The Subconscious Bias of ‘Unisex’ Baby Name Trends

Why can't there be more equality in unisex names?

By Kasey Edwards

This article first appeared on Daily Life and is reprinted with the author’s kind permission.

It used to just be one of those quirks reserved for the parents of future celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore, Taylor Swift, Hayden Panettiere and Blake Lively, but now giving baby girls a traditional boy name is on trend.

There are even websites such as 100+ Traditionally Boy Names Perfect For a Baby Girl to help new parents with their choice.

Evelyn, Mackenzie, Billie, Frankie, Addison, Tyler, Dylan, Jordan, Luca, Alex and Charlie now pepper the most popular girls’ names lists for last year in Australia.

While some of these are now accepted as girls’ names, they all started out as male names.

In the US names such as Avery, Riley, Kennedy, Peyton, Taylor, Quinn, and Bailey are popular for girls. Blake Lively recently called her baby girl James.

But before we chalk this up to another victory for just how liberal and post-gender we’ve all become, it’s worth asking: where are all the boys being called traditionally girls’ names?

A quick Google search turns up not even one traditionally girl name that would be ‘perfect’ for a baby boy — let alone 100+. And not a single name on the top 100 boys names for 2015 in Australia could be considered a traditional girls’ name.

Author Lindsay KingMiller who named her baby girl Bradley wrote in Role Reboot “No one thinks it’s quirky and charming if you name your son Clara.”

This one-way gender bending is consistent with many parents’ views about toys and clothing. It’s cool to dress your daughter in overalls or shorts. And we cheer when progressive parents ditch the dolls and glitter in favour of balls, trucks and Lego as toys for girls.

But how many of us would dress our little boy in a dress or even a pink floral onesie?

Sure, I’ve seen the occasional boy turn up at library storytime wearing a tutu fairy costume or sporting nail polish, but it doesn’t happen very often and it’s always met with some smirks and raised eyebrows.

I have friends who will happily dress their son in hand-me-down girls’ clothes in the privacy of their own home but let him be seen in the street wearing that? Nuh-uh. No freaking way.

Why is it that only girls are permitted to enter the playground of gender fluidity? Might it be because, despite all our talk about gender equality, we still believe deep down that the worst thing a boy could be is like a girl?

Not only is femininity not encouraged in boys, it’s often actively discouraged and routinely policed. We tell sons that boys don’t cry, and to stop throwing like a girl, whining like a girl, or being such a girl. We tell them that they can’t dress-up as princesses and push around toy prams.

No doubt there’s an element of homophobia in all of this. If he indulges an early interest in make up, jewellery or personal decoration, he’ll grow up to be gay, which with our archaic and rigid definition of masculinity, is as bad — if not worse — than being a girl.

But a big part of our reluctance to feminise boys is about power and the systematic devaluation of women.

Traditionally feminine things are still considered secondary and unimportant. Professions dominated by women are paid less and most of the unpaid and invisible caring is done by women. Female writers are routinely written off as spruikers of formulaic fiction, chick lit or mummy bloggers. Women artists are deemed to be preoccupied with the smallness of domestic life, and insufficiently attentive to the momentous currents of world history and the cosmos. Women scientists, meanwhile, are ‘distractions’ in the lab.

It’s hard to fault parents for wanting to steer their sons way clear of a life of being devalued. And I can see why parents would want to gift their girls masculine traits — and names — to give them access to more social and economic privilege.

But the reality is that this one-way naming trend is an expression of our casual and unexamined misogyny. Even before our babies have left the hospital we have reinforced to them, and the world, that male is ‘best-practice’, and at best, all girls can hope for is to be pale imitations of boys.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of Thirty-Something And Over It. Read more about her and her work on her website.

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19 Responses to “The Subconscious Bias of ‘Unisex’ Baby Name Trends”

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snowsbeloved Says:

February 5th, 2016 at 6:59 am

Just my opinion: I think it’s better to name a female child a feminine name. Something with strength and meaning but a woman’s name. There is no shame in that. For me, it would almost be like I was denying her femininity by naming her exclusively male name, like Howard. If it’s already widely accepted as a girls name (like Taylor), great. But let’s not start christening our girls Jack, George, Henry, Peter, Frank and Paul when Jacqueline, Georgia, Henrietta, Petra, Frances and Paulina are such wonderful names that champion the female gender. Yes. IT’S A GIRL!!! Hear her roar!

