On the Beyonce Carter furore: Em Kuntze asks, “what’s in a name?”
Last night, on a whim and at an hour much less sensible than practical, I whipped up a steamed pudding and then proceeded to scoff down half of the sugary treat. Three hours later I was lying in bed, deeply uncomfortable (that’ll be month eight of pregnancy for you) and about as far from sleep than it is possible to get.
Naturally I did whatever any sane insomniac would do and went downstairs to catch up on some current affairs. All done with kings under car parks, gay marriage reform and Chris Huhne, I noticed something curious. Several news outlets had developed a sudden, rabid obsession with Mrs Carter and, boy, were they ticked off.
The woman in question here, I should clarify, is not the wife of the 39th US President, but rather – if we are to believe these think pieces – The Artist Formally Known As Beyonce. Controversy [apparently] abounds that she has launched her new touring schedule under the moniker The Mrs Carter Tour. “How dare she?”, screech various columnists; “what a betrayal of the sisterhood!” How hypocritical that she should expunge the virtues of being self sufficient (“I bought it!”), independent and self assured (“if you like it then you should have put a ring on it”), make her fortune and then suddenly throw it all away for a life of marital subservience? What cheek!
It may have been the hour, the sugar or lord knows what, but as the calendar flipped over to another day, I got to thinking about this perennially thorny issue of names, identity, marriage and, by extension, coverture.
Really, with regards to Ms Knowles, Mrs Carter, “the bootilicious one” or whatever you want to call her, I think feminism is hardly the issue here. Does anyone really believe that naming your tour thus is anything other than a clever marketing ploy, designed to exploit the current fervour for family life and babies (don’t see it? Check out any tabloid mag – there’s a baby epidemic simmering away). Let me be clear. Beyonce is neither insisting that people refer to her by her husband’s name (which, let’s face it, isn’t the moniker he’s best known for, either) nor has she formally taken it as her own. Surely it’s just a bit of fun, hinting at a different side to her public persona than her erstwhile image as strong single gal? Certainly maintaining the Single Lady alter ego in the light of her burgeoning family life would be more philosophically troubling. Wouldn’t it?
What these editorials really wanted to talk about, you see, was not so much the issue of her tour title, but the more commonplace tradition of adopting the husband’s name after marriage. Now we were getting to the heart of the matter. Let’s leave Beyonce out of it.
I have no truck with people keeping their own names or taking their spouse’s. It really doesn’t matter, does it? What I think bothers me is the assumption that the latter should be “the norm”. As one of these Lucy Stoners (and no, I don’t mean that Charlie Brown’s nemesis has developed a pot habit) I’m more concerned that we’re all going along with the status quo for no good reason save historical and administrative convenience without giving adequate thought to our own feelings on the subject.
Assuming the same name after marriage is hardly a given. It is not necessarily found universally (not, for example and to name a few – in generalities of course – in Arabic-speaking countries, Cambodia, [traditionally in] China and in Greece – although here a woman may informally be known by her husband’s name, officially she may well keep her own) and isn’t always done along the male line – traditional matrilineal name adoption was commonplace in Sweden, some parts of China amongst others.
I have friends who gave the ink of their marriage certificates a helping blow to dry, so keen are they to shimmy along the name changing protocol. They refer to themselves as “The Future Mrs –” and couldn’t be happier. I find this giddily endearing.
I also have a couple of friends who, when they married took each other’s names (with the additional of a hyphen, of course) rather than strike one from the records. I find this incredibly sweet.
If a name is just a name is just a name, then what’s the big deal? None, some would say. It hardly matters – your surname is, after all probably one your mother adopted at her marriage, thus betraying her own feminist proclivities, if that’s your line of thinking. Identity is transitory and fleeting at best. But, of course it does matter: “because it is my name! Because I’ll never have another”, as cried John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Our names are our selves, whichever ones we chose.
For me, I took the decision to keep my name because the identity I’d forged with it was long fought and heartfelt. It might not be any more authentically “me” than had I taken my mother’s maiden name or my husband’s surname, but having spent the foremost thinking years of my life mulling over the issue, it did seem to make the most sense to me. I like to think this is as equally endearing, sweet and thoughtful as either of the other two options, but certainly no more morally courageous or superior.
Occasionally I have to call up more traditional relatives and explain to them – deeply embarrassed – that I can’t cash the cheque or sign for the parcel because my surname is not the same as my husband’s, so yes, I understand that holding on to a separate name can be inconvenient, but since when should inconvenience be a legitimate reason for not doing something?
So, Mrs Carter. In truth I really don’t give a monkey’s about your tour name, in fact truth be told I find it almost homely of you, you decidedly un-homely specimen. Angry feminists take a breath, and let her be. She can’t be a Single Lady forever, especially with a conspicuously present small child and husband (thank you Instagram). A transitionary use of her husband’s name is hardly a transgression worthy of so many column inches (for which now I must plead similarly guilty) and not really a transgression at that. No doubt we’ll be having the same discussion when cutesy little Blue Ivy Carter marries John Smith twenty or thirty years down the line and you know what? I can almost guarantee the issue of what name she should take will not be presented as a choice between Carter or Knowles, as it will be between Carter and Smith. Just sayin’.