Could "Inside Out" Change Baby Names?
Disney animation has brought us hit names like Ariel, Jasmine and Elsa. Younger sibling Pixar, meanwhile, has brought us Sulley, Lightning and Wall·E. The computer animation powerhouse may be a smash on the screen, but it has yet to hit its stride as a baby name style maker. Could the new Pixar film Inside Out change that? The answer hangs on two names with very different histories: Riley and Joy.
The story of Inside Out takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. It's an admirably realistic choice: Riley was the 58th most popular girl's name of 2004. As it happens, that was the same year I completed the first edition of the Baby Name Wizard book. I included a full entry for Riley in the girls' section, and quickly felt the wrath of parents of Rileys...male Rileys. No name in the book generated more angry letters. Mothers accused me of failing to uphold the traditional masculinity of their chosen name. But like a lexicographer adding "selfie" to Merriam-Webster's, I was just describing the existing usage. The number of girls named Riley had been rising for years, and by 2003 they outnumbered the boys:
At this point the name is so familiar for girls that it's unclear how big a bump the movie exposure will give it. What the film certainly could do, though, is strike a tough blow on the boys' side. Celebrities can wield tremendous power over androgynous names. Dakota was a cowboy name, four-fifths male, before actress Dakota Fanning's first starring role. Today, it's majority female. Similarly, actor Ashton Kutcher singlehandedly pulled the name Ashton back from the girls' side. With male Rileys already declining, this prominent usage -- destined for heavy replay in a million family rooms -- could redefine the name as feminine.
The Inside Out character Joy is named quite literally. She is the personification of young Riley's capacity for happiness. This reminder of the word's essence might just be the boost the name needs. Joy has been a staple of my "Why Not?" list of underused names. While most one-syllable meaning names like Grace, Hope and Faith have soared, Joy has remained stubbornly linked to its 1950s heyday. The movie character should get Joy some second looks, especially as a middle name where the short-and-sweet reign supreme.
This all depends, of course, on how deeply Inside Out connects with its audience. Early response has been strong, but baby name impact takes a lot more than a big opening weekend. Take Frozen, a film which grew and grew over time. It not only made Elsa one of last year's hottest names, but spurred jumps in unlikelier choices like Olaf, Kristoff and Hans. Inside Out, with its name lineup of Sadness, Disgust and Bing Bong, isn't going to cast as broad a shadow. A generation of little Joys, though, would be more than legacy enough.