Saturday, August 14, 2010

On Sexual Politics

I read a really weird piece of news a couple of days ago - actress Portia de Rossi, who's been married to comedian Ellen DeGeneres for some years now, has decided to change her last name to DeGeneres.

Why did I find it weird? I'd have thought that was obvious - the issue of women changing their last names after they were married, taking on their husbands' names and thereby giving up a part of their name, their identity (although one might ask why surnames should be considered part of one's identity in the first place; but that is an entirely different question, and subject matter for another post - perhaps), and subsuming their selves to that of their husbands' has been an issue that has irked feminists for decades now. This is one of the most deeply entrenched patriarchal practices - it has its origins in a time when women were exchanged between groups of men, much like the other commodities bartered; and once a woman made her way to the tribe or moeity of another man, she became that man, that moiety's property - and like all properties, including livestock, she was branded - with the name of her new owner. Since women are still the 'second sex', still bodies that do not matter, this tradition continues - even among otherwise enlightened, educated, urban, supposedly worldly women who somehow do not question a practice this retrogressive, but come up various excuses (it's a way of showing him how much I love him, for instance; and no, merely tacking on your husband's last name after your own does not make you more liberated - all it does is proclaim you're a confused fence-sitter) for giving up a part of their identity, their selves.

So my disbelief and bewilderment at reading that a woman married to another woman, and part of a radical, alternative family whose very existence is premised on a questioning and subverting of patriarchal beliefs, is now about to embrace one of the same traditional practices that feminists the world over - and a large chunk of the LGBT community too, one presumes - have been fighting to eradicate, is understandable. Clearly, far from pushing the boundaries, far from creating a brave new world, DeGeneres and di Rossi's marriage seems little more than a replication of a traditional heterosexual union - one in which DeGeneres is cast as the husband, and di Rossi as the wife, who is now proving her 'love' for her partner by taking on her last name.

A straight woman in a heterosexual marriage doing the same would be censured for giving up her identity and giving in to patriarchy; or, at best, condoned for being a 'victim' in an unfair social system that gives her few choices and little agency. What do we say to the women with plenty of choices and definite agency, who had subverted the system only to resurrect it through an insidious back door?