Is your name your destiny?

Mo’Nique deservedly walked off with the Oscar for best supporting actress last night for her performance in the movie ‘Precious’.

As the world now knows by now, Precious is based on the novel ‘Push’ that tells the harrowing story of an obese, illiterate and horribly abused Harlem teenager.

While a work of fiction, the story is based the experiences of the author, Sapphire, who encountered several girls in similar situations during her time teaching literacy in Harlem and the Bronx in New York.

A Precious Oscar win for Mo'Nique

The child’s name, Precious, is indeed a cruel irony considering the brutally uncaring treatment she received from her parents. It brought to mind the real-life story of Temptress told in the book ‘Freakonomics’. Temptress was a 15-year-old girl whose misdeeds landed her in her in Albany County Family Court. She was charged with ungovernable behavior which included taking men home when her mother was at work.

The judge had long taken note of the strange names borne by some offenders. He asked the child’s mother why she had named her daughter Temptress. She explained she had been watching ‘The Cosby Show’ and liked the young actress. The judge had to point out that the name of the actress she admired was, in fact, Tempestt Bledsoe, not Temptress. The mother agreed she has made a mistake but was nonplussed when the Judge suggested that poor Temptress’s problematic behavior might stem from her living out her name.

The book goes on to recount the case of the New York City man, Robert Lane, who named his son Loser. In spite of the difficulties his name presented throughout his life, Loser was a success. He went to prep school on a scholarship, graduated from Lafayette College and joined the New York Police Department and became a sergeant in the force.

Now it turns out that Loser Lane had a brother. His name was Winner. The most notable achievement of Winner Lane’s life was the length of his criminal record. Winner and his brother Loser rarely speak.

So, does the name you give your child affect his life? Would young Temptress still have landed in trouble if she had been named, say, Chastity? As it happens,  Temptress, Loser, Winner and Precious are all black. Is this fact merely a curiosity, or does it have something larger to say about names and culture?

The authors of Freakonomics draw on a study based on birth-certificate information for every child born in California since 1961. The data, they argue, proves just how differently black and white parents name their children. A great many names today are unique to blacks. More than 40 percent of all black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls receive. Astonishingly, 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among every baby, white or black, born that year in California.

Even among very popular black names there is little overlap with whites. As an example, of the 454 girls named Precious in the 1990s, 431 were black. Of the 319 Shanices, 310 were black. There were also 228 babies named Unique, and 1 each of Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee.

On the other hand, more than 40 percent of the white babies are given names that are at least four times more common among whites Consider Connor, Cody, Emily and Abigail: each of these names was given to at least two thousand babies in California, and fewer than 2 percent of them black.

But is the life outcome any different for a person with a typical black name – Imani or Deshawn (the two most popular) – than for a woman named Molly or a man named Jake? According to the data, the answer is yes. But it isn’t the fault of their names. There are underlying socio-economic, educational and cultural circumstances at play. Names are an indicator, not a cause, of life outcomes.

What the data does suggest is that an overwhelming number of parents use a name to signal their own expectations of how successful their children will be.

Are there any better exemplars of this conceit than movie stars, so entertainingly on display last night. They are the American aristocracy who seem to live in a parallel universe where  normal laws don’t apply. While middle class parents cautiously push the boundaries of the social acceptability with the likes of Caleb and Izabella, the children of movie stars rejoice in names such as Lourdes, Banjo, Pilot Inspektor, Moxie CrimeFighter, Audio Science and Prince Michael II.

For movie stars, children seem to function as a vehicle for expressing their talent and uniqueness. Names are the equivalent of a royal title, a way for the aristocracy to ensure their creative legacy is passed on to their progeny. To settle on an ordinary name for the child would almost be a form of spiritual surrender, according to a psychologist who has worked with Hollywood clients.

There are exceptions, of course.  It was heartwarming to see the unassuming Jeff Bridges take the Oscar for Best Actor and make a point of mentioning his wife and children with their reassuringly ordinary names — Susan, Isabelle, Jessica and Hayley.

The Dude abides

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3 Responses to Is your name your destiny?

  1. Nick Bentley says:

    “What the data does suggest is that an overwhelming number of parents use a name to signal their own expectations of how successful their children will be.”

    What does this say about the expectations of, for example, Gweneth Paltrow & Chris Martin having named their son Moses and daughter Apple. In this day and age do parents still have higher expectations for their male children?

  2. [...] Why you can’t call your child Anus, Pluto or Monkey in Denmark Here in the United States anything goes. You can burden your offspring with whatever bizarre name catches your fancy, and movie stars usually do. [...]

  3. [...] Is your name your destiny? [...]

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