Serena and the Female Junior

Sep 13th 2017

Tennis star Serena Williams and her fiancé, internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, recently welcomed their first child: Alexis Ohanian Jr. That seemingly ultra-conservative name choice was anything but, because the newborn Alexis is a girl.

A female "Junior" turns tradition on its head, transforming a classic patriarchial symbol into a more complex and dramatic statement. Namesakes have always been a masculine realm. There is no female equivalent to Junior; surnames are traditionally inherited from the father; male names frequently have feminine versions (Daniel --> Danielle, Daniela, Dani) but not vice versa. Men's naming lineage is the lineage that tradition values and preserves across generations.

Within a family, this can make for some naming inequality—not just between mom and dad, but between sister and brother. I've always suggested that parents who intend to name their first son a Junior also choose names of special family significance for their daughters, so as not to suggest that a boy is valued more as the sole heir to family heritage. Williams and Ohanian have taken a more direct approach. The name Alexis is already used for both boys and girls. Why not use Junior the same way?

Serena Williams and Baby Alexis. Image via Serenawilliams/Instagram 

[Name nerd fine print: Young Alexis doesn't have exactly the same name as her dad. He is Alexis Kerry Ohanian, she is Alexis Olympia Ohanian. Sticklers may say that, more than her sex, bars her from being a Junior. Custom does expect names to match 100% for Junior status, but it's a custom many parents flout. Besides, when it comes to a female Junior, tradition offers little guidance.]

On one hand, this seems like a powerful move toward equality. By making their daughter a Junior, the parents are saying that she is every bit as much her father's heir as a boy would be. It's also worth noting that our society would traditionally declare the baby, as the child of a black mother and white father, to be separate in race from her dad. Calling her Alexis Jr. is a subtle blow against that kind of artificial division as well.

On the other hand, you can't get around the fact that the baby is named after her father, not her mother. That's particularly notable in a family where the mom is a living symbol of power. Serena Williams is a towering figure: one of the world's all-time greatest athletes, powerful in fame, physique, wealth and influence. Yet like countless generations of children before her, her daughter follows the male naming lineage.

Want to see how sex-skewed our naming culture remains? Try to picture a son named Serena Williams, Jr. That's the real threshold our society isn't close to crossing. We see more and more unisex names, but as I've written before, "'androgyny' in baby names is a one-way street, heading off toward the masculine horizon."

For now, though, a female Junior does represent a bold egalitarian statement. This famous example is likely to open up one more path for other parents navigating the delicate byways of names, gender and family traditions. Cute kid, too.




September 13, 2017 6:30 PM

Re androgeny as a one way street: I'm betting that the majority of Americans would parse Alexis Kerry So-and-so as female.

September 14, 2017 10:27 AM

I was surprised and delighted when I heard the name of their daughter. It certainly is flipping the traditional "Jr" name a bit, although I agree it's a shame there's no representation of the mother. Alexis Williams or Serena Williams Jr would have been interesting. I'll certainly be looking forward to the name announcement if they ever have a boy together!

September 14, 2017 10:50 AM

I can totally see a future son named Williams Ohanian. I think Olympia is a nod to mom's Olympic accomplishments.

September 14, 2017 3:18 PM

There is a pro basketball player named Iman Asante Shumpert. He and his wife Teyana Taylor have a darling little girl named Iman Tayla Shumpert, jr.  Like Alexis Olympia Ohanian, jr., junior is used for a daughter whose name is not exactly the same as dad's. Both little girls have a pro athlete parent. So maybe this usage is now a thing, at least in pro athlete circles. BTW I am assuming that Tayla is a nod to mom's surname.

September 16, 2017 6:16 PM

I've always liked Will & Jada Smith's approach to honor-naming, personally -- Willow and Jaden are lovely names, the inspirations are clear, and they're gender-flipped.

By Aiea
November 18, 2017 2:11 PM

Serena also mentioned that her daughter has the initials "AO", a link to the Australian Open that Serena won while pregnant with her.