AldabellaxWulfe Says:

February 5th, 2016 at 9:28 am

I firmly believe that clothes, toys, colours, hairstyles etc. are not ‘male’ or ‘female’. My philosophy, which everyone should subscribe to, is that everything is for everyone. And, in theory, this includes names. I’m not going to lie by saying that I like boy names on girls but, if you love a name, why should you have to give it up if the child your expecting is not the “correct” sex for it?

Having said that, I HATE the unisex trend because it’s sexist, simple as. I could go on for years about it but, bottom line is, if you wouldn’t name your son Elizabeth, then what right do you have to name your daughter Elliott? And what really grinds my gears is that people don’t seem to understand that, and thus carry on with the ignorance.

Naming a daughter Ryan is cute but “You can’t use Misha on a boy – it’s way too feminine!”
Naming a daughter James is so progressive but “Don’t name him Aubrey; do you WANT him to be bullied?”
Naming a daughter Charlie is such a thought-provoking choice but “If you name your son Linsday, you’re going to turn him gay!”

There is no equality when it comes to ‘unisex’ names. It’s just one big pile of misogyny mixed in with a heavy dose of misandry. And I’m tired of it. It’s so frustrating to see people (on this site in particular) being, not only encouraged, but applauded for using the likes of Emerson, Noah, Jasper and Frankie on girls. And yet I’m considered to be the worst person on Earth because I love the traditionally masculine Evelyn, Kimberly and Jocelyn for boys. It’s not fair. And until the issue is resolved, sexism will continue to plague our society.

dbear22 Says:

February 5th, 2016 at 9:38 am

I agree. Both my brother and I were given unisex names. Though my name leans more female, people always assume I am a man when I come for a job interview, etc. It’s kind of frustrating. It’s not my name’s fault, it’s the attitude of those making assumptions. I yawn when people think that giving a girl a boy’s name is somehow defying gender stereotypes. In reality, it only reinforces them. If I have a son, he will most likely have a name that is considered a “girl’s name”. I’m prepared for some pushback, as we have already received it when telling people what names we have in mind.

whammy Says:

February 5th, 2016 at 10:58 am

Thank you so much for posting this article! I agree, AldabellaxWulfe, unisex cannot truly exist if people aren’t willing to bend towards the feminine side for their male children. As long as we continue to operate on the idea that better = male, femininity will continue to be devalued.

svea Says:

February 5th, 2016 at 11:03 am

Best post I’ve read here for ages.

spotlightstarlit Says:

February 5th, 2016 at 12:17 pm

Yes! So very glad NB has taken a stand and posted this content! Well done.

SparkleNinja18 Says:

February 5th, 2016 at 4:37 pm

I agree, this is beautiful. Best thing I’ve read in a while!

Jolanic Says:

February 5th, 2016 at 7:15 pm

Great article! I’m another one who dislikes the ‘unisex’ name trend (Aka boys names on girls) Absolutely agree with you AldabellaxWulfe, I always say similiar to your Elizabeth/Elliot comment but using the names Isabella and Maxwell for some reason 😉 I love Evelyn and Jocelyn for boys too. I wish wish wish I would hear of a baby boy Evelyn.
I went to school with a boy called Jade. And he was so well suited to his name somehow. Cute, petite and with a lovely nature, I suppose qualities most people equate with girls rather than boys. He was NEVER bullied for having a ‘girls’ name and the only conversation I remember anyone having about it was when he was asked about his name by some of the boys and he said that his parents just loved the name Jade and they intended to give that name to their baby regardless of gender. And everyone was fine about it. And that’s from kids at a big, pretty rough comprehensive school in the West Midlands (England) I’ve always loved Jade on a boy since meeting him. (And Jade ended up straight btw, not that it matters if he’d been gay of course, but some people do seem to have a weird belief that a NAME will influence sexuality! Yeah right)
I can’t see myself having any children but if I did I would like to think I would name a son Evelyn in a heart beat if that was my favourite name at that time.
I wish people would realise that giving a girl a male name does not mean they’re cool or cutting edge. They’re just denying their daughter a beautiful feminine name. Femininity is AS strong and powerful and valuable and should be respected as much as masculinity. A girl is not an ‘almost boy’.

