Boy or Girl? Gender-Neutral Names in YA Novels
As an admitted name nerd, I’ve noticed a trend in YA fiction recently: lots of characters sporting gender-neutral names. Gender-neutral names aren’t new: Morgan, Ashley, and Kelly crossed over from the boys’ side during the mid-20th century, for example, and the gender-neutral naming scene really exploded in the 1980s. Nor is this trend unique to YA literature: we see it in all segments of entertainment and everyday life. (Remember when Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner were dating?) But even though it may not be a new trend, it seems like gender-neutral names are popping up more and more in YA books these days.
So what’s the psychology behind authors giving their characters gender-neutral names? A quick Internet search yields results lauding their “uniqueness,” which speaks to a common desire to use a name that’s memorable — something that stands out. It seems parents often hope to lend their daughters an air of strength by giving them traditionally male names. It’s likely that authors do it for the same reason: to make their character sound strong, maybe even a little edgy. Maybe there’s a certain “cool” factor when a girl has a name typically reserved for boys, as if she’s gained entry to some secret, heretofore off-limits club.
Personally, I wonder if authors feel more free to experiment with character names than they would with actual children, because that “baby” will never grow up to rail against their name. Could it be a bit of fantasy indulgence? The same author who might name a real-life daughter Elizabeth or Abigail could very well name a fictional heroine Rowan or Blake without worrying about the consequences of a nontraditional choice.
Let’s take a look at some of the gender-neutral character names in recent YA novels:
Frankie, the female protagonist of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (2009 Printz Honor Book), bears the diminutive of a traditional male name, feminized only by its tell-tale “ie” ending. According to name expert Laura Wattenberg, male nicknames with feminized spellings had their heyday in the 1920s, and are now making a comeback. The use of a masculine name homophone is particularly clever in Lockhart’s book, which tells the story of a girl determined to infiltrate a secret society with a boys-only membership.
Emerson, the name of the sassy heroine in Myra McEntire’s timeslip romance Hourglass, is a classic example of a masculine name making a clear shift towards femininity. Traditionally used for boys from the late 1800s all the way through the 1960s, it didn’t start appearing on girls until the 1990s — which is when the Hourglass character would have been born. Baby boys are still being named Emerson today, but the name is used nearly twice as often for girls.
The heroine of Meg Cabot’s Abandon (2012 Teens’ Top Ten selection) is Pierce, a name used for boys in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In keeping with the surnames-as-first-names trend, Pierce is rising sharply on the charts again — but only for boys, not girls. Even so, Cabot’s use of it on a female character for this retelling of the Persephone myth makes sense: there are definite phonological similarities between the names Pierce and Persephone.
I’ll never forget the day one of my colleagues learned the truth about Max, of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series. Completely taken aback, she protested, “Maximum Ride is a GIRL? I’ve been recommending it to boys this whole time!” I assured her that her confusion was well-founded and perhaps even intentional on the author’s part. This popular action-adventure series about avian-human hybrids has equal appeal among boys and girls. The main character’s gender-neutral name may have been used specifically to attract male readers who might eschew “girly” reads. (Angel: A Maximum Ride Novel is a 2011 Teens’ Top Ten selection)
Elliot, the heroine of Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars, has a name that’s only recently crossed over from purely masculine to potentially gender-neutral. This name debuted on the Social Security Administration’s top 1,000 baby names list for girls last year at #875, likely popularized by the female character Elliot Reid on the sitcom Scrubs. For Darkness Shows the Stars is a dystopian retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and Peterfreund’s use of the name Elliot is a smart nod to the source material, in which the heroine is named Anne Elliot. Not only is this name a clever reference, but its use is plausible for a futuristic setting — if Elliot is just starting to cross over to the feminine side, it may be an increasingly common gender-neutral name in the future.
There are a few notable YA female characters with gender-neutral names that aren’t on the top 1,000 list for either boys or girls — making them truly ambiguous. These include Mclean of What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen (2012 Teens’ Top Ten selection); Rhine of Wither by Lauren DeStefano (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adult selection); and Puck of The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2012 Teens’ Top Ten selection, 2012 Printz Honor Book).
Just as in real life, most character names that cross gender lines tend to be masculine names on girls or women. Yet Em in Herbie Brennan’s The Secret Prophecy is a boy; Em is short for Edward Michael. And then there’s Artemis of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series (Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception was a 2006 Selected Audiobook). In Colfer’s series, the young criminal mastermind is named after his father — despite the fact that the original Artemis was a Greek goddess. Why not? After all, a feminine name can be just as strong as a male one.
What gender-bending names have you noticed in YA literature?
— Allison Tran, currently reading Also Known As by Robin Benway
* The data for my analysis comes from the Social Security Administration’s popular baby names lists, perhaps best visualized at the Baby Name Wizard.