In Part 1 of this series, I described how a longstanding gender difference in American baby naming is rapidly disappearing. Boys used to be named more conservatively, while girls’ names were more trendy and creative. Today, boys’ names too are objects of fashion, subject to shifting tastes. What does this change tell us about names, gender, and our culture?
THE NEW DYNAMICS
While gender dichotomies have become less rigid throughout society, the closing name-conservatism gap reverses the typical model. Gender gaps usually close by moving women toward a masculine standard. Women start wearing pants rather than men wearing skirts. Women decide to keep their surnames when they marry men rather than husbands taking their wives’ names. What is traditionally male is taken as the baseline or the ideal, and men remain in their spot while women strive to move toward it.
Not this time. For better or worse, male names have joined female names on the roller coaster of fashion trends. The key difference in this case, I believe, is about intention. Unlike a man choosing to wear a dress or take a woman’s surname, this movement away from past gender expectations isn’t necessarily a deliberate one. In fact, the parents enacting the change may not be thinking in terms of gender roles at all.
American baby names are still strongly gendered. Truly unisex baby names remain elusive, while the rising dominance of style and impact in boys’ names has brought a rise in ultra-macho naming. That has included aggressive word names like Thunder and Savage, exalted title names like King and Sultan, and video game hero-styled names like Brixx and Ripp.
Parents who give their sons names like Savage and Sultan aren’t trying to upend any gender norms. They’re just choosing the names they like best, guided by an impulse for their children’s names to sound fresh and interesting, to express something individual, to stand out. This impulse is so pervasive that few of us even notice it. Our choices feel free and personal; we just happen to be the kind of people who like unusual names. Yet it’s a culture-wide force powerful enough to erase an age-old gender gap.
A LOOK BACK, AND FORWARD
To understand the transformation of male naming, we have to consider why past generations were so conservative in their approach. One factor was the custom of treating male names like family heirlooms; for instance, naming sons after dad and grandpa. But more broadly, the gender gulf in past generations’ naming reflected wildly different societal ideals for men and women of the time.
Baby names are chosen as dreams of the future. If a society’s female ideal is centered on personal appeal and its male ideal on achievement, the naming processes will naturally diverge into something like “decorative vs. functional.” You take fewer chances with practical items you depend on.
What does it mean for a whole society to move toward fashion—toward a decorative impulse rather than functional, or toward the new rather than the timeless?
We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that parents who name kids Brixx and Thunder aren’t taking the choice as seriously as those who chose Richard and Robert. If anything, the new names represent an even greater commitment of time and thought to the naming process. If you ask new parents what drew them to a baby name, the most common response is still that it “sounds strong.”
Parents choose names they believe will set their children on a path to happiness and success. In the past, they sought to set boys on that path by sticking to the middle of the road. Today, it appears that they’re no longer counting on the road at all. Instead, they’re setting their sons up to blaze a new and noteworthy trail. Those two approaches correspond to two different models of naming for success, visibility vs. likability.
Visibility has been a prized stepping stone to success in arenas like product marketing and entertainment. A distinctive, recognizable package helps you stand out from the competition. For a celebrity, an eye-catching (or ear-catching) name can be an invaluable personal brand. By this model, being decorative is functional.
An alternative strategy for success is likability. This approach is based on broadening rather than sharpening appeal, with names that are comfortable and familiar. Salespeople and politicians have relied on this approach, often using traditional nicknames to present themselves as approachable and trustworthy. You see this most often among men, who are in position to leverage the comfortable reliability of the conservative male naming tradition.
The shift away from conservative boys’ names is a turn toward the power of visibility. Our children will be vying for success in an increasingly global, interconnected marketplace of life. The competition for attention is fierce. And in the age of social media, personal branding has become ubiquitous, and celebrity, at least on a micro level, more attainable. On this model, a name like Brixx could give a boy a practical leg up.
But striking, individual names carry risks as well. A sharp appeal to one group may mean alienating another. A name that reflects a parent’s passions, like opera or firearms, may not turn out to be as good a fit for their child’s interests and life goals. And the fact is, conservative likability has worked well for men so far. In my recent survey of the names with the greatest power in American politics, the five “eternal” English names, John, Thomas, William, Richard and Robert, were highly overrepresented.
It may be, in fact, that the conservatism of male naming has been a bulwark of male power. The choice to abandon it is a bet on high-impact appeal to a smaller community holding greater value than steady familiarity to a broader society. That could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy in the not-too-distant future, if traditional male names lose so much ground that a universally familiar and comfortable name is but a dream.