The Fault in Our Feminism

Pink woman paper chain dolls on blue background
Pink woman paper chain dolls on blue background

In case you've just come out from under your rock, earlier this month George Clooney married the lovely Amal Alamuddin in Italy.

You might remember George Clooney from the television series ER, his numerous movie roles and his reputation for being a bachelor, but let's focus on Amal Alamuddin. She's a lawyer who specializes in international law, criminal law, human rights and extradition. One of her clients is Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. She speaks Arabic, English and French. Essentially, she's a boss if ever there was one, and she'd probably have her own freakin' holiday if she hadn't ruined everyone's deepest George Clooney fantasies when she said "I do."

But since these two have begun their wedded bliss, Amal's darkest secret has been revealed: She's a bad feminist. I'm sure you're wondering how such a successful, worldly woman could be a bad feminist. Well, I'll enlighten you: She changed her last name to Clooney.

Isn't that a shame? Right when we thought we might have a new shining example of an empowered, educated woman, she throws it all away with Carrie Bradshawian frivolity. She may as well have tattooed "Property of Clooney" on her forehead. You do know that's what that means, don't you? She's George's property now. All the accomplishments of Amal Alamuddin are nil; they've been erased because she's Amal Clooney now. She's practically got one shoe off and is well on her way to being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

Look, I (along with Amal Clooney and countless other women) am totally aware that the tradition of a woman taking her husband's last name has some pretty disgusting origins. What's more, I'm sure there are people out there, both men and women, who still vehemently believe that once a woman gets married she "belongs" to her husband and should take his name accordingly because "that's the tradition, and it's just what's done." That perspective certainly has the potential to be troubling, but since it is 2014 and many educated, successful, independent women still choose to take their spouse's last name, does citing the origins of why women originally took their husband's names accomplish anything more than making all the women who have since decided to change their names feel like blithering idiots?

We don't have to pretend for one second that the concept of ownership isn't how this name-taking tradition got started, but when a woman takes her husband's last name instead of keeping her own or hyphenating, could we stop pulling the "You made yourself into property!" card as if we know everything about her relationship? I mean, why is that okay? It sounds like the unsolicited, assholish remark that would get you blacklisted at a party: "Hey uh, I don't know if you know this, but you willingly became a possession when you changed your name. Just thought you should know that." Please don't tell me it's informative or educational -- it's really just rude. It's bullying. It's making someone feel guilty about a decision they made just so you can feel powerful and Right for a few minutes.

I can find no legitimate reason for anyone to be upset that Amal Alamuddin decided to become Amal Clooney, and I'm enraged that anyone would think it's acceptable to leverage her career as proof she had all the makings of being a good feminist until she made the unforgivable faux pas of changing her name. Forgive me, but I don't think women should make every life decision while being a "good feminist" is top of mind. That's not how feminism works. I can only speak for myself, but I have no interest in looking to a WWFD? bracelet during the turbulent moments of life when my reputation as a feminist might be at stake. Maybe I don't get it, and if I don't, maybe I don't want to, but my feminism is the kind that says as a woman, when you make decisions about your life for yourself, you're feministing correctly.

I don't know why Amal changed her last name, and that's none of anyone's business but hers, but I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt and say that unless George pressured her into using an arm wrestling contest to decide whether she takes his last name, Amal's decision to become Amal Clooney was probably one she arrived at all by herself. Maybe she went back and forth about it. Maybe she didn't like the fact "mud" was in her last name for all those years. Maybe she wants consistency on their Christmas cards. Maybe she wants to have the same last name as her future children. Maybe she always planned on taking her husband's name when she got married. Maybe they agreed to flip a coin, she called tails, and she lost. It doesn't matter how trivial or profound the process of reaching this decision was - -what's important is that as long as it's one Amal is comfortable with, it's all gravy.

As someone who writes on the Internet, I totally understand that a name can become important; it becomes part of your personal brand. If you're a recognized expert in your chosen field, a published author, a well-known celebrity, etc. changing your name could put you at risk for losing some of that esteem or exposure. But does that mean your name is your identity? That's a scary thought. If my identity is Katherine Hoffman, my identity is pretty damn common. Obviously, our names shape our world in so many ways (they often inspire our Twitter handles!), but I truly don't believe someone's name is crucial to them being who they are. I like to think that even if I was Harriet Dinglehopper or Niamh Edamame, I'd still be me; I just happen to call being me "Katie" to alleviate confusion. Does that make sense? I'd have the same values, the same accomplishments under my belt, and the same outlook, I'd just have a different name. If there's ever been a time to use this cliché: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

So she isn't known as Amal Alamuddin anymore (though actually Alamuddin is still part of her name, Clooney just follows it), does that mean she stopped being a successful lawyer? No, no it does not. It means she's a successful lawyer who's decided to go by Amal Clooney now.

You know what else I've noticed about all the buzz about Amal's name change? People seem to feel the most betrayed because she's a lawyer. She's empowered. How could such an intelligent woman change her last name like some jobless stay at home mom? She should know better! Like, this entire conversation is low-key dismissive of women who might not be as accomplished as Amal. I guess these particular feminists expect women in entry-level jobs who didn't go to college to take their husbands' names, but not those Amal types who are supposed to be leading the way! Whether it's intentional or not, that's the comment that's being made, and it's pretty gross. Why, in the context of some feminist outlooks, does changing your last name imply that you're dumb or willing to cower in your husband's shadow?

We shouldn't let anyone make a woman feel like she's an inferior or uncommitted wife because she doesn't take her husband's last name. By the same token, we shouldn't let anyone make a woman feel uneducated or naïve when she does decide to change her name.

You don't have to keep your maiden name to be a "good feminist." This isn't a race. If you want to keep your last name because it's yours, you like it, or your spouse's last name is something weird like sh*t, do you! Keep it! If you decide you want to take your spouse's name? Go for it! You don't need to justify either of those preferences any more than you need to justify why you deserve equal pay.

You know what seems patently unfeminist (unkind, and just generally narrow-minded) to me? Looking at another woman's decisions from your own perspective and dismissing them. If anything, that poses a bigger threat to feminism than Amal Alamuddin becoming Amal Clooney. This breed of finger-pointing feminism is what alienates people. It's the kind that gets trivialized by men and women alike. Blaming and shaming is not what feminism about -- it's about understanding that you may not agree with the decisions of other women, but you respect their ability to make their own choices.