Name Calling

Call me Caitlyn. Call me Ishmael. Call me Irresponsible. Call me maybe. Don’t call me Shirley! But back to Caitlyn….

Jenner’s transformation is astonishing. The Vanity Fair cover is astonishing, as Jenner has been the physical representation of our cultural gender references for male and now, female. I couldn’t help but wonder if despite her phenomenal physicality and youthful appearance (and name), is Jenner showing her age by not showing her age in such an extraordinary manner?

First names go in and out of style (in America), with each generation. With cultural diversity, we have seen a dramatic shift in first names over the course of the last generation. Traditional anglo names are among a much broader array of names today. First names have traditionally been signifiers of gender, ethnicity, tradition, family, and sometimes era. Of course, we name others, except when we tweak our own name with a preferred nick-name.

Traditionally, a woman’s surname changed to her husband’s family name upon marriage. The surname identified the clan. The children would have the same surname as the father (and mother, until recently). This was always the assumption (until the1970s), with the exception of artists and performers. Even before the feminist movement of the 70s, women in show business kept their own last names. (Lucy Arnaz is the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Lucille Ball was not known as Lucy Arnaz!) The 70s brought hyphens and choices about names that were previously not mainstream. And of course, we were introduced to Ms.  Women didn’t have to be identified by marital status anymore—just like the guys.

For women, choosing a name for themselves (or keeping their birth names) was (is) empowering. Names became choice and autonomy, even when the choice is to share the spouse’s surname. It is not automatic anymore, just as a woman’s identity is more than a relation to a spouse (or lack thereof).

Our shameful history of denying and degrading cultural roots through assigning new names to slaves and to immigrants is important. Names have stories and significance and are choices—sometimes assigned; sometimes self generated. It is only in the last generation that we have seen tolerance for names (and recognized our cultural intolerance to cultural differences).

But we still judge names. Names are our credit. We still have associations that we make upon hearing/seeing names. We may be more tolerant, but we still form opinions (consciously or not) and/or have associations almost instantaneously upon hearing/seeing a name.

And gender identification (and what that may imply) is still very much a part of our encounter with the world. We may not realize the extent to which we experience the rest of the world in terms of gender. You may read articles differently, based on the writer’s name. I intentionally use a gender neutral name—Lou. I prefer to explore ideas as gender neutrally as possible. Gender informs our lives, but seeing beyond gender and our cultural constructs allows us to expand—to see beyond ourselves.

Back to Caitlyn….Jenner’s extraordinary transformation as seen on the cover of Vanity Fair with the headline, “Call Me Caitlyn”, was striking beyond the gender change. She identifies with the most girlish aspects of being female, and the most culturally retro. I understand that this is her debut, and of course the culturally feminine signposts are going to be accentuated, but I wonder if this is also somewhat generational. As we become more expansive of our understanding of gender, and the much broader experiences of gender over time, name calling will surely change more dramatically in future generations.

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