Could "Inside Out" Change Baby Names?

Jun 24th 2015

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:

Boys vs. Girls Named Riley, USA

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.


By JayF
June 25, 2015 10:27 AM

Riley is also a middle school girl character on Disney Channel's Girl Meets World. Clearly, they like it for girls!


June 30, 2015 12:09 PM

Lisa Marie Presley's daughter Danielle Riley Keogh models under the name of Riley Keogh.

June 30, 2015 1:00 PM

I love the name Joy! My little girl's Middle name is Joy -picked to honour two grandma's, Joyce and Joan. her full name is Ramona Bernadette Joy :) 

July 1, 2015 2:02 AM

Half the toddlers I know, both boys and girls, are named Riley. Or Rhyley. Or Rylee. Not a new or unpopular name over here, but I imagine it's different in the US or UK. Personally can't stand it, but everyone has different taste! I wouldn't count on Inside Out to change baby names either, or much else for that matter, it's just a filler movie between Frozen and Frozen 2.

July 1, 2015 2:04 AM

Ramona is a beautiful name! Lovely tribute to her grandmas, too! :)

July 1, 2015 11:11 AM

ventricle: My daughter's preschool classmate is Ryliegh. Yes, -iegh, not -eigh. (This is in the U.S.)

I do wonder how or if the stats would change if one counted all the possible spellings of the name.

July 6, 2015 11:31 PM

Ah, I knew there were alt-spellings I was forgetting ! Few of the boys and girls with the name I know have it spelt the way the movie character does, so I imagine stats would be a bit different if one counted all the variations

July 7, 2015 12:52 AM

I had to share this quote from the comments section of an article I just read about Inside Out. In the article the author was basically tearing the movie down and at one point mentions "isn't that a boy's name?" about the name Riley. Here was the delightful comment written by a male commenter:

"Perhaps the author is unaware that when you give a name (any name) to your female child, then it's -- by definition -- a girl's name."

It seemed worthy of posting here because the conversation comes up so often -- isn't that a boy's name? Isn't that a girl's name? If it's a name given to a boy, it's that boy's name. If it's a name given to a girl, it's that girl's name. Sometimes it's good to remember that.