When I found out I was expecting a little girl, I assumed that naming the baby would be the least of my concerns. I had always wanted a girl, and had been daydreaming about names for years. Girls' names have traditionally been inspired by some of the prettiest objects on earth -- flowers, gemstones, and the like. Ruby, Jade, Emerald? Gorgeous names, in my opinion. Violet, Lily, and Iris? Fabulous flowers, lovely names.
Yet when it came time to actually select something, I found myself shying away from "pretty" girl names, as well as "cute" ones. It's difficult enough to be taken seriously as a girl in this world. Might an overly adorable or florid name make it even more difficult? I thought about benevolent sexism, a social psychology concept that describes how the repeated use of certain types of compliments -- like habitually telling women in the workplace that they look pretty today, or assuring a girlfriend that she's "so cute when she's angry" -- is an insidious way of diminishing a woman's power and agency.
Much as I love the names Jasmine, Scarlett, and Savannah, I began to wonder if a "pretty" name would serve my daughter, who as it is will be assessed, in too many ways, according to her relative "prettiness." And cute though Belle, Mia, and Zoe may be, do I really want to give my girl's "cute" factor a boost, when "cute," otherwise reserved for babies, kittens, and the elderly, is another of those words that cuts a woman down to size?
Whether a name is particularly "cute" or "pretty" is largely subjective, of course, but there's some evidence that simply having a girl's name at all can reduce how seriously one is taken. Last year, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that giving a hurricane a "feminine" name increases that hurricane's death toll because people take it less seriously. And Buffy The Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon intentionally created a heroine with a cutesy name to highlight the irony of a girly blonde who's actually a superhero, stating in an IGN.com interview, "[Buffy] was the name that I could think of that I took the least seriously. There is no way you could hear the name Buffy and think, 'This is an important person.'"
Studies have shown that a name can affect one's job, educational prospects, and even personality. A 2004 study found that when job applications were paired with "white sounding" names, the callback rate for interviews was 50 percent higher than when the same applications were paired with "African American sounding" ones. Another study, conducted by Northwestern University economist David Figlio, found that one's location on a "name scale" that assesses the racial and socioeconomic features of a name correlated with academic success, even for twins and siblings within the same family.
Having an ethnic name can affect life prospects, and it turns out that having a "female" one can, too. A 2009 study found that female lawyers with gender-ambiguous names like Cameron, Terry, or Dale are more likely to advance to judgeship than their counterparts who have "girly" names like Sue, Sheila, and Donna. On the flip side, boys whose names aren't perceived as "masculine" can suffer as well. Another study by Figlio found that boys with androgynous names are more likely to have behavioral problems, and Figlio concludes that this is likely because they get made fun of for their names.
Figlio named his study "Boys Named Sue: Disruptive Children and their Peers" after the Johnny Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue," which details the hard life of a boy with a girl's name: "Some gal would giggle and I'd get red, And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head, I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named Sue." The Sue effect may be why so many names, like Ashley and Kimberly, rapidly switched from boy to gender-neutral to girl: once they had that "girly" tarnish, parents swiftly stopped assigning them to boys.
Certainly no study has ever been done on whether having a "cute" or "pretty" name affects one's life, but I can imagine that an Eleanor might be taken more seriously than a Lily, Lacy, or Lulu.
Speaking from personal experience, I know that combating the "cuteness" curse can be an uphill battle. I'm short, petite, and prone to giggling. I sometimes ramble self-consciously, and my emotions can often be read, quite easily, in my facial expressions. If years of feedback are to be believed, I am perceived as "cute." Yet this description has never brought me an ounce of satisfaction. Growing up, I wanted to be like my grandfather, who was known for his strong political opinions and knowledge of history and literature. You would find him in his study surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves of hardbound books, a turntable playing classical music, a brown leather couch, and a collection of pipes. Yes, pipes. He was, in short, an intellectual, and I doubt that many called him "cute" during his post-baby years.
As an adult, I realized that the Venn diagram overlap between "female" and "intellectual" is slim. Even if one has all the accoutrements of an intellectual -- a PhD in some humanity, perhaps, or a directorship of some Very Serious Arts Organization -- people aren't as likely to think of you as an "intellectual" if you're a woman. This phenomenon was famously captured by author Rebecca Solnit in her 2008 essay, "Men Explain Things to Me," which details an awkward cocktail party encounter with a male intellectual who tried to explain Solnit's own book to her. Solnit argues that small moments like these are part of a larger problem with far more serious consequences than being disrespected at a cocktail party: "Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being."
When I attended a master's program in journalism and found myself in class with a number of very smart, very loquacious males, I scrambled to counteract my perceived "cuteness" by talking as loudly and as frequently as possible. I just wanted to be taken seriously, but this resulted in intense roars of garbled argumentation rather than the measured dialogue of the serious person I strived to be. I wonder now if these self-conscious maneuverings would have seemed even more necessary if my name were "cutesy," like Annie, or pretty, like Ariela.
So goodbye, oh-so-cute Quinn, Annabelle, April, and Piper! Farewell, oh-so-pretty Amber, Aria, Daphne, and Dawn! You are luminous names with satisfying, sonorific flows. I'd like to give a middle finger to the sexism of the world and choose you anyway. But impending parenthood has stripped the idealism right out of me. I want my girl to make a name for herself, so to speak -- and I'll be damned if anything I choose gets in her way.
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