Why Popular Boy Names are More Popular than Popular Girl Names

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

In my introduction to Sociology class, I use trends in baby names to introduce students to sociological research and inquiry. It’s a fun way to show students just how much we can learn from what might feel like idiosyncratic details of our lives. I start by showing students the top 10 boy and girl names from the most recent year of data available (along with their relative frequencies). After this, I show them the most popular names and their relative frequencies from 100 years earlier. There are some names on both lists; but for the most part, the names on the latter list sound “old” to students. Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 12.37.09 PM

When I ask students to characterize the types of names they see on the older list of names, someone usually says the names sound more “traditional.” I tell them that in 100 years, someone will probably say that about the most recent list of names they’re looking at: these future students will have a different idea of what makes a name “traditional.”



If you’re interested, someone produced these two GIF files that depict the most popular names by state between 1960 and 2012. I like to show one of these while I’m talking with students about what what names can help us learn. I ask students to raise their hand when they see their own name or the name of their best friend. As we get into the 80’s and 90’s, lots of hands start going up. But the GIFs are also interesting because they are a powerful visualization of the spread of cultural norms. Popular names move through a population in a way that appears to be similar to infectious diseases.

This is a fun way to show students that deciding what to name a child might feel like a personal decision, it’s actually a decision that is shaped by social forces. Names and name trends are great examples of what sociology can reveal because, as Stanley Lieberson points out so simply, while taste in most elements of culture is not a requirement, everyone has tastes in names. And, as it turns out, we can learn a lot about a society just by looking at patterns in which names we select for our children (and equally important are the types of names different groups tend to avoid).

SIDENOTE: I like to highlight a great finding by Stanley Lieberson, Susan Dumais, and Shyon Baumann from their article on trends in androgynous names (here). Androgynous names are names that are given to both boys and girls–think Taylor, Cameron, or Casey for current examples. Lieberson, Dumais, and Baumann found that androgynous names follow an incredibly common pattern once they achieve a critical level of popularity: they become girl names and become dramatically less common names for boys–a powerful example of the stigma associated with femininity for boys.

When I first started using the exercise, I was fascinated with the relative frequencies much more than the names on each list. But it’s an amazing shift. More than 1 in 20 girls born in 1914 was named Mary (the most popular name that year – and many other years too if you’re interested). By 2014, just over 1 in 100 girls born were given the most popular name that year, “Emma.” This is part of a larger trend in naming practices–popular names just aren’t as popular as they used to be. Stanley Lieberson refers to this as the “modernization theory” of name trends. The theory suggests that as institutional pressures associated with names decline (e.g., extended family rituals, religious rules), we see the proliferation of more diverse names. But there’s a twist. The phenomenon is also gendered: popular boy names have always been more popular (in aggregate) that popular girl names. Below, I’ve charted the proportion of boys and girls born in the U.S. with top 10 names from 1880-2014. Boys given top ten names in 1880, for instance, accounted for more than 40% of all boys born. And the most popular boy names have always accounted for a larger share of all boys born than the most popular girl names for girls born. It’s not a new fact and I’m not the first to notice it. (Though, as you can see below, the lines have just recently met, and they could conceivably cross paths any year now. And that will be something that has never happened.)Baby Name FrequenciesIn 1965, Alice Rossi suggested that part of what accounts for the discrepancy is related to gender inequality. As she put it, “Men are the symbolic carriers of the temporal continuity of the family” (here). Lieberson and Eleanor Bell later discovered that girls are more likely to have unique names as well (here). It’s an interesting example of something that many people teach in courses on men and masculinities. While men are, as a group, systematically advantaged, they may be held accountable to a more narrow range of gender performances than are women. And while men’s rights groups might frame this as an illustration of women being the group to benefit from gender inequality, it’s much better understood as what Michael Messner refers to as a “cost of privilege.”

