Kim Kardashian Is Changing Her Name, and Here's Why It May Be Okay
When the news broke that Kim Kardashian plans to take her third husband's name when she marries him, I wanted to judge her, and not just because that's what you do when reality TV stars make major life decisions, especially decisions involving Kanye West. I'm consistently mystified by my peers' overwhelming willingness to take their spouse's names. Have we forgotten that Western society doesn't ask men to give up their names? Or that the practice is a vestige of 19th century marriage, which stripped women of pretty much all autonomy and identity the day they married? And now Kim Kardashian has gone and normalized the whole deal even more.
The only problem with my righteous indignation was that I almost made the same decision, and I might still.
Growing up and in my early 20s, it never occurred to me that I’d change my name. Granted, it also didn't really occur to me that I would ever do something as serious and adult as hitch myself to another human being for the rest of our natural lives. Then I got engaged, and suddenly people asked the question. Would I do this thing that my mother and my fiancee’s mother and most of my friends’ mothers did, this thing that 92 percent of American women reportedly still do?
My years in women’s media served up the “correct” answer immediately: no. As logic problems go, this isn’t a tough one. Men don’t change their last names, so why should a woman not only relinquish the name she’s answered to and grown into for twenty or thirty years but take someone else’s? Expecting female humans to take their spouses’ names is a great way to communicate to women that they really are still property passed from their fathers to their husbands.
There was also the fact that I was marrying a woman, which would seem to automatically free us from any thought of adhering to this convention — but didn’t. We know married gay couples where one spouse has taken the other’s name. I imagine that they did so at least partly to celebrate that in some states we can finally participate an institution from which we were so long excluded. But that still didn’t feel like enough of a good reason.
Other objections occurred to me as well. I’ve built my career under my name. In the era of the personal brand, changing one’s name seems like a bad business decision even for those of us who aren’t Kardashians. Also, given current divorce rates, do you really want to give up your name when you walk down the aisle? I plan to be married to my wife forever, but I’m also a pragmatist. And while we’re talking about the longevity of marriage, it seems to me that a relationship is much more likely to endure if you each retain what makes you you, the personal history and family history and achievements that swirled together to create the distinct, independent being your spouse fell in love with. All those things happened under the name you were born with.
When I started getting asked if I was keeping my name, the strangest thing happened. It made no logical or professional or feminist sense … but I liked the idea of us having the same name. I suddenly felt this embarrassing, mushy desire to merge in this specific way. I wanted to demonstrate via a lasting, external marker that we belonged to each other, that we are each other’s family. I minded a little that I would be the one changing my name, but there was an excellent reason. Whereas my last name is boring and ubiquitous, she has a really, really good one, and she was willing to share it with me. And when you think about it, there's something generous about giving someone else your name. You wouldn't let just anyone wear it, right?
I didn’t end up changing my name, at least not yet. I looked into the logistics, and my Google research pointed to reams of paperwork which, even if filled out correctly, might still get me audited. I also decided I’d had enough change in the previous 14 months. We met, moved in together, got engaged and married in a little over a year. During that time, my role at work changed, we moved a second time, and we had a few health scares. It felt like too much to change my name, too. And I hadn’t forgotten all of my original objections to the whole practice.
If we’re lucky enough to have kids, they’ll take her name — I’m not going to deprive my spawn of a last name to rival all others, and hyphenation has always struck me as way too much effort. Maybe then I’ll take the plunge. Whatever I decide, though, I now understand better what could provoke so many other women to make the switch — even professional women in New York City, where no one questions the decision to keep your name, and even celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who more than anyone else are their names. Sometimes it’s not about caving to societal pressure — I don’t think anyone really expected this gay lady to change her name. Sometimes it’s not about appeasing your rapper fiance’s megalomania by allowing him to control every aspect of your life (although, TBD — it could be). Sometimes it’s just about that very human urge to be joined with the person you love most in a visible way.
My spouse has tolerated my ambivalence well, maybe because, to the extent that she thinks about it at all, she’s gone back and forth on the subject, too. A couple of months ago, she told me that she was glad that I kept my name — it reminds her that I had this whole life and career before her, that I’m my own person. More recently, she’s said that she likes the idea of me taking her family name. My response is usually, “We’ll see.”
A few days ago, not knowing I was writing this essay and searching for an ending, my wife texted me a photo of a piece of mail addressed to me. The sender, our insurance company, had mistakenly substituted her last name for mine.
The name on the envelope looked utterly unfamiliar but also summoned once again the warm feeling that complicated this decision in the first place. I have to admit, I didn’t hate it.