Wherefore Art Thou…

Feministing tells me that Sarah Michelle Gellar has announced that she’s changing her last name to Prinze after five years of marriage to Freddie Prinze, Jr. As an anniversary gift.

Sigh. Name changing. This is an issue that a lot of people want to simplify in order to dismiss it. They tell us that it’s an irrelevant symbol, a hollow statement, a silly shibboleth for determining at a glance who is and is not in the feminist club. And in telling us how hollow it is, what they show me is why it matters.

Okay, so a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. I was paying attention during the 60 billion times we talked about the arbitrariness of linguistic symbols way back in first year linguistics. And believe me, I do recognize that the name with which I was born came to me via a line of male ancestors, and that choosing to keep it does not mean I’m entering into some beautiful circle of matriarchy and feminine sharing or whatever cliché people may choose to project onto the statement they are hearing from me.

When I got married, I chose to keep my surname for very specific personal reasons, partially because my name is relatively unusual, and also tied to a particular community, and my now ex-husband’s is quite common in general. I talked a lot about questions of my personal identity and how it was wrapped up in *this* name. My feelings on my home community and my family of origin have changed rather radically from that time, but that doesn’t really negate the basic principle of identity in naming. Yes, I can be reductive and make it a pure linguistic principle and try to just say that the signifier-signified relationship is not the source of my identity, which is kind of what people are doing when they try to dismiss the idea as one that matters.

But we accept name-as-identity on so many levels. There’s a reason Rumpelstiltskin has power as a fairy tale. There’s a reason most quotations, books, thoughts, ideas have names attached to them, and we evaluate them including contextual information based on what else we know of what comes from that source. Leaving aside the whole question of whether or not name-changing is a symbol of shifting ownership (it is), I have one fundamental question: What is it about the act of marriage that marks a change in identity, a change in the fundamental “self” of a woman so significant as to require a change in name? In changing the label by which people know me, I am suddenly announcing a shift in my way of being seen. I say “I’m Purtek”. I am. And by getting married, apparently I’m supposed to have transmogrified into something different.

And then, I guess, changed back into the person I was originally by leaving that marriage. I am, in fact, very different from the person I was before I was married, and different still from the person I was in deciding to leave that marriage, but not because of the marriage. Other changes in my life have been bigger, more significant, more radically identity-defining, yet it’s marriage that is the one that is supposed to alter me just enough to warrant a new name. Except then, when it’s over after however many years, I haven’t become something new again, I’ve just reverted back into my old self, doing the opposite of growing and in fact eradicating any sense of change that had occurred. But I’m still occupying the same body, still living the same life, still being the same person in existential terms, and I don’t think it makes sense to say otherwise philosophically.

I know this is getting on the esoteric side, but the very thought that my name should ever change is nonsensical to me now. The concept that it should be given to another as a gift, a statement that I am changing myself, being something different for you, in fact becoming more like you…well, that just makes me feel icky.

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2 thoughts on “Wherefore Art Thou…

  1. BetaCandy says:

    One more reason to love you!!! :D

    I find it nonsensical that an adult should change her or his name for any reason other than having a separate identity in the entertainment industry or to cover up a criminal past.

    My father was Satan. His family of the same surname was just as bad. The last name he gave me misrepresents the bulk of my heritage. Really, I ought to want to give it up.

    But I decided in elementary school: it’s my name. What if someday I’m famous, and these little shits who made every school day miserable for me don’t know it’s me because I changed my name?

    Because I kept this name, and would have even if I’d married, I’ve left a pretty decent trail of accomplishments I’m proud of on the internet. And I’m able to tell that those kids who made school so awful for me look me up to see what became of me. I have the vindication of knowing they still think of me.

    That doesn’t apply to everyone, I know. This might: my mom says she went through quite an identity crisis when she changed her name in marriage. Suddenly, the girl she’d been in school and early adulthood stopped existing. After the wedding, my father kicked back, mission accomplished, but her hassles were just beginning as she had to replace all her documentation and adjust to being thought of as this entirely new person: Mr. So and So’s Wife.

    I may have to link to this when I blog about Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca”, which (aside from the main plot) is about identity and names and how we lose and find ourselves in them.

  2. purtek says:

    *blushes a little*

    Suddenly, the girl she’d been in school and early adulthood stopped existing.

    This is the concept that frightens me most. The practical issues are burdensome in and of themselves, including the question of how to find people or not being able to connect pre and post-marriage names with a person you knew (unless you add a conspicuous née) and what that means when a woman dares to have a public persona. Yet still, everybody asks why not to change one’s name, and few ask why to do it in the first place. Those who do seems to talk primarily about practicalities, but the identity impact is glossed over.

    I’m thinking more about this idea of becoming more “like” one’s husband in taking his name, that this is the marker of the identity change. It’s striking me as a really narcissistic concept, actually–making this other person an extension of yourself, creating a kind of mirror factor, absorbing them into your broader identity.

    And don’t even get me started on letters addressed to “Mr. & Mrs. [man’s first name] [last name]”.

    (I haven’t read or seen “Rebecca”, but given my linguistic propensities, apparently I should. Can’t wait to read your post on it)

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