myself.
Laying out the historical trajectory of a few out-dated names that I’d always thought were exclusively for women, the article reveals the hidden secrets of many names that have jumped the gender fence. Who knew that several generations of males named Shirley would come to a halt after the stardom of cute and curly Shirley Temple? And who knew that male names like Beverly, Kim, and Angel would be co-opted as well?
Over the past few decades, the trend of giving girls traditional “boy” names—or choosing neutral-sounding unisex names like Riley and Jaden—has been on the rise, both in the U.S. and in Israel. The author of the article attributes this to the loosening of gender roles and the desire, particularly among women and girls, to have names that transcend gender stereotypes to suggest a kind of strength, success, or “male” power. The fear that my grandmother had when my parents named me Jordan and not Jordana (for which she lobbied hard; you can imagine how thrilled she was when my parents dropped the bomb that my sister would be named Evan…) that I would be teased for having a “boy” name and be subject to life-long confusion, does not seem to be much of a concern today. I suspect that this lack of concern is, in part, because so many unisex names have already become predominantly feminized (like my own, for example). As the New York Times Magazine article points out:
“Herbert Barry — co-author of the paper “Feminization of Unisex Names From 1960 to 1990” — found that between 1900 and 1910, 27 boys’ names and 26 girls’ names accounted for half of all names. Between 1990 and 2000 it was 60 and 90 names, respectively. The upshot is that parents are less likely to encounter any child named Devin, say, and are therefore less likely to associate that name with either sex.”
Though it’s refreshing to know that I may now be more likely to meet girls named Aidan, Shawn, Jordan, and Cory than Melissa, Emma, Brittany, and Nicole (or in Israel, girls named Tal and Yarden, than Talia and Yardena), is the feminization of these names necessarily a good thing? In truth, most unisex names are not authentically unisex; they’re just the feminization of what’s male, which doesn’t necessarily say anything about changing gender stereotypes, especially if the reason these traditionally male names are given to women is in order to achieve a certain social advantage or power. I’ll be more impressed when people start giving their boys names that have been traditionally female... but I suspect we’re a long way from encountering a male Jennifer.