Do me a favour, yeah? Next time a straight couple tells you they’re getting married, would you mind turning to the gentleman in the pairing and asking him: “So… are you planning to keep your surname?” Go on, I dare you. I double-dare you. Ask him, in a cheery tone, whether he plans to take his wife’s name. Watch his reaction, then pop back here and let me know in the comments how that went.
I have strong feelings about marriage and names, but because I’m not planning on getting married myself, it feels like I’m overstepping if I have these opinions out loud. Why should I care if a woman takes her husband’s name when they’re married? It’s not as if I’m ever going to have to struggle with the obstacles that come in the form of angry families-in-law who want to ‘continue the line’ or sexists making pathetic jokes about ‘who wears the trousers’ if we end up picking my surname instead of his. Because of this, my opinions on surname changes when straight couples get married have languished in my drafts folder for well over a year. When it comes to individual couples, their choices are none of my business, so I do not offer these opinions to the women I love, nor to the men whose surnames have replaced theirs. It would be rude.
And yet… that doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion at all. After all, when people ask me why I’m not keen on getting married, the name thing is right up there in my top three reasons for saying ‘I don’t.’
Elsa Pataky and her husband
Yesterday, as I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter far too close to bedtime, I spotted this headline: “Chris Hemsworth Explained Why His Wife Hasn’t Changed Her Name“. In the article, we are told that:
“Elsa Pataky and Chris Hemsworth have been together since 2010, but fans have wondered why, after nearly a decade and three children together, Pataky hasn’t changed her name. Hemsworth shed some light onto the situation during an appearance on Australia’s The Kyle and Jackie O Show on Sunday that it’s just something that didn’t work out because of the family’s travel schedule.”
Why the everloving fuck have ‘fans’ been asking this question? Why do they care? Why is Elsa Pataky expected to justify doing something (i.e. keeping her surname after marriage) that men do every single fucking day without anyone raising so much as an eyebrow?
Sorry to put it in such tediously simple terms, but this is fucked up.
And oh God yes of course, before people pop below the line to angrily smash the word CORONAVIRUS into the comments, I know that this is not the most fucked up thing in the world right now. There are many many more important issues to care about than whether or not a celebrity takes her husband’s name, but I am living in these Weird Times too and I am trembling with relief and pleasure to have something that makes me feel something – anything – that isn’t All That Horror. Besides, when we are eventually allowed out to play again, there may be a fair few weddings. I hope there are, at any rate. When I’m out of here, I will hunger for joy and cake and friends and love and dancing. And if they’re straight weddings, I want to remember this Hemsworth/Pataky thing so I can nudge the lucky groom at some point before the big day and ask him: “Are you planning to keep your surname?”
Please be upstanding for Mr and Mrs Hisname!
At straight weddings, I am the irritating second cousin/sister/niece who waits with bated breath as the couple signs the register, listening out for what – to me – is the most affecting part of the service. When everything’s done and dusted, and the couple have said their vows, as they turn to walk back down the aisle the registrar usually announces:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for… Mr and Mrs Hisname!”
Occasionally I’ve been to straight weddings where they announce ‘Mr Hisname and Mrs Hername’, and it gives me a little burst of joy. Likewise ‘Mr and Mrs Hername!’, which is delightful and refreshing.
This moment in itself is interesting. It is a moment born of individual choice, sure, but it is also influenced by expectation and societal pressure. The choice as to whose name you go by once you’re married is yours, of course, but it is not an apolitical one.
Marriage as a public declaration
When I talk to friends about getting married, there are usually lots of reasons why they’ve chosen marriage specifically rather than a co-habiting partnership. Practical reasons like ‘we have certain rights as a married couple’ mingle with fun reasons like ‘we want to feel more like a team.’ On top of that, I often hear this:
‘We want to make a public declaration of our love/intent to be together/dedication/commitment/etc.’
This is cool, and I get it. I would love to be able to make a public declaration of my commitment to my other half, if only to save relatives from treating him like he’s something temporary just because we haven’t tied the knot. I’d rather not get married, of course, but I’m not ruling it out entirely because I’m a people-pleasing little fucker and my other half might one day decide he wants to. Yes, I am literally willing to publicly declare against my own principles if it would make my dude happy, so I can fully understand where women who take their husband’s name are coming from, even if their reason is just ‘he wants me to do it.’
But if your marriage itself is a public declaration then the choices you make about how you get married are surely public statements too. If your marriage says something important about your relationship, then it’s tricky to see how a name change isn’t a public statement too: it says something. And it will keep saying that something long after everyone’s polished off the wedding cake.
If your marriage is your declaration that you’re a ‘team’, there will be many who interpret ‘Hisname’ as an indication that he’s the team leader. If I were to take my partner’s name, even if I did it only because I hate my surname (which I do), it would be impossible for people to tell that that’s the reason I did it. How does the telesales rep know it when they ask for ‘Mrs Hisname’ on a call? How do my nephews and nieces know, when they hear the registrar announce it as I walk back down the aisle? On an individual level, this may not matter, but on the grand scale I think it does. It matters in the same way all our wedding traditions matter – they send a message that this is the way things are, with the implication that they’re the way things should be. It matters because Chris Hemsworth fans are apparently still asking why Elsa Pataky hasn’t changed her surname.
If you genuinely believe that surnames don’t matter then again, I dare you: ask an engaged straight man if he’s planning on keeping his.
