What’s In A Name?

I used to like my name in a modest way. My first name, that is; god, I’ve changed my last name so many times even I lose track of who I am now. But my first name: I liked it because it was simple, dignified, gender-appropriate without being prissy, and didn’t lend itself to being turned into a nickname. And the best part was: I was the only one I knew–when I was growing up anyway–who had my name. The thought of being one of a hundred other Susies or Debbies or Kathys made me sick to my stomach. After all, I didn’t have much going for me as a kid, so at least I had one thing that was unique about me.

Now you have to understand–if you haven’t already guessed–I come from a pretty WASPy background. Which means that there are just not a lot of names to go around, especially for girls. Unless you start digging ‘way back and come up with something like Grindell or Medusa. Probably so many girls are being given boys’ names these days because there are only so many good female names that don’t sound insipid. It’s hard to take a woman seriously when her name is Bambi or Gigi. Even Lisa or Michelle are suspect. You notice that the woman who plays Buffy goes by Sarah Michelle Gellar, right? Not just Sarah and definitely not Michelle. (And the joke about the name “Buffy” is that a girl with a name like that goes against type by being a vampire-slayer.)

I have a theory that you can predict how serious a career an actress is going to have by the name she uses (not necessarily the one she was born with). Or what kind of career she’s going to have, period. (Norma Jean Baker would never have had the career she had if she hadn’t become Marilyn Monroe, you know what I mean? Of course, that means the career wasn’t Norma Jean’s).

Think about it though: Meryl Streep, Ellen Burstyn, Reese Witherspoon, Halle Berry, Catherine Zeta-Jones (that Zeta makes all the difference in the world), Annette Benning, Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as her mother, Blythe Danner, well, you get the idea. There are probably a few reasons why Demi Moore’s career hasn’t stayed a steady course, but I can’t help but think that her name has been at the bottom of at least one of them, either because of how she sees herself, or how others see her. (And I notice that she and Bruce named at least two of their three daughters totally gender-neutral names: Rumer and Scout. How they came up with Talullah, I’ll never know.)

You might ask me, “What about Goldie Hawn?” And I would answer, “I rest my case.” Bette Midler instead of Betty, Sigourney Weaver, and even Meg Ryan did the right thing to go with Meg and not Margaret, Peggy or Maggie. (No offense, Ms. Smith; you’ve obviously risen above both your names!) But I’m going to make a prediction here: Goldie’s daughter is not going to be Ms. Hepburn’s professional namesake (especially because she goes by Kate instead of the regal ‘Katherine’). Cate Blanchett bypassed the problem by spelling it like the cat (with an ‘e’).

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