The name game

FOR the blokey trio at the centre of the John Cusack film Hot Tub Time Machine, the only thing more terrifying than becoming a homosexual is becoming a “hyphenate”, the new Godzilla of the “bromantic” comedy.

Let me explain. (And while the usual conventions would call for a plot spoiler alert now, that would imply this film has a storyline capable of being given away.)

Hot Tub Time Machine revolves around Adam, Lou and Nick, three middle-aged friends in impotent shock over the fact they are no longer in their 20s drinking, snorting and shagging everything in sight.

All three have accumulated a mother lode of disappointments and tragedies including, in Lou’s case, a carbon monoxide suicide attempt while air drumming to Motley Crue. But Nick’s private hell is by far the worst.

He’s married to a woman who negotiated with him to share their surnames post marriage. Like a battered wife attempting to hide a shiner with Olsen twins’ sunglasses, Nick tries to keep this domestic abuse a secret. But the eagle-eared Lou overhears the double barrel during a ski resort check-in.

“Webber f . . king Agnew?” Lou scoffs. “You took your wife’s last name? You’re a f . . king hyphenate?”

“A lot of dudes are doing it,” Nick replies defensively. “It’s progressive.”

“No,” Lou barks back contemptuously. “No dudes are doing it.”

The good news for Nick is that he and his bros-before-hos mates swirl moistly back in time via a malfunctioning jacuzzi (as you do) and get to remedy everything that went wrong in their lives.

Thus, when he returns to the present, Nick no longer has a dead-end job in a dog spa but is the head of a funky record label. More important, however, he’s no longer psychically neutered by having to share a surname with a woman.

To celebrate, he makes his wife repeat his unhyphenated name aloud while they’re making out. Once again, as you do.

This pop cultural vignette offers a fascinating insight into the gendered nature of names, an issue that’s of particular interest to me because I have changed mine recently. My surname switch from Tom to Jane was a decision made first and foremost for personal reasons.

Thanks to a painful family schism, it has been many decades since I had contact with anyone from that side of my family. (There is a single, notable exception but, for different reasons, she’s no longer a Tom, either.)

One of the many unhappy aspects of this scenario is the continuing-to-share-an-appellation business. Sure, it’s just an autograph. But – call me old-fashioned and overly literal – I want a family name representative of the people with whom I share actual familial bonds.

At this point, my decision-making became more political. After spending many years considering happier family-related handles that were adoptable as surnames, I eventually opted for one of the girl ones rather than the boy ones.

This is because it irks me that, despite the success of feminism and egalitarianism, patrilineal norms still reign supreme when it comes to the name game.

According to a US university survey last year, 90 per cent to 95 per cent of American women switch to their husband’s moniker after they marry. The naming of children also continues as if we’d never left the Mad Men era.

Well, how many feminist gen X or Y women do you know who share a surname with their sprogs?

The explanations often sound reasonable enough: the male partner’s surname was cooler. It was really important to his family. He won the coin toss.

But in many cases the issue isn’t even up for negotiation. In one family I know, the male partner insisted he wouldn’t feel an adequate connection with his children if they weren’t named after him.

While surnames no longer function as title deeds indicating ownership of women by fathers and husbands, it’s a mistake to laugh off our present denomination habits as innocuous quirks from the past.

If naming were really no big deal, there would be more curious experimentation and less hysteria in response to deviations from the norm, exhibit A being the fear and loathing over Webber-Agnew in Hot Tub Time Machine. (And how fascinating that a man adopting a woman’s name is seen as hideously emasculating, yet the reverse is not regarded as being unacceptably de-ovary-ating.)

A common argument in favour of the sexist status quo is that it helps keep track of family lines. But if we can map the euchromatic sequence of the human genome, surely we can keep track of who was born to whom without the blunt instrument of surname bar coding.

Then there’s the old chestnut about common family names being a sign of love, togetherness and commitment. All well and wondrous, but still not a case for automatically adopting daddy’s name, or a pre-existing name at all.

It’s true hyphenation often feels overloaded. (The double barrel was only going to provide a one or two-generation solution to the surnaming dilemma.) But what about a combination of syllables or something completely new to symbolise the creation of a new family? And where is the rule that says siblings’ surnames need to match?

Alacoque Dash is a 29-year-old Sydney schoolteacher who changed her first and last names as a present to herself for her 19th birthday. She chose the nicknames of her two maternal great-grandmothers because she was annoyed by “the whole patriarchal naming thing”.

“I don’t belong to anybody, thank you,” she says. “That’s why I went with female nicknames. Those women were both feisty characters so it seemed apt.

“I love the idea of nominative determinism.”

Dash and her husband are still unsure about how to proceed when they breed: “But I’m for ‘girls get my surname, boys get his’ as my name is a female name rather than my mother’s father’s name. I feel like it’s starting a fresh family tree or something. Anyway, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Ah, yes. Imagine a world where family names are chosen for their familial resonance, where children’s last as well as first names are negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and where it’s not such an outrage to opt out of a system that privileges masculine experiences over the feminine.

