What’s in a Name: The Case of Quvenzhané

 

This year’s Academy Awards were littered with big names, from George Clooney to Meryl Streep to even Adele. Nominees young and old took home Oscars from show-stopping, gut-wrenching musicals and Disney black and white short films alike. Films and individuals from all over the world were recognized for their unique diversity and universal talent.
Louisiana native Quvenzhané Wallis, in particular, gained a lot of notice for earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress at the age of nine for her performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
But not all of the attention Quvenzhané Wallis gained was good. Aside from a distasteful joke from The Onion via Twitter and a couple of off-the-cuff remarks by controversial host Seth MacFarlane, Quvenzhané’s name was a great struggle for much of the media frenzy surrounding this great night in the film industry.
She has been referred to as variations such as “Little Q” and “Lil Q” or her character names on various entertainment shows and blogs. Why is this allowed? Because she is a child? Because she has a difficult name? Because she is a person of color?
Personally, I have grown up among those who can never find their names on the novelty keychains in gift shops. That’s not a problem. The problem arises when someone says they’ll “just call you” a nickname or a more convenient pronunciation of your name. Or nothing at all.
Isn’t a name the simplest form of respect, or disrespect? Is providing the simple explanation “I’m not good with names” a good enough excuse to evade responsibility for committing the simplest marker of one’s identity to memory? If you aren’t granted the respect of your name, are you granted any respect at all?
I believe that the business of naming things, and of language, is taken for granted too often. Words are representative, symbolic and ridden with meaning.
Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a nickname from our best friends, but when it is used to hide the fact that you do not know how to pronounce a person’s actual name? That is a different story. It may be embarrassing to ask for clarification on the pronunciation of someone’s name, but it is more embarrassing when one doesn’t try, not to mention obvious.
So would Quvenzhané Wallis take issue with the media’s misuse of her name in popular culture? Is the positive appraisal of her work really valid when her name is not taken seriously enough to properly pronounce? Is it ignorance that makes the media, and everyday people, resort to unasked-for nicknames and abbreviations?
There isn’t really an answer, nor is there a solution to “difficult” names.
But whether you love, hate, change or simply are indifferent to your name, it’s yours. The least you can ask for is to be called the name you wish to be called, and no one else’s comfort or convenience should matter.
Quvenzhané Wallis seems to have the promise of thick enough skin to assert her identity. I have faith that she will serve as a great example of the fact that a difficult name is never a reason to bypass a person.

Karam Johal is a third-year women’s studies major. She can be reached at johalk@uci.edu.