Duana Names: Gender-Neutral Doesn’t Exist

February 5, 2016 21:33:40 Posted at February 5, 2016 21:33:40
Duana Posted by Duana

Hey Duana,
I have a son who's coming up on 10 years old who we named Rafferty, after an old-timey Australian actor called Chips Rafferty (we are Australian). Someone said to me recently that Rafferty would soon follow names like Riley and Rowan which were once boy names but which are apparently now girl names. What do you think of this likelihood, and is there any way for parents to proof their baby name against this kind of turnaround in an era when baby girls are called James and whatnot?

ps. one of my brothers is called Rowan and he is constantly enraged by people assuming he is a woman from name alone.


This question struck me in a few ways. There’s the bricks-and-mortar of it, and then there’s the more malleable stuff, and probably a rant if I’m being honest. Here we go:

My research does not show any evidence of Rafferty ‘trending girl’. I’m sure there are anecdotal occurrences (please, send me! I love seeing inside your dance recitals and bus routes and soccer teams), but I found exactly nothing. Having said that, I checked relatively thoroughly because what the ‘someone’ said to you, about Rafferty following Riley and Rowan, makes a certain amount of sense, since Riley and Rowan are similarly soft-but-strong names that were once associated with men (I really have to stretch to think of a male Rowan, which is astounding – the name wasn’t on anyone’s lips a decade ago) so I understand why this person thinks that way.

Then again, Rafferty doesn’t fit with the short-name-long-vowel trend that’s going on right now. Riley and Rowan and Milo and Eva and Owen and Ava and Caden all have strong up-front vowels, where Rafferty would have fit in beautifully 10-15 years ago, when there was a burst of Madisons and Delaneys and Ellerys happening. I’m not sure I see it as super ripe for co-opting across gender lines because it doesn’t ‘sound’ popular right now. Usually the names that go that way are intensely popular, so they somehow get used for the other gender. This is why you’ve heard of countless girls named Jamie, it’s where Willa comes from, it’s even why Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman leaned so hard on the nickname “Dr. Mike”.

And that’s what pisses me off.

Why did the person who told you this say this to you? To ‘warn’ you about a flood of impending girls who would use this name? What are you supposed to do about it in that instance, anoint your child with holy water? Whenever we hear the complaints about all the male names that ‘go girl’, there’s this underlying tone that now they’re ruined, or something. That while a girl is happy, maybe even lucky, to have a traditionally male name, a boy with a girls’ name is S.O.L., and better beef up on the football team to counteract the stigma. It’s A Boy Named Sue writ large.

You see it, right? This trend or warning implies that girls’ names are worth less, and that a boys’ name once it ‘goes girl’ is no longer useful for boys, because they might catch girl germs or weakness or some other unexplained issue. After all, we never never never send girls’ names over to the boys’ side*, so it’s pretty clear that the names that were once male – like Riley and Rowan and Kerry and Beverly and Ashley and so forth – are meant to be hand-me-downs.

And this is the root of why I’ve never loved gender-neutral names – or allegedly gender-neutral names. They seem like they’re trying to prove something, trying to position themselves as closer-to-boys and therefore better, and I just don’t buy it. Sometimes people tell me they wanted their daughter to have a ‘strong’ name so they chose a male name, and I get infuriated, because there is nothing weak about Margaret or Rachel or Vanessa or Sonia. And in fact, gender-neutral names don’t exist, because as soon as they start getting used for girls, the names drop out of the boy zone altogether. When was the last time you heard of a young boy named Mackenzie or Taylor?

There is nothing about a traditionally-feminine-sounding name that makes it inferior, and I really, really hate the implication that only by having a male name can you be on an even playing field. As long as we endorse that idea, we’re implying that anything non-male is somehow not as good or as ‘strong’. Which I don’t buy, and judging from the letters I’ve gotten over the years, neither do you. It’s also why I bristle a little bit at the idea that someone assuming you’re a different gender than you are based on your name would ‘enrage’ you. Is it really the worst possible thing?

So that’s my two cents, but I recognize that you might not have come here looking for a gender studies class. Still, if your son Rafferty or Morgan or Courtney or Kelly is struggling with this, you have to kind of break it down into its’ component parts. If they’re saying he has a girl’s name, why is that bad? When he says it’s because he’s a boy, explore why your name is what indicates whether you’re a boy or a girl, and whether he feels less like a boy than he did ten minutes before someone decided to stir up this kind of trouble by whispering that his name was going to ‘go girl’. 

I know this kind of a rant puts me in the strange position of wanting to draw a hard line between boys’ names and girls’ names, like pink and blue toys, rather than just ‘toys’. But the truth is I don’t see the names freely flowing between the genders, just tumbling one way into a supposed ‘pink ghetto’. I would love nothing more than to see male Sarahs, Kims, and Emmas start to equal things out, but until then, let’s avoid the implication that any ‘girl name’ requires fleeing in the opposite direction.


*This story is about an amazing exception to this rule, and you will love it.

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