What Can Baby Names Tell us about #MeToo?

By: Tristan Bridges and Philip N. Cohen

Cross-posted with permission from Inequality By Interior Design

As the list of “great” men revealed as having committed serial acts of sexual harassment and assault continues to grow, the conversation about the collusion, complicity, and tolerance necessary for each of them to have avoided consequence for so long is important. Many of these men occupied roles as gatekeepers in their various careers—indeed, men are disproportionately in gatekeeping roles. And people in these roles sometimes enjoy power with little oversight. So, institutions are set up in ways that may not feel like they actively promote sexual harassment and assault, but do little to stop it.

Another way of looking at this problem, though, is to consider the role we all play in systems of social inequality that give rise to abuses of power. Like mass shooters and people who commit “stick-ups”, sexual harassers in the workplace are almost all men. But they’re not just any men; these are powerful men, men whose faces we recognize, who we might feel like we “know” because of their popularity, and, importantly, they’re men whose names we all know: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Bill Clinton, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, George H.W. Bush, Roy Moore…

One way of thinking about how societies feel on a collective level is to look at aggregate behaviors. How do we act collectively and what can we learn about “us” and our society from collective action? Consider baby names. In sociologist Stanley Lieberson’s book, A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change, he was interested in the social forces and factors that help certain names become more or less popular.

Consider the name Harvey. Harvey might strike you as a dated name. And it is. Its popularity as a name for boys in the U.S. peaked in the first half of the 20th century. Then the name fell out of favor. A gradual decline in popularity is typical for names. Over the course of about 50 years, the name stopped being popular. Perhaps as those early Harveys started to grow up, the name acquired the cultural patina of the elderly (like Mildred or Herman today) and felt less like a name people ought to give to babies. Harvey ceased to even be among the top 1,000 names selected for baby boys in the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But then, from 2011-2016, “Harvey” enjoyed a second surge in popularity. It jumped from the 857th most popular boys’ name to the 412th in just 6 years. As name popularity goes, this is steep rise.Harvey 1.png

Measured another way, we can look at the number of boys given the name “Harvey” per 1,000 boys born in the U.S., as popular names are a whole lot less popular today than they were a century ago. Still here, however, we see a very recent surge in popularity for Harvey as a name given to boys in the U.S.Harvey2.png

The play Harvey, about a man who claims to have an invisible friend who is an anthropomorphized version of a rabbit more than 6 feet tall (“Harvey” is the invisible rabbit friend) hit Broadway in 1944, written by Mary Chase. This is a plausible partial explanation for the beginning of the decline in popularity for Harvey. Who wants to name their child after a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit, right? The name may have been “contaminated” as a boy’s name. But the second surge in popularity presents us with a sort of natural experiment about the American public. The name Harvey appears to be on the way to becoming more popular. Will the Harvey’s of 2017 contaminate this name for the American public? Between Harvey Weinstein and Hurricane Harvey, the name’s had an awful year. But will people continue to give the name Harvey to their children? (Too bad, from the point of view of a clean experiment, that the scandal and the hurricane happened in the same year.)

This question got us thinking about what happens to the names of people implicated in or associated with high profile sex scandals or cases of sexual harassment and/or assault. It might be a really small indication of how invested we are, as a society, in not holding men accountable for sexual indiscretions, harassment, and assault. It’s one small way that we are all actually invested (and investing) in some of the very same forms of social inequality that helped give rise to the Harvey Weinsteins of the world in the first place.

Philip posted a few years ago on a collection of names that illustrate contamination. He used Ellen (following DeGeneres’s coming out), Forrest (following the release of Forrest Gump in theatres) and Monica (following the sex scandal involving Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton). The name “Monica” was contaminated after her involvement with the president. She didn’t claim to have been sexually assaulted, but her participation in this high-profile scandal appears to have played a role in contaminating the name—people stopped naming their daughters “Monica” in as great of numbers following the event (see below). Bill Clinton had a more popular name (“William”) among boys than Monica did among girls. But, we wondered, was his name contaminated too? Not many parents name their children “Bill” alone. Since 1994, “Bill” hasn’t been among the top 1,000 names given to boys in the U.S. William, however, has been a top 20 name for over 100 years in the U.S.

Bill and Monica1.png

The popularity of the name “Monica” among girls dropped immediately following the news of the scandal in January of 1998. While only subtly, the name William moved up the rankings of names given to boys. Many president’s first names influence the popularity of a name. In fact, it’s arguably a small measure of what the public thinks of the president. Was he a man worthy of emulating with a name? Bill Clinton appears to have passed the test. So, the sex scandal involving Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton contaminated her name, but not his. This is an important way we (at least collectively) are all implicated here. Below, you can see a more fine-grained way to measure shifts in name popularity. Rather than visualizing names by rank, this measure attaches names to population denominators so that name popularity is expressed in births per thousand boys and girls and scaled such that 100=the scandal year (of comparison). Again, the name “Monica” appears seriously contaminated following the scandal, while William does not.

Bill and Monica2.png

Consider another example from a bit earlier—Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings for The Supreme Court. Hill described being consistently subjected to sexual harassment by Thomas in a supervisory role over her at both the Department of Education and the EEOC. Hill testified in 1991. At that time, the baby names “Anita” and “Clarence” were both declining in popularity (so, the names present a different scenario). But right around 1991, Anita started to drop in the rankings faster than Clarence. It appears that having been sexually harassed may have contaminated the name “Anita” among parents, but sexually harassing did not have the same contaminating effect on “Clarence.”

Anita and Clarence1.png

Once again, women’s involvement in a high-profile heterosexual sex scandal may have contaminated her name, but seems to have failed to meaningfully impact his. Yet, when we measure name popularity by births per thousand boys and girls, scaling them to the year Hill testified against Thomas, the allegations don’t appear to have a noticeable impact on either “Anita” (for girls) or “Clarence” (for boys). So this case is not as clear.

Anita and Clarence2.png

What we can look at is the effect of high-profile sex scandals and cases of sexual harassment and assault to see if they ever affect name popularity for boys’ names. Stanley Lieberson, Susan Dumais, and Shyon Baumann looked at something similar in their article on the “instability of androgynous names.” They were interested in what happens to androgynous names (names given to roughly equal numbers of boys and girls—like Taylor, Jesse, Hayden, Charlie, or Emerson) over time. Androgynous names are, they discovered, unstable. They rarely persist and remain androgynous and they follow a social pattern. Androgynous names that become popular become girl names—we stop giving the names to boys when they become popular. The association with femininity (for boys) is more stigmatizing (or “contaminating” in name lingo) than the association with masculinity (for girls). We’re all implicated in that finding in one way or another.

The two scandals discussed above, though, are distinct in that they have one man and one woman associated with them. So, we can look at how the same event shaped subsequent fashions in baby names for boys and girls in different ways. In both scandals, the effect was the same. But many of the sex scandals in the news today have large collections of women harassed and abused by one man (like Harvey Weinstein). So, for many of these cases, we lack the gendered comparison visible on the previous two figures. What we can look at is the effect of high-profile sex scandals to see if they ever effect name popularity for boys’ names. Clearly, they do sometimes for girls’ names. In this way, what happens to the popularity of the name “Harvey” might tell us something important about us.

 

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