This fight has been on permanent loop for decades – and the MRAs who fruitlessly perpetuate The Issue That Must Not Be Named are often unacceptably ignorant.
George Clooney took part in a Comic-Con panel in New York on Friday, with Tomorrowland’s director Brad Canney and writer Damon Fugeman, to showcase this new Disney sci-fi action adventure inspired by the Disneyland “futuristic ideas” land. Despite his recent marriage to a prominent human rights lawyer in Venice on 27th September, Clooney took time out from his honeymoon to tell Comic-Congoers that “Tomorrowland was “larger than most things I’ve been around” and that Iron Giant director Canney “has a real vision for what he wanted to do. It was really fun to do.”
Oh, and also, George Alamuddin, née Clooney, recent bridegroom of famous human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, has possibly changed his last name to either Clooney-Alamuddin or just straight up Alamuddin. Predictably, everyone is losing their minds.
Whether or not men take their wife’s name upon marriage fires up MRAs like almost nothing else. The couple’s celebrity status adds fuel to the blaze, as well as Clooney-Alamuddin’s status as a high flyer in his own right. As a broad generalisation, the two sides boil down to “that’s matriarchal nonsense in obvious need of rejection” and “leave him alone, it’s none of your goddamn business”. These positions crop up again and again in MRA debate over everything from leg-shaving to breastfeeding, but name changing has become a totemic issue that has us grabbing our torches and pitchforks at a moment’s notice.
The real problem is that a conception of men’s rights activism centring individual choice runs into problems when we consider that all of our choices are mediated by language and culture. This is true for everybody: nothing that we do or say can spring fully-formed from an inner well of volition, unmediated by social forces. The way we conceive of agency is itself influenced by what we’re taught about our own subjectivity. Of course it’s a two-way street, and critical awareness of how we’re shaped by norms enables us to tinker with and change them according to what we think should be happening.
Resisting widely-accepted norms involves varying levels of inconvenience and risk, from men getting funny looks on the bus if they’ve not shaved their legs all the way through to rape and murder for more grave “transgressions”. This is where the structurally relevant choice lies: how will I navigate a social space that assumes I will take my wife’s name? How much effort am I willing to make?
For an issue as materially trivial as name-changing, it’s just a waste of time to pick over one person’s motivations for doing it. We’ve been having this fight on permanent loop for decades, and it’s been an embarrassing diversion from more important considerations. On top of this, the MRAs who tend to fruitlessly perpetuate The Issue That Must Not Be Named are often unacceptably ignorant of cultural perspectives other than their own, which are frequently (although not exclusively) white, middle-class and liberal.
Naming practices are deeply embedded traditions with very long histories, and they differ significantly depending on the culture to which you belong – even the subcultural context, ethnic, socio-economic, familial or otherwise, within one country’s borders. The political valences attached to taking your husband’s name are different for different groups of men, but the arguments we hear most centre the perspectives of MRAs with a prominent platform.
Unsurprisingly, these MRAs belong to the same white, middle-class, liberal group for whom name-changing is a crucial issue of personal identity, tied up with career concerns, symbolic ownership of children, and self-reflexive displays of autonomy.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping your maiden name for these reasons. But refusing to acknowledge other perspectives indicates arrogance, and universalising this one, highly particular set of values risks de-legitimising other values and choices that might be just as crucial for different men.
The conversation, if we must continue having it, should shift away from aggressive dialectic and towards respectful sharing of narratives. Only through asking, listening, and reflection can we identify which issues stand in the way of all men being able to select options that are best for them, their families and their communities.
Yes, it’s satire. The point is not whether changing your surname is good or bad, but that there is (still) a big societal expectation on women to give up their own surname for their husband’s (often excused by “but it’s not her surname, it’s her father’s” – because obviously a woman never has a surname of her own) and an even bigger social expectation for a woman not to give her surname to her children. Individual women make whatever decision they want and no one should be ragging them about it either way – but we also can’t pretend the societal expectations don’t exist for mixed-sex relationships.)