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The Half-life of Robin and Kim

7.1.00

By now firemen, policemen, and mailmen sound like cultural relics from the 1950s next to the no-nonsense firefighters, police officers, and mail carriers who people our streets today. The once universal he has given way to he or she and the androgynous they. But what about first names, which rank among the most important markers of gender? Have androgynous names multiplied along with equal rights? Lowell professor of sociology Stanley Lieberson heard this question so often that he set out to analyze the names of almost 11 million babies born in Illinois between 1916 and 1989--plus additional data from 1995--with graduate students Susan Dumais, A.M. '98, and Shyon Baumann, A.M. '98. (Their study, recently published in the American Journal of Sociology, confines itself to white births because of the enormous increase in newly invented names among black children from the 1960s onward.)

"I expected it to be a simple answer, that more and more children were being given androgynous names--end of story," says Lieberson, author of A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change (Yale University Press), which appears this fall. Instead, the use of androgynous names like "Dale," "Jackie," "Merle," and "Robin" remains rare, and has barely increased in 80 years. Only 1 to 2 percent, approximately, of all the children studied had unquestionably androgynous names (those whose populations included at least a third from either gender).

The authors note that "for the average girl (or boy) less than 3 percent of the children with her (his) name are of opposite sex"--reflecting the fact that, over time, name androgyny tends not to persist. A given moniker usually resolves itself into a predominantly male or female choice. A name like "Robin," for example, might become popular for both sexes, then drop out of favor for one sex--usually boys--and so lose its androgynous character. To explain these findings, Lieberson turned in a surprising direction, to a model that Thomas Schelling, Ph.D. '51, Littauer professor of political economy emeritus, used to describe the process of racial segregation in housing. "The great insight provided by the Schelling model is to show how easily a racially mixed area can lose its equilibrium and become a highly segregated black area," write Lieberson and his coauthors. He adds, "The language in residential segregation is that a 'tipping point' is reached, generally from white to black--enough blacks move in, and the rest of the whites just sort of get out." Lieberson compares androgynous names to "neighborhoods" that are "occupied" by girls and boys. If the population skews far enough toward one gender, the other sex stops moving in.

This process is not symmetrical: parents are more likely to choose androgynous names for daughters. The 1995 Illinois data showed that for college-educated parents, 8 percent of the daughters--but only 3 percent of sons--received one of 45 common androgynous names. "To some degree the androgyny is appealing," says Lieberson. "But this can also give it a negative value for their sons and a positive value for their daughters." The researchers explain this asymmetry using the well-known sociological concept of status contamination: "The advantaged have a greater incentive to avoid having their status confused with the disadvantaged," they write. If boys (like whites) are relatively advantaged compared with girls (or blacks), these privileged groups will systematically "leave the neighborhood" when customary markers of status disappear--as they do when names lose their sexual specificity.

Consider "Kim," a name that was popular for both sexes in the 1950s. In Illinois, male Kims increased steadily in the early '50s, until 153 boys and 90 girls received the name in 1953. The following year, movie star Kim Novak became a top box-office attraction. That year saw the start of a drastic upsurge in girls named "Kim": by 1957 there were 453 female Kims--but only 76 boys. "Isn't that a mind-blower?" interjects Lieberson, who is particularly fond of this graph. "You know it's not chance, because just the year of her debut, phew!" and his thumb shoots up. "For males," he adds, "use of the name did go up slightly for a year, continuing the earlier trend, but then it really dropped off."

The appearance of someone like Kim Novak in the cultural consciousness "accelerates and maybe alters the trend," Lieberson explains. The Novak phenomenon "really killed the name 'Kim' for boys," he says, adding with a laugh, "You don't want to name your son after a screen goddess."