Michael Burnham: Missed Opportunity?

This post is spoiler-free.

For those of you who haven’t been watching it, Michael Burnham is the main viewpoint character in the new television series Star Trek: Discovery. Although female, she was given a name that, in our era, is traditionally male, which appears to be a signature move of her creator Bryan Fuller’s. However, given when the series is set, it would not be at all surprising for the name “Michael” to have become a woman’s name.

As languages evolve, it is entirely natural for names to switch which genders they are associated with. Due to sexism (and possibly other factors), it is far more common for traditionally male names to be adopted by women than the other way around, and at first glance, that is what appears to have happened in Michael Burnham’s case: since Star Trek: Discovery is set at least two centuries in the future, it would make sense for the name “Michael”, and probably a number of other names as well, to have become female names (given the egalitarian nature of the Star Trek universe, you might also expect a number of female names to have switched to male, and possibly a much larger number of names being entirely gender-neutral, but the absence of those particular changes is not in and of itself surprising from a linguistics perspective in the way that no change at all would be).

Alas, this was not to be. Within a couple of episodes, it is established that Michael Burnham is one of a very small minority of women bearing the name “Michael”, if not the only one, when her roommate correctly guesses her identity from her first name alone. And while it isn’t that surprising that the producers of Star Trek would miss a minor linguistic detail such as this, it is a bit disappointing. All they would have had to do is to write one scene slightly differently, and possibly add a couple of minor characters with names corresponding to the “opposite” gender in modern English.

Perhaps if I ever try to write futuristic science fiction, I’ll get a chance to show how future names might actually look.

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