Gender bender: Did Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively just kill the name 'James'?

A gender expert from a Midwestern university weighs in on the potential effect of a Hollywood couple using a traditional boy's name for their infant daughter.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds attend The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" on Monday, May 5, 2014, in New York.

A University of Wisconsin expert on feminism says Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively may have just doomed America’s most popular boy’s name, James, by giving it to their daughter.

Mr. Reynolds, who has been very private about his daughter’s birth and name, confirmed the baby’s name on NBC's "Today" show this week. The name had been a point of speculation since her birth just before the New Year.

According to the Social Security Administration’s website, the name James was the nation’s top boy’s name with 4,866,619 babies taking that name from 1914 to 2013. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year range.]  

However, Myra Marx Ferree, an expert in comparative studies of gender, politics and American feminist movements at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said in an interview, “If a little girl named James becomes a celebrity, then James will quickly cease to be a boy’s name and become a girl’s name."

“There’s a history of boys' names becoming girls' names. A very clever algorithm used on which is based on the Social Security Administration’s database of baby names and if you type in a name it shows you a graph in pink and blue of the name’s use throughout decades,” Professor Ferree added. “Once a boy’s name becomes a popular girls’ name, parents just seem to stop using it for boys.”

Ferree said this happens because “one core dictate of masculinity is called ‘avoid femininity’ - don’t be a girl or like one in any way”

“It’s called androcentrism, the idea that things associated with men have higher social value,” she explained. “So it’s not such a big thing for girls to do boy things, but it’s still terrible for boys to do girl things because it devalues you. And it’s homophobic. It’s utter nonsense, of course, but it still goes on.”

According to Ferree, American culture has “gotten rid of the sexism that says girls can’t aspire to do boy things, but not the notion that guys who do girl things are of lesser value.”

“Girl things are still low-value things,” she continued. “Anything we put in the girl category is a bad thing for everyone. The name stuff is a nice indicator of that social value. Therefore, the boys’ name that becomes popularly used for girls is now contaminated with low, girl-value.”

Ferree says that she stumbled upon this gender-bender name phenomenon by accident when her sister, Gertrude, called her to tell her, “Everyone with my name is dead” after looking her name up on NameTrends.

“It caught my interest and I began using the website to track the gender changes in naming,” says Ferree. “It seems obvious from the graphs that parents simply stop giving boys a particular name the moment it is viewed as a girl’s name.  Interestingly, though, the same thing does not seem to happen to girls' names.”

Ferree says boys’ names with an “e” sound at the end are the most vulnerable to gender switching when they began to gain popularity when used for girls. However, it is the celebrity factor that, Ferree believes, marks a boy’s name for social extinction.

“Have some fun with it,” she said. “Type in Leslie and see how it went from exclusively a boy’s name to a girl’s name. Then try and find someone famous with that name right around the trend switch.”

The name Leslie abruptly switches from being a boy’s name to a girl’s name in the early 1950s, which is also when actress Leslie Caron became a superstar after actor/dancer Gene Kelly got her to act in the film, "An American in Paris," in 1951. Other famous films starring the actress include "Lili"(1953) and "Gigi" (1958).

“Go on,” Ferree coached in an interview, “Try Lindsey, Beverly, or Avery. Notice how they begin as a blue line and suddenly switch to pink and shoot up as the blue line just dies?”

Ferree concluded by saying, “If that little girl named James grows up to be famous, then you will see James become a girl’s name.”

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