Almost 20 years after Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s tabloid romance ended in cold feet days before their wedding date, Bennifer finally made it to the altar over the weekend. Whatever you think of their relationship and the failed marriages they’ve both left in their paths, J. Lo. raised feminist eyebrows when she announced she was taking her new husband’s last name. In a newsletter informing fans of the Las Vegas nuptials, J. Lo. signed her name “Mrs. Jennifer Lynn Affleck,” and a copy of the couple’s marriage license confirmed the new name.
The name change sent a gaggle of New York Times writers aflutter, with Stella Bugbee wondering, “Why didn’t he become Ben Lopez? What would that have done to his ego?” and launching into “the conversation about power in heterosexual marriages.”
The Independent’s Victoria Richards was even more direct, with the headline, “No Woman Should Be Changing Her Name After Marriage In 2022.”
“No woman should be giving up her own identity for that of her husband,” Richards insists. “We are not chattel.” Of course, that premise assumes that a woman’s identity is wrapped up in her surname, which is a superficial thing to define her personhood by (and incidentally, is usually taken from her father anyway). To assume a new name is not a sign of chattel ownership, though it is a symbolic nod of belonging. Husband and wife belong to each other, after all.
When a woman gets married, her identity changes in the sense that being a wife to her husband becomes part of who she is. The same thing happens to a man, taking on the identity and responsibility of being a husband to her. What Richards is reacting so viscerally to is likely not the tradition of a name change so much as the giving of oneself that marriage demands from both parties. It’s a foreign concept to our self-promoting society, a disconnect she admits when she broadly concludes that “marriage is rooted in misogyny.”
“When I got married in 2009, I changed my last name to my husband’s,” Richards continues. “But it never felt right. It never felt like ‘me’. And how could it? I’d had my name, my identity, for 30 years. Yet overnight, I was expected to become someone else.”
Yes, Victoria — husband and wife alike are expected to “become someone else,” though in most ways not overnight. Marriage is not simply a transactional arrangement in which two self-sufficient people engage in a trade-off that is always instantaneously profitable to both of them. It requires self-sacrifice, on some days with no immediate or equivalent return. It is a lifestyle of dying to self out of love for another, giving yourself to the other person — and in a healthy marriage where both spouses give such love, both spouses receive it.
The beautiful paradox of a loving marriage is that you don’t lose yourself, even though you give yourself away.
Richards adds that she was “swept away by the Disney-peddled ideal of love and ‘becoming one’ that is drummed into little girls practically from birth.” It’s a mistake to equivocate “becoming one” with the idea of a woman “becoming” her husband. Taking your husband’s surname is a reflection of your respect for who he is and for his leadership of the new family your marriage begins. It’s a commitment to your newly pledged unity. That respect and unity, in all their many forms, are vital to the process of “becoming one” — husband and wife coming together to submit their own sins and selfishness to the sanctifying covenant of marriage. That act of becoming one is an act of loving submission, on both sides.
Who knows what the new Mrs. Affleck’s reasons for changing her legal name might have been — it’s apparently something she planned to do when the couple was first engaged in 2003. What’s for sure is that her very traditional act of changing her name, as a celebrity with a well-established personal brand, struck many (like Richards) as counter-cultural, a sign of where our society’s self-appointed elites have found themselves.
“Has taking a partner’s last name evolved into a power move?” asks The New York Times’ Sandra Garcia. “There is no doubt Jennifer is independent and a star in her own right. When such powerful women adopt their husband’s name — sometimes from husbands that are equally powerful — does it morph the symbolism into an even bigger statement of confidence?”
Garcia has struck on something, maybe accidentally. While there are legitimate, practical reasons for a woman not to take her husband’s name in some circumstances, many times that name change is a declaration that “I am not so insecure in my own worth or so vain of my own perceived image and independence that I’m unwilling to mark my commitment with this external symbol.” It is a statement of confidence, not just in herself but in her husband and in her marriage. It communicates the willingness to give, serve, and love that healthy marriages demand from both spouses, albeit sometimes in different and complementary ways.
Maybe J. Lo. and Affleck understand that, and maybe not. Their histories are certainly messy. But if they can approach their new marriage with the same attitude that makes the act of taking your husband’s name an act of love and not a chore, who knows? They might have a chance of bucking the Hollywood trend.