Eizariya Says:

February 5th, 2016 at 9:26 pm

I love the idea of giving a son a traditionally feminine name, but I honestly don’t know that I have the courage to. One thing I’ve seen that I’ve always thought was interesting was using a traditional boys name for a boy, but with a feminine nickname (and vice versa). For example, I knew a guy named John Hollis _ who went by Holly– there’s no reason Allen couldn’t go by Allie or Magnus/Maggie, Abraham/Abby etc.

roseofjune Says:

February 6th, 2016 at 12:08 pm

I hate the unisex trend. I don’t like boy’s names on girls nor girl’s names on boys and it has NOTHING to do with my views on gender equality, thankyouverymuch.

CreeperEyes Says:

February 6th, 2016 at 1:04 pm

I also dislike this trend. There are a few names that I think are truly gender neutral and suit both boys and girls equally well, such as Alex, Jordan, Taylor and Rowan.

However, I find it rather sexist that so many people think it’s cute and quirky to name a girl Calvin, yet those same people scream in horror at the thought of naming a boy Riley. In my opinion, no it’s not cute or quirky to give a girl a traditionally masculine name. There are so many beautiful, strong feminine names out there. Seriously, what’s wrong with Scarlett, Lucy or Laura?

I like feminine names on girls. For the most part, I strongly prefer unisex names on boys, because 99% of the time, any given unisex name was a boy’s name first.

There are some gone to the girls names that I want to see reclaimed by the boys, or at least become truly gender neutral. For example, I LOVE Riley on a boy. Every Riley I’ve ever met has been a boy! And yet people say “NO IT’S A GIRLS NAME!!!!!NAMING YOUR SON RILEY WOULD BE CHILD ABUSE!!!!!!!!!” Uh, no. Riley is not a girl’s name. It was a masculine name for over 100 years! It was only in the last couple of years that it exploded in popularity for girls.

I’d also love to name a son Ashley, but I don’t know if I have the balls to do it.

lesliemarion Says:

February 6th, 2016 at 6:34 pm

Amen, sister! You hit the nail on the head.

bunnyblush Says:

February 7th, 2016 at 3:16 pm

Thank you SO much for this article!

eperdument Says:

February 7th, 2016 at 5:20 pm

That isn’t something I had noticed, and I thank you for bringing attention to it.

EmmaMay Says:

February 24th, 2016 at 11:09 am

Some of the names that are listed as traditionally boy’s names sound a thousand times better on a girl: Evelyn, Mackenzie, Addison, Taylor, etc. Others, like Cameron, Drew, Riley, and Reese, I find to be totally flexible either way. I don’t really like the new trend of giving girls names that normally are not gender neutral, like James. And I really dislike Hunter, Parker, Tyler, etc. on girls! To me, naming a girl Hunter is like naming a boy Lily. Just an absolute no for me.

I personally don’t prefer gender neutral names, anyway. I perfer extremely feminine girls names and unmistakably masculine boys names.

New Gender Neutral Boys’ Names – Baby Name Blog – Nameberry Says:

April 13th, 2016 at 9:33 am

[…] James, Arlo, and Wyatt for girls, this could be a hopeful sign. As many berries have pointed out, names aren’t really unisex unless they can be used for both boys and girls […]

LePapa Says:

April 13th, 2016 at 4:04 pm

Finally a breath of fresh air around here!

10 Names Going Back to the Boys – Baby Name Blog – Nameberry Says:

June 19th, 2016 at 10:43 pm

[…] recently ran a brilliant article on the subconscious bias of “unisex” baby names (http://nameberry.com/blog/the-subconscious-bias-of-unisex-baby-name-trends), and it got me thinking: what are some traditionally male names that became more common for girls, […]

deusvult Says:

August 26th, 2017 at 12:54 am

I don’t really care about the traditional gender of a name. I like what I like. That being said, I can think of only one girl’s name that I might actually consider giving to a boy.

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