Gender Benders

Only in San Francisco would the male lead be named Mandy and the female lead named Glenn.

I’m working with a new client named Bradley, and a prospective client named Brenden. There’s nothing unusual about that, I suppose, except that they’re both women.

When I was in school, it was not unusual to have girls named Randi and Bobbi and Billie, but they were distinguishable by their alternate spellings. But consider the genders of Sandy, Jan, Gerry, Pat, Chris, Jackie, and Jamie. You’ve got a 50-50 shot.

Now there are girls running around named Jordan and Logan, Madison and Morgan, which sound more like the names of old cars and presidents than girls. In 2010, the 11th most popular girls’ name was Addison. Linguistically, when surnames came into prominence, -son meant “son of.” So what’s it doing on a little girl?

In some ways, this isn’t a new phenomenon. If you go back to the early part of the 20th century, you find actress Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz). The women’s golfing pro in The Great Gatsby was named Jordan Baker. In Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Theresa Wright’s character went by Charlie (though whether it was short for Charlotte or Charlene, I don’t know).  And generations earlier than that, you had male and female variations of names: Francis and Frances, Marion and Marian, John and Joanne, Bernard and Bernadette, Sidney and Sydney. Not to mention men named Evelyn, Lynn, and Lindsay.

But it seems as though, more and more, girls are gravitating toward names that mask their gender, if only as nicknames. Alexis and Alexandra become Alex. Samantha becomes Sam. Andrea becomes Andy. As women achieve gender equality, they also seem on the way to giving up their gender distinction.

I have a sneaking suspicion that one hundred years from now, you won’t be able to tell someone’s gender from their name. I’ve known both a male and female Galen, and a male and female Kelsey. On good days, I can distinguish Morgan Freeman from Morgan Fairchild, and Glenn Close from Glenn Ford. Nor is this purely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Chandra, Ramala, Mandeep, and other Indian names are considered both male and female.

I have no scientific evidence for this theory of unisexual names. In fact, in 2011, the most popular girls’ names were Sophia, Isabella, Emma, Olivia, Ava, Emily, and Abigail. These neither sound like cars nor presidents nor surnames – they’re classical, even somewhat old-fashioned names. But I suspect this is a fad.

There are a few insights I can draw from this trend I’m perceiving. First, it only seems to go in one direction. There aren’t more men named Nancy or Patsy (at least in my circles). There are only a couple of exceptions to this. Merle is statistically more likely to be a girl’s name – but tell that to singer Merle Haggard. Then there’s actor Mandy Patinkin (whose real first name is Mandel). One of my favorite quotes from the ‘80s came from a newspaper article about the San Francisco-based movie Maxie (the title character of which was female; see graphic), starring Glenn Close and Mandy Patinkin. “Only in San Francisco,” the writer quipped, “would you find a movie where the female lead was named Glenn and the male lead was named Mandy.”

Second, medical practitioners are going to have to get a lot more savvy. The mother of my best friend from high school was named Jeff. She once told me the story of the great confusion on the part of a hospital radiologist who couldn’t figure out why the x-rays of someone named Jeff clearly had female breasts.

Finally, there are certain male names that are never going to be fashionable for women, because even men with these names aren’t thrilled with them … like “Howard.”


About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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4 Responses to Gender Benders

  1. Jean says:

    I wouldn’t mind Howie. But never call me Howard. My nickname from childhood is Beanie. I’ve been called Bean, Beanie, Beaners, Jean-Bean, and even Beanie-Ball. I will answer to any of them, but I have a good male friend who has the nickname of Bean. The only person to call him this anymore is his loving wife. It is very confusing when we both answer.

    Not so long ago, the pizza guy called me out by name that my pizza was ready. A man and myself both reached for it. I told him they had called my name. He argued that they had clearly called his name. We asked what name they called and I said, “Yes, my name is Jean.” He also said, “Yes, my name is Gene.” Turns out it was his pizza.

  2. gingerR says:

    I just read an account of a Lesbian couple who’re unhappy that they couldn’t both be listed on their son’s birth certificate.

    Oh my, what will future demographers think when they start hitting birth records where a child has two mothers?

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