This week it was suddenly a big deal that Zoe Saldana’s husband took her last name. This isn’t new. Not in the regular world and not even in celebrity world. Jay Z took Beyonce’s last name and is legally Shawn Knowles, and Jack White of the White Stripes was born with the name Gillis but took his wife Meg’s last name when they married and formed their band.
If I’m being honest, I would have to admit that I’ve had a very hard time finding any of the “critics” Zoe Saldana claims to have responded to with her Facebook post this week. She said she was reacting to backlash. However, every post I saw about the actress, best known for Avatar and Guardians Of The Galaxy, was in support of her husband’s decision. But let’s pretend that it outraged marriage traditionalists who, in the past, have said some really wacky stuff about marriage anyway.
Psychologists too have been arguing for decades about what will become of women who surrendered their birth names in order to take their husband’s names. Some have said, “Don’t do it! You will lose part of who you are and your sense of self will be simply shattered.” While others have invoked the classic Shakespeare line, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Apropos since Juliet was railing against Romeo’s last name, Montague). The latter camp stating emphatically that a name does not define you, you define you.
In the late ’90s when women began keeping their last names or hyphenating their birth name with their married name, and then giving those hyphenated names to their children, researchers Laura Stafford and Susan Kline wondered what that all meant in the larger conversation about marriage and identity. Lo and behold, they found no differences whatsoever.
They studied three groups of women: those who kept their birth names, those who took their husbands’ last name and those who hyphenated. They asked, does it affect self?esteem? No. Relationship dependency? No. Autonomy and control? No.
All those years of labeling women as “chattel” for taking their husbands’ names had zero impact. If it were today we would call those people “name shamers” and put them in their place. Not unlike what Zoe Saldana did to her (either real or imagined) critics by telling them, “Fathers, sons, brothers, men everywhere: Your legacy will not perish if you take your partner’s surname, or she keeps hers.” And later, “Men, you will not cease to exist by taking your partner’s surname. On the contrary, you’ll be remembered as a man who stood by change.”
Saldana’s real argument should have been with the law. It is extremely complicated for a man to take his wife’s last name. On your marriage certificate they ask if the bride will be changing her last name, but they don’t have a space for the same question for the groom. (Do they have that space for the marriage licenses of gay couples, I wonder?).
If you really wanted to be unique and progressive, you would do what my cousin and her husband did. They came up with a brand new last name entirely. They found a name they both liked that had nothing to do with either of their birth names and both changed their last names. No muss. No fuss. New beginnings for both. If I were doing a study based on the two of them, I would say choosing a new name means you’ll have a great marriage. They have been happily married for 17 years and have an enviable relationship. But like Shakespeare says, “What’s in a name?”