Yet, this appears to be one costs of privilege that has decreased. In 1880, the top 10 boy names accounted for 41.26% of all boys born that year; the top 10 girl names accounted for 22.98%. There was more than an 18% gap. While boys’ popular names are still more popular than girls’ popular names, the gap shrunk to 0.27% by 2014. That’s a monumental shift. And I’m sure the modernization theory of name trends accounts for the lion’s share of the more general shift toward more secular names and a general decrease in name continuity between fathers and sons. But there is more than one way to read this shift. We might also say that this is a really simple illustration of one way that patriarchal family traditions have been chipped away over the past 100 years. Lots of data would support this conclusion.  We might account for it alongside, for instance, data showing the prevalence of women taking men’s surnames after marriage as a percentage of all marriages in a given year or opinions about surname change.  But it’s also an illustration of the ways that this process has meant changes for boys and men as well.

Masculinity has, quite literally, opened up. It’s something that has happened more for some racial and class groups than others. And whether this transformation–this “opening up”–is a sign of gender inequality being successfully challenged or reproduced in new and less easily recognizable ways is the subject of my favorite corner of the field.



On the Significance of Man Cave Signs

Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 9.39.15 AMThe market for man cave paraphernalia is probably a small niche.  But, many people I’ve talked to spend an inordinate amount of money on an odd array of trinkets and tchotchkes that help them symbolically authenticate these spaces.  Most of the people I contact to ask about their man caves, man dens, or whatever they call them talk with me or write with me first about the sign outside of the room.  Literally hundreds of these signs are for sale.  Some can be customized with names, but most are not.  And some men produce their own signs or have signs produced for them by others.  Not every man cave has a sign.  In fact, the ones with signs often feel a lot less authentic than those without.  But, signs are a feature of a “type” of cave, to be sure.

berenstain-bears-No-Girls-AllowedThe signs remind me of images we culturally associate with boys’ bedroom doors.  The “Keep Out!” sign with a skull and cross bones.  Indeed, this is where the signs are placed.  They’re not in the man cave, they are a designation of the space that stands just outside.  They symbolically welcome some and exclude others—similar to the “no girls allowed” signs we think of as characteristic of boys’ clubhouses (or Calvin and Hobbes’ tree house).  When I started this man cave project, I wasn’t initially all that interested in what exactly was in the caves.  calvingrossI’m collecting photographs of some, documenting the objects and considering room setup, décor, and the placement of different kinds of objects within the rooms.  But, I was and am much more interested in the ways these spaces fit into the relationships of the people in whose homes the caves reside.  But, now that the project is underway, the stuff has captured my attention as well.  And these signs are just one very small piece.

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James Messerschmidt and “Masculine Resources”

Since I was first interested in masculinity, I’ve been interested in the situatedness of it.  The thing about masculinity is, it’s a moving target.  What “counts” as masculine is not something we can measure in any straightforward way.  Masculinity’s flexible, it’s adaptable.  When we say that people “have” it—that is, when we say that people are masculine—this is really best qualified by a follow-up question: Where?  Where are they masculine?  Gender is contextually contingent; it’s fluid.  What “counts” as masculine shifts—sometimes subtly, sometimes substantially—from culture to culture, generation to generation, as we age, and from context to context.  Studying the “saying and doing” of gender (as Martin puts it) sometimes disguises the fact that we often say and do gender a bit differently around different groups, in different settings, and depending on what kinds of cultural tools are around on which we can rely.

Mens-Locker-Room-Graphic-Sign-SE-2970The example I most often discuss in classes is men’s locker rooms.  We often think of the locker as a space in which men perform masculinity a bit differently than they do outside of this space.  It’s often presented as a cultural “safe space” for men—a space in which they can talk and act however they want without fear of reprisal.  And though I’ve never formally studied men’s locker room experiences, I’d imagine that it’s experienced as a safe space for some boys and young men more than others.  Men’s locker rooms are also often cast as hallowed spaces—what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.  What’s interesting about the “locker room phenomenon” to me is not only what goes on in there (though that’s interesting too), but that masculinity is understood to change shape behind those doors.

There are really two key questions when considering this issue: (1) What’s salient?—What kinds of performances, objects, knowledge, etc. “count” when considering masculinity?; and (2) Where?—Where do all of these different components of gender count?  Sometimes we construct contexts within which the masculinities we might fancy ourselves as “having” will be highly valued (like club houses, man caves, bachelor pads, and more).  But, possibly more often, we seek out social contexts within which our “gender capital” is afforded cultural status and esteem.

How people make decisions about how to “do” masculinity is best understood in context.  We do masculinities a bit differently depending on where we are, who and what is around, and possibly just as important, who and what is not around.