That would be a place worth travelling to in a spa-powered TARDIS, though, sadly, I suspect its temporal co-ordinates are many, many years down the track.

PS. Thank you to everyone who emailed congratulations on my marriage to a “Mr Jane” but, as you now know, this isn’t quite how it happened…

- originally published in The Australian on 02-10-2010.

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21 Comments on "The name game"

  1. admin
    Michael Wild
    05/10/2010 at 9:24 pm Permalink

    The fellahs in “Hot Tub Machine” sound like they deserve to have a serious relationship with a woman unless she’s one heavy duty, emotionally indestructible girl (but not perhaps a smart one). I’ve been married 28 years to wonderful women who wanted to keep her maiden name and my boy-bits are still there. The idea of helping men feel connected to their children has merit as more involved fathers would be REALLY good for society and few mothers need help to bond to their kids. But that needs something bigger than names. I think it better if both parties chose a new surname for both of them. But if someone has to sacrifice a surname it’s hardly fair for women to do so regardless of personal preferences.

  2. admin
    Charlie Carter
    05/10/2010 at 9:30 pm Permalink

    G’Day Emma,
    My partner’s son Emryn Butler, and his partner Vino Cotton have named their son Zeus Richard Button.
    I suppose not everyone has such a felicitous combination of surnames, but the family refer to themselves as ‘the Buttons’
    They are obviously ahead of the game.

  3. admin
    06/10/2010 at 2:52 am Permalink

    Love it, Charlie

  4. admin
    Sheryl Rickard
    14/10/2010 at 4:59 pm Permalink

    Loved your article. My partner and I solved the problem by keeping our surnames. Our son has my surname as his middle name and his father’s surname. Hyphenated names a bit too ” upper class” for us!

  5. admin
    Janine Toms
    10/11/2010 at 2:50 am Permalink

    I totally agree with Emma’s thoughts on this issue (which, oddly, isn’t an issue these days) and have often considered changing my surname to my great-grandmother’s which, apart from anything else, would make me sound exotic. However, I’ve always been surprised at how so many avowed feminists declare, upon marriage, “I’m proud to take my husband’s surname!” My sisters are a case in point – both wed in their mid 40s and never wanted kids, so the name change served no purpose other than to “honour” their husbands – who didn’t give a monkeys either way. One of those sisters has now had FOUR surnames, to make matters more absurd. Can you imagine the hassle and expense of changing your name that many times? That’s virtually a full-time job right there. So hey, guess this is what women wanted all along. To know their place and walk in their big man’s shadow. Consigned to the dustbins of history.

  6. admin
    26/11/2010 at 6:09 pm Permalink

    It’s an interesting article you wrote. My first wife kept her maiden name. I didn’t care at the time – I was 21 and one can only guess whether or not it ultimately had any thing to do with her commitment to our relationship. The fact that I am saying first wife would clearly indicate to you that we are no longer married. My second (current) wife of 10 years chose to take my name despite some people thinking our name has a negative connotation. My brother’s wife double barrells (our favoured term for hyphenating) and they made that choice for their children. Two out of those three regularly use the double barrell that appears on their birth certificate, one chooses not too. A number of ladies I have met over time who either did not get married to the live-in father of their children or chose to keep their own name on marriage later chose to change their names to their husband or partner’s name for (what they described as) ease or the benefit of their children or because people found it confusing or some explanation like that. I am not advocating that all. Whatever lights your fire. The whole argument about it being a patriarchial conspiracy does get a bit tiresome though. There was a recent article on “The Punch” website about the circular and inane requirements for people (and in this case people mainly means women) to get their name changed on documents. I have some sympathy for the frustration the author and many of the respondents around that issue as my parents bestowed three christians names before my surname and when I first got my driver’s licence at age 17 the lady in the local police station thought it prudent to only put two of my christian names on my licence. Over the years it caused a number of problems which I finally got fed up with, the final straw being delay with the renewal of my passport because my driver’s licence did not have my full name on it. My wife likewise when she wanted to get a passport needed new documentation from BDM to prove her name change despite being married over 10 years. All I can say to all of this is “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. My apologies to Shakespeare if I have misquoted him.

  7. admin
    03/01/2011 at 3:07 pm Permalink

    Have you considered the Icelandic tradition? They use patronymic and sometimes matronymic names that reflect the name of the immediate father or mother of the child and not the historic family lineage.

    This would solve a couple of problems; not only that of the mother’s vs father’s name, but it would also get rid of that false loyalty to a family name which can be the cause of many family feuds.

