Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s new name is not a feminist statement – quite the opposite
Tradition isn’t something we should hold on to, it is something we should strike through and discard
What’s in a name? Well – it turns out – rather a lot, dear Bill.
Names are political. So much so that blind CVs are being suggested for the interview process, to avoid the possibility that gender or ethnicity influence prospective employers. And we know that they do. A 2003 study now widely known as the Heidi/Howard test saw business students presented with the story of a successful entrepreneur. Half of them were told that the story belonged to someone named Howard and half, Heidi. Participants were then asked to judge the entrepreneur according to several criteria. Heidi was assessed as being significantly less likeable – even “selfish”.
In an age of social media, our names have become even more charged. Brand names such as Coca-Cola are coveted, trademarked, instantly recognisable. In 2016 Patti Smith threatened legal action after a jumper brand used her name on their products without consent. Taylor Swift has even trademarked her cats’ names.
So, when actor Priyanka Chopra was widely celebrated across the internet this week for the romantic act of taking her husband’s name upon marriage, merging with Nick Jonas to become Priyanka Chopra Jonas on her Instagram account, while her husband’s name remains unaltered on his, excuse me if I don’t join the celebrations.
“I’m a little traditional like that,” Chopra Jonas told Jimmy Fallon. “But I don’t take away my identity. He gets added to who I am.” The latter statement was met with cheers from the live audience.
Does the 36-year-old’s identity really remain unchanged? Not quite. For now, the actor is a wife; immediately identifiable by her marital name and the unity she wears through it. One almost wonders why she bothered to double barrel her name at all if her husband seemingly hasn’t done so. Why not simply just take his?
There’s no shame in taking your husband’s surname when you marry. It’s understandable that people coming together in marriage want a public symbol of their unity, but it does serve as a stark reminder of the patriarchal origins of marriage. For while Chopra Jonas sees her new name as a romantic gesture, something steeped in so-called “tradition”, it brings to question once again this icky business of marital name-changing. Somehow, as a society, we can’t seem to move past it.
It’s logical for a couple to share a surname. For what happens if they want children? Whose surname then? The man’s of course, or the compromise of double-barrelling at a stretch. Yes, people would rather sound like a Parker-Bowels or a Money-Coutts than simply decide diplomatically upon one. And this only serves to postpone the inevitable, palming the decision off on the kids. Do offspring then opt for a triple-barrelled? Goodness, imagine explaining that to the Post Office. Whatever the decision, somehow, miraculously, the idea of embracing the woman’s surname rarely crops up.
A 2016 YouGov poll found that 61 per cent of men would like women to adopt their surnames upon marriage, compared with just 12 per cent who would be happy for her to retain her maiden name. Another 2011 survey saw half of respondents say it should be a legal requirement for a woman to adopt her husband’s surname upon marriage.
But isn’t it high time we moved on from women having to relinquish their identities in the name of “tradition”? How far are we willing to go in the name of so-called tradition, anyway? Why stop at surnames and requesting a daughter’s hand? Women “traditionally” didn’t own property. Oh, so cute! Let’s go back to then. “Traditionally” women didn’t vote. Fantastic, think of how we could have saved all that suffragette fuss, had we just favoured tradition. It’s not “traditional” for women to be actors, to wear trousers, to be prime minister. No, tradition isn’t something we should hold on to, it is something we should strike through and discard.
The history of women taking their husbands’ surnames is steeped in misogyny; based upon the exchange of a woman for a dowry. In fact, this “tradition” originated during the Norman conquest when the idea of coverture meant women had no surname at all until marriage when they became their husband’s property. Oh, tradition, so quaint! Some first-wave feminists fought hard to maintain their names, battling to simply be recognised as autonomous beings. Choice permitting, it feels remiss to ignore the work of our fore-sisters.
And while most Western women acquire their surnames from their fathers, making them one in a string of male lineage that has been passed down from generation to generation, it is the names we can control that we should take a stand against.
The law has a long way to go to catch up. Still today, in an age when same-sex marriage is finally legal, we seem unable to shake off this heteronormative custom. It remains significantly easier for a woman to change her name legally after marriage (just send a letter and all is done) than a man to (deed poll). When it comes to travelling, women whose surnames don’t match those of their children have a whale of a time at border control. Altering passports and carrying a marriage (or divorce) certificate can be – understandably – necessary.
The number of men who are willing to change their names is paltry. “I tried to talk him out of it,” said actor Zoe Saldana when she spoke of her husband Marco (nee Perego) taking her surname. “I told him: ‘If you use my name, you’re going to be emasculated by your community of artists, by your Latin community of men, by the world.’ Marco looks up at me and says: ‘Ah, Zoe, I don’t give a s**t’.’”
When a woman takes her husband’s surname she is romantic, honourable, unifying the family bond. When a man does the same he is emasculated – a social pariah.
But change will only happen with a push – we’ve seen this to be true. So, just as female quotas on boards could signal a rocket up the corporate arse, wouldn’t it be nice if men started to take their wives’ surnames? Who knows, maybe it would kick-start an age in which women are no longer chattel-defined by their marital status, but instead by their individuality. Now wouldn’t that be romantic.