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Masculinity, Gender (Non)Conformity, and Queer Visibility

by Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe

gwptwittericon2Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen

WarpaintCoco Layne got a haircut.  She shaved both sides of her head, but left the top at a length that falls roughly to the bottom of her face.  As a feminist fashion, art, and lifestyle blogger, she was quick to recognize the ways that she could subtly re-style her hair and dramatically alter her presentation of gender (here).   So, in classic feminist art blogger style, she produced an art project depicting her experience.  Coco’s project—“Warpaint”—comes on the heels of several other photographic projects dealing critically with gender: JJ Levine’s series of photographs—“Alone Time”—depicting one person posing as both a man and a woman in a single photograph (digitally altered to include both images); the media frenzy over Casey Legler, a woman who garnered attention, recognition and contracts modeling as a man; the Japanese lingerie company that recently went viral by using a man’s body to sell a push-up bra, just to name a few.

Along with these other photographic projects on gender, Warpaint is critical commentary on what gender is, where it comes from, how flexible it is, what this flexibility means, and what gender (non)conformity has to do with sexuality.  Coco’s work provides important lessons about how gender is produced just below the radar of most people most of the time.  These projects all point out the extensive work that goes into doing gender in a way that is recognizable by others. Indeed, recognition by others is key to doing gender “correctly.” It is what scholar Judith Butler calls performativity or the way in which people are compelled to engage in an identifiably gendered performance. When people fail to do this, Butler argues that they are abject, not culturally decipherable and thus subject to all sorts of social sanctions. Butler points out that the performance of gender itself produces a belief that something, someone, or some authentic, inalienable gendered self lies behind the performance.  These photographic projects lay bear the fiction that there is this sort of inevitably gendered self behind the performance of gender.  This is precisely why these projects produce such discussion and, for some, discomfort.  It makes (some of) us uncomfortable by challenging our investments in and folk theories surrounding certain ways of thinking about gender and sexuality.

Much of the commentary the Warpaint project focused on Coco’s ability to get a retail job when she displayed her body in ways depicted on the bottom row.  Indeed her experience reflects research indicates that different workplaces reward particular gender appearances and practices. Kristen Schilt’s research on transmen at work, for instance, highlights the way that performances of masculinity get translated into workplace acceptance for these men. Yet doing gender in a way that calls into question its naturalness can put people (including those who do not identify as gender queer or tans) at risk. In Jespersen v Harrah, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that female employees can be required to wear makeup as a condition of employment (in a workplace where men are not required to wear it).  While recent decisions have been more favorable to trans identified employees, most states do not have employment law or school policies protecting gender non-conforming individuals.  Simply put, most states do not have laws addressing —to use Coco’s language—gender expression.

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A Note on Masculinities in Context—Bodybuilders and the Significance of Setting

In my Sociology of Gender course this week, we discussed what it means to talk about gender as subject to variation and why this matters.  I typically go over four kinds of variation to which gender is subject and talk with students about how this helps us begin to understand what it means to talk about gender as “socially constructed.” If it weren’t, then why or how would it be subject to such wild variation?  Gender varies cross-culturally, it varies throughout history, it varies over the course of an individuals’ life, and it also varies contextually.  This last one often requires a bit of explanation.  And I often use my research with bodybuilders as a way to discuss this issue.

I initially started this blog to think more critically about both how social spaces get gendered and sexualized.  But I have also always been interested in tying performances of gender and sexuality to the specific contexts in which those performances emerge.  In graduate school, I studied a group of bodybuilders for about a year.  little-big-men-bodybuilding-subculture-gender-construction-alan-m-klein-paperback-cover-artMuch of the existing literature at the time framed male bodybuilders as an insecure population—and indeed, this is how they are culturally portrayed as well.  There’s an excellent ethnography by Alan Klein entitled Little Big Men that helps to bolster this claim.  We like to think of bodybuilders as overcompensating for some other weakness.  And consistent with Klein, I found many bodybuilders insecure—but I became much more interested in where they seemed insecure than with the simple fact that they seemed insecure.