    Wiki has a bit more; see here:

  8. admin
    03/01/2011 at 8:41 pm Permalink

    So, you come from a familiy where Tom met Jane – and these were both their surnames, right?
    Surely that doesn’t happen very often. Or is Jane not a family surname and it’s just one you picked yourself?
    This is all very interesting stuff

  9. admin
    05/02/2011 at 12:37 pm Permalink

    Brilliant Emma Jane! I came across your writing from The Australian piece on teetotalers and Australian culture (Feb 2011). Love it!

  10. admin
    Levi R.
    10/02/2011 at 8:30 am Permalink

    Actually the problem is quite easily solved by not getting married. The fact that that remedy is not recommended pretty much tells us all we need to know about the true relation of women to men, doesn’t it? Women need men.

  11. admin
    01/05/2011 at 10:51 pm Permalink

    Would you please do something about your teeth?

  12. admin
    Martin Gregory
    08/05/2011 at 2:36 pm Permalink

    Hi Emma-jane,

    Your article leaves us still somewhat none the wiser why you decided to change name.

    I have concluded that you concluded that surnames are so confusing that you were going to do without one.



  13. admin
    mike beale
    15/05/2011 at 7:37 pm Permalink

    Ha !, never thought much about that issue Emma, but its quite an enlightening article

    although I must say, my story .. about you being embroiled in some dodgy Paul Hogan tax scam, and hence a quick name change and residential move to Jamica was equally as exciting !!

  14. admin
    08/06/2011 at 1:28 am Permalink

    I love the idea of girls take Mum’s name and boys take Dad’s. But what about if the entire brood are boys? This was our fate, and I argued. So, our first son has his Dad’s name, and our second son has my name. We married later but of course I kept my surname. I did consider changing my surname to Mum’s maiden name, but the problem continues: her maiden name is merely her Dad’s name and so on. So keeping my surname, albeit Dad’s name, was just to stop all this silly patriarchal naming nonsense. Fortunately, I married a feminist. I do receive sidelong glances when I explain our names but as you correctly pointed out, everyone knows that our sons are brothers. It works. Loved your article.

  15. admin
    Harry Hercock
    08/06/2011 at 6:01 pm Permalink

    Great Story Emma Jane
    I wanted to take my wife’s name at marriage in 1983 but nobody including my wife would even consider it.
    Ho hum. Life goes on but something blander than Hercock would have been easier for our offspring as they navigated their way through the reefs and shoals of childhood.


  16. admin
    peter warrington
    23/09/2011 at 2:41 pm Permalink

    yeah, the idea of two hyphens forming a quadri-hyphenater down the track is just mind-boggling-in-its-upper-class-silly-way.

    we’re a mum’s surname for the kid’s family, mostly because (a) i didn’t care; (b) i support re your critique of the patriarchy – as would engels; (c) most of the warringtons have shit reputations.

  17. admin
    11/01/2012 at 8:09 pm Permalink

    Hi Emma,
    Admire your name choice. My 3 daughters have my surname (any boys would have gotten their father’s, like Ms Dash.) The school frequently sends mail addresses to Mr and Mrs Osborne, even though they have his details with a different surname. this happens about 80% of the time the school has to use his name. He would get really offended until I pointed out it’s not him being insulted here – the school assumes that if I have the same surname as the kids and a still with the father the only possible explanation is that I have taken his name. How does that insult him? And why is it so hard to daughters have their mother’s name? I’d like to see a tradition of mother’s name to daughters, father’s name to sons.
    And for the man that wouldn’t feel connected without the kids having his name – what’s more important: sharing a surname or them calling you ‘Dad’? Saying ‘I love you’ while they hug you as tight as they can? Throwing themselves at you when you walk in the door after work? Crying in your arms after a fall? Feeling better after a fall because it was your arms they cried in? Putting your first grandchild in your arms and saying ‘There you go, Grandad.’?

  18. admin
    26/01/2012 at 8:25 pm Permalink

    Hi Emma,

    A really interesting article. If I ever have children I too would like the girls to take my name and the boys to take their father’s. Nice to see I’m not the only one who has had this thought!

    Agree with you on everything EXCEPT Hot Tub Time Machine. I loved that movie!

    Thanks for the good read,


  19. admin
    26/02/2012 at 4:25 pm Permalink

    Hi Emma,
    I’m really like the idea of taking nick names from beloved family members because your grandmothers maiden name is most often her fathers name isn’t it?
    Thanks T.

  20. admin
    03/11/2012 at 10:14 pm Permalink

    Well I believe that my spouse and I have single handedly risen above and beyond this nominative conundrum with a deft mind and spritely spirit. We simply contracted both of our surnames to create a brand spanking shiny new family name. To spell it out more clearly : He is a Rennie ( no way this was going to fly with the fruit of my loins!), myself a Fairhall….solution ? Our offspring are Fairen…..OK everyone sorted now? Thanks. Back to yor business then.


  1. [...] So apologies to Emma, and to everyone else for my lax fact-checking.  For more info about Emma’s name change ...

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