If you love me you’ll do admin
On a practical level, changing names has an impact. Where there are straight couple ‘traditions’, you can usually bet that those traditions will come with a lot of extra unpaid labour for women: everything from doing the housework to remembering social engagements, writing Christmas cards and maintaining relationships (even with HIS friends and family!), household budgeting, childcare, the whole shebang. Same goes with the ‘tradition’ of women taking their husbands name when they marry – she’ll have to contact every official place where her name is on record and jump through administrative hoops to erase her old name and replace it with the new. One more task for the ‘you’re a woman, suck it up’ to-do list.
In the article about Elsa Pataky and her husband, the reason he cited for her not having changed her name ‘yet’ was that they “were living in Europe and deciding where to go. It was a complication of passports and so on.” Damn right it’s complicated. Getting your literal passport changed is a pain in the arse. Add to that bank accounts, driving license, school documentation if you have children, and every other micro-thing that you’ll have forgotten until four months after the wedding… yeah. It’s a lot. Not to mention the fact that if you get divorced she may have to change it all back or even – fun! – keep her ex-husband’s surname long after the split, in order to maintain consistency for any kids that may currently still be in school. My Mum kept her married name on all the school documents, because she didn’t want to repeatedly have to field questions, post-divorce, about why her surname was different from those of her children.
So when straight men want their wives to take their surnames, I agree that it’s a personal choice. It’s not something that I – or anyone outside the couple – should get to decide on their behalf. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. After all, ‘fans’ of Elsa Pataky and her husband have apparently been questioning why she still has her own name, and if people who are aggressively defending patriarchal traditions are allowed to stick their oars in, I think it’s only fair that I get to
sever the end of those oars with a chainsaw have my say too.
Men: are you planning to keep your surname?
I know a straight couple who tried to turn things on their head: he was going to take her surname when they married. To them it seemed like a nice way to keep that ‘same name’ tradition while challenging the status quo. Sadly, as is so often the case, the status quo didn’t want to be challenged: his family kicked off. And I mean Kicked Off, with all the capitals and screaming rows and ‘I can’t believe she would try to destroy our lineage!’s implied therein. What seemed to the couple like a neat idea seemed to his family like the end of the world – a terrible slight. A grotesque insult. In the end, this couple decided that the hassle wasn’t worth it, and she took his name instead.
Perhaps this is why I feel so strongly about this. Why I don’t think individual choice can be pried apart from the public message you’re sending if you, as a man, ask your wife to take your surname. Whatever your personal reasons are for doing it, those reasons are rarely ever heard – you don’t get to explain in detail why, to everyone at the wedding and everyone your wife ever speaks to as Mrs Hisname, that you’ve considered the patriarchal implications and made this decision for reasons of teamwork and because your name just rolled more neatly off the tongue. And because you don’t get to explain this to everyone, your personal choice will continue to feed into the idea that this is ‘how it’s done’. Your personal choice is never going to be as apolitical as you want, as long as people keep asking Chris Pataky (sorry, Chris Hemsworth. Oh, did you not take her name Chris? What a brave choice, good on you!) why Elsa Pataky has not changed her name.
You might not care what other people think. You might think your personal choice is what’s important here and all the rest is nitpicking. I get it. And I want to highlight that I’m certainly not telling women what to do with their own fucking names, because then I become as bad as the people who tell you you ‘must’ take someone else’s. Already I am feeling nervous about this post, because I wrote a significant chunk of it well over a year ago, long before this global pandemic hit, when I still cared about stuff other than some tiny virus that’s fucking up all of our lives. I am only publishing it today because – have I mentioned this? – it feels so fucking good to be able to wallow in something different that pisses me off. Something which feels innocent and silly and tiny compared to the horror that’s raging outside. I am slipping into a warm bath of this problem, to temporarily distract my brain from that one. Bliss.
So I’m not going to tell any woman what she should or shouldn’t do with her name. I am not going to tell you that if you’re a feminist, you should consider using your wedding day to tip the scales slightly and demonstrate to younger women that they don’t need to erase their identity when they partner up with a dude. Apart from anything else, it is enraging that those who usually get blamed/questioned over this are women themselves, who may already be exhausted from struggling to try and keep one of the most basic and fundamental things about their identity. By the point at which some twat says ‘are you keeping your name?’ or ‘are you changing your name?’ she may already have dealt with hours of debate on that exact topic, and having yet another one – in which she’s forced into carrying either responsibility for patriarchal traditions, or the quest of smashing those traditions into dust – is yet another huge pile of emotional labour for her to carry. I’ve just spent the last 20 minutes re-editing this post to pull focus onto the husbands who ask their wives to change their names, rather than the wives who agree to do it: blaming women for patriarchal traditions is thoroughly baked in to everything, even my own words and work. Depressing.
I’m not going to tell women what to do. But I do think it’s important to challenge our traditions, and discuss why they can be harmful. That’s why I dare you, right now, to commit to asking the straight guys in your life about marriage and names. When the next straight engagement is announced (and I hope there’ll be many after lockdown) please ask the gentleman if he’s planning on keeping his name. If he brushes it off or tells you names don’t matter, or that it’s ‘only a little thing’ for his fiancée to change hers, or that it’s ‘tradition’ or ‘teamwork’ or any one of a dozen other reasons that are usually cited as ways to diminish the significance of what society’s asking of women… challenge him. Ask whether, if a name change is no big deal, he is willing to do it himself.
Stop asking Chris Hemsworth why his wife won’t take his surname, and instead ask: why not take hers?