I began my study simply observing them in the gym and gradually began gaining enough confidence to approach them to ask for interviews.  The men are extraordinarily large and many of them emit incredible sounds while working out.  dexter+jackson+(7)So, it’s easy to get a bit squeamish.  They’re sweaty, they’re enormous, they’re lifting massive objects, grunting and yelling at each other—it’s pretty intense.  So, asking for an interview might seem like an easy task, but it took me a couple weeks to work up to actually approaching one of them.

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On the Significance of Digitally Documenting Zoo Visits

I posted a while ago about our last trip to a zoo (The Denver Zoo, actually—during our trip out for last year’s ASA conference).  Today, we visited the Buffalo Zoo, which is actually one of the oldest zoos in the country.  Zoos are fascinating places.  They still have the stink of empire and colonization to me.  But, I’ve been sociologically interested in zoos ever since seeing Marjorie DeVault present on some of her research concerning zoo visits and family life.  Zoos are an extraordinary example of how families learn to look at the world in similar ways.  Parents teach children how to position themselves to look at something, to be mindful of others (or not), what to look at, what is “important” (animals) and what should be ignored (fences, cages, and plant life), etc.  It is through small practices like this that intimate groups (like families) collectively reaffirm themselves.

Ciaran and PapaFor instance, most visitors passed right by a rhinoceros lying down in a pool to cool off.  The rhino was mostly concealed beneath the water.  But, rhinos are my son’s favorite animal of late.  So, while a half-hidden rhino doing nothing but shaking her ears is something many people chose to walk by, our family stopped because it’s significant to Ciaran.  And in stopping, we collaborated in producing a small family ritual—one of those insignificant moments that is part of what makes us “Us.”

A great deal about zoos has changed since I was young.  I remember being able to ride elephants and camels.  I remember exhibits constructed in such a way that animals could not hide from view.  Not today.  Habitats today are more expansive, often permitting animals the ability to put themselves “on display” or out of sight.  Perhaps our understandings of the psychological consequences of captivity on (some) animals have changed.  Or perhaps our collective beliefs about animals themselves have changed.  Either way, exhibits are dramatically different than I remember as a child.

CiaranBeyond the spaces themselves, technology has dramatically altered the ways in which people interact with the exhibits.  Witnessing the exhibit often felt secondary to digitally documenting the visit.  So, unable to turn off my inner sociologist, I started documenting the documenters.  I watched a family of four come up to a habitat, each with digital cameras of their own.  They all took pictures, glancing briefly at the pictures each person took, took a few more, and moved on to the next exhibit.  Sometimes, someone took pictures of the signs, too.  Perhaps this was to remember a few facts about the animals they were so busy photographing.  Capturing the animal in an interesting pose (like this shot of my son looking at the otters) was prized.  But, getting the shot was a must.  Groups often didn’t move on until everyone with a camera got a satisfactory shot.

So what?

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The Sad Demise, Glorious Triumph, and Mysterious Disappearance of the Gayborhood?*

Cross-posted at Social (In)Queery

This post is part of a series of posts I’ve written on sexuality and space, specifically addressing issues of where LGBT populations live and why.  See “Can Living in the City Make you Gay?” and “Why More Lesbians (Might) Live in Rural Communities than Gay Men” for the first two in the series.

the CastroThe gayborhood is a relatively new cultural phenomenon.  While groups of gay men and lesbians have sought living spaces organized around sexual identity for a long time, neighborhoods actively recognized as “gayborhoods” by others is something arguably more recent.  Indeed, as Amin Ghaziani writes, “It’s quixotic to think that gay neighborhoods have always been around and will never change” (here).  Sociological research on gayborhoods asks a few different kinds of questions: How and why do gay neighborhoods emerge?  What kinds of factors shape their growth and endurance?  What kinds of processes and forces threaten their existence?

A variety of social forces account for the emergence of gayborhoods.  Ghaziani discusses the pivotal role that World War II played in their emergence.  As men and women came home–some after being dishonorably discharged from service (as a result of their sexuality)–they settled in port cities like San Francisco.  But, gayborhoods were also emerging prior to WWII as well.  Yet, these early, largely urban, gay enclaves were distinguished by their unpublicized nature.  They were spaces to which people with same-sex desires could go to locate one another.  Ghaziani remarks, however, that the post-WWII U.S. was marked by a shift toward the development of increasingly formalized urban gay districts in some of the larger U.S. cities.

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