Saturday, November 26, 2011

What's in Two Names?

Lately, I've been watching the 1948 Superman movie serial (a series of 15 episodes that were shown weekly in theaters prior to full-length movies). I could probably do a series of blog posts on how media from the post-World War II era compares to media today and how shifts in media reflect societal shifts. But today I will limit myself to one observation.

Consider this list of characters from the 1948 serial: Brock, Conrad, Hackett, Graham, Leeds, and Morgan. By way of comparison, here is a list of characters from three consecutive episodes from season three of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, a TV series from the 1990s: Lucille Newtrich, Leigh-Anne Stipanovic, Donald Rafferty, Steve Law, Hank West, Lisa Rockford, and Skip Wallace. A subtle change, but it says a lot about how society changed in a half century.

Having read a lot of 19th Century (and prior) literature, I can clearly see that the '48 iteration of Superman's adventures are rooted in a then-longstanding literary tradition. The titular characters of novels may have been afforded special treatment, but by what name do we know the sidekick of Sherlock Holmes? Who did Elizabeth Bennett fall in love with? And in The Scarlet Letter, I don't think Dimmesdale was the character's first name.

Never mind heroes, it's interesting to also consider the nomenclature of villains. Dimmesdale had Chillingworth to cotend with. When Lex Luthor was first introduced in comic books, his first couple appearances he was known simply as "Luthor." Think of the most iconic cinematic villains of the last 30 years: Freddy Krueger and Hannibal Lecter are referenced by their first names.

Female characters, usually not as prominent as males in the older narratives, are another interesting case. As supporting characters they tended to be affixed with last names and a prefix (think of Mrs. Olsen in Little House on the Prairie), while main characters were usually afforded either first name status, or full name references (Elizabeth Bennett, Hester Prynne, Lois Lane). To fully examine the implications of these practices would require a separate post, but suffice it to say that at the same time women were attempting to carve out identities separate from men, their status in narratives was curiously both conforming to and resisting societal norms.

And also of interest, children were the one demographic group that was completely free of the burdens of a family name. Tom Sawyer famously clung to his childhood fantasies in Mark Twain's portrayals. But why should we grow up and face reality as long as people were still calling him "Tom"? Only when he became "Sawyer" to his peers would he feel the expectation to act accordingly.

Fascinatingly, the situation today, particularly among males, is completely reversed. When one first makes an acquaintance in adulthood, unless the situation dictates a high level of formality, the principles are most likely to address each other by first names. But among children and particularly among adolescents and young adults, the last name is usually the preferred means of address. What does this mean?

First, we need to consider why the general shift occurred, why in 1948 Superman interacted with people known exclusively by their surnames and in 1995 he was dealing with people with two names. It may be an easy, knee-jerk reaction to blame solipsism, to claim that society has shifted from the mindset of filial obligation and self-denial to an era of me-first entitlement. But given that this shift in narrative practice occurred at precisely the same time that the Baby Boomers came of age--I'm not going to overthink things and I'll go with the easy, knee-jerk reaction.

But aren't young people particularly solipsistic? Why would their cohort be the last to hold to an outward identification with a family identity? Here, the simple answer may not be the best one. At the same time that anyone is seeking to assert independence, there is always a part of themselves, sometimes a large part, that is scared of striking out on their own. The practice of surname identification has a foot in both worlds--in the world at large (or school playground, as the case may be), one is leaving behind the name the name they are known by within their family circle, but at the same time retrenching with a name that is safely connected and rooted to a comfortable identity.

Now, if only teen-agers were in charge of writing our stories today, it would be a whole lot easier to keep character's names straight.


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