Why We Like Boys Better Than Girls (Or At Least Their Names)
Want to strike a blow for equality? Name your son Emily. Go ahead, I dare you. I'm betting that it's not going to happen, because "androgyny" in baby names is a one-way street, heading off toward the masculine horizon.
This point hit me hard when I read the viral tale of a man whose daughter wanted to dress as Han Solo of Star Wars for Halloween. The 7-year-old wasn't sure that she could choose that costume, because she was a girl. Her dad's response, in his own words:
"Screw that. I grabbed my laptop and started showing her some really excellent examples of other girls and women cosplaying as Han Solo....My daughter's eyes went wide. She was sold on the idea. This could happen."
But then came the wrinkle. Their father-daughter tradition was that she would pick out her own costume, and his. Since his daughter was going to be Han Solo, she naturally chose Princess Leia for her dad.
"She looked at me with an implied question in her eyes. And, c'mon, if I immediately told her, 'YES, a girl can be Han Solo,' it would've been pretty hypocritical of me to say, 'Nope, a boy can't be Princess Leia.' So, as quickly as I could, I said, 'That would be FANTASTIC. I totally should be Leia.' And that's exactly what I did. Because that's what dads do."
The devoted dad pushed past a double standard for his daughter's sake, but he still felt it. He knew that in our society, there's a huge difference between a girl dressing as Han and a guy dressing as Leia. Her cross-gender costume was a bold, confident choice. His was comical. How would this story have been different, I wonder, if it had started with a boy wanting to be Princess Leia for Halloween? Or — brace yourself — if the parents had decided to name their son Leia?
Our modern naming age sees lots of names flowing around the gender divide. Some traditional male names, like Micah and Riley, are showing up more and more on the girls' side. Other names with no traditional gender link, like word names, place names, and surnames, are flipping back and forth or remaining unisex. But even in this fluid, creative naming culture, I challenge you to find a traditionally female name that is given to boys. Much as a reference to running or fighting "like a girl" is taken as an insult, so do we shrink from any hint of girliness in our boys' names. As a result, the move toward androgyny in baby names turns out to look an awful lot like masculinization.
Frankly, there's research to back that parental attitude. Study after study confirms that masculine names are a winning move. Girls with feminine-sounding names are less likely to advance in math and science. Female lawyers are more likely to become judges if they have masculine-sounding names. Boys with names that are common for girls are more likely to be disruptive in school. In the realm of names, masculine is an absolute, functional good.
Given those findings, it's not surprising that we see no boys named Emily. But does it suggest that we should also choose boyish names for our girls, in the spirit of equality? Certainly, some parents do approach gender-bending names in that spirit. Yet it can also be seen as capitulating to inequality. In our naming patterns, we're plainly acknowledging that the masculine is privileged. We give our girls a boost by letting them hitch a ride on a male name, like bicycles slipstreaming behind an 18-wheeler.
I can't fault any parents for choosing a name that they believe will give their child an advantage in life. And yet I balk at the idea that choosing a "strong" name has to mean choosing a masculine-sounding name.
Names have enormous symbolic power. They send messages. What message would it send to girls if the women of the U.S. Supreme Court were named Raymond, Simon and Elliot instead of Ruth, Sonia and Elena? Just as we may wish for a future where "running like a girl" means "running as fast and long as you can," I'm rooting for a future where a little Leia is considered just as bold and confident as a girl dressed — or named — like Han.