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.