As a news content producer, a lot of my time is spent reading and watching news created by other people. One of the things that has always bothered me is naming conventions or how we refer to our story subjects in a news story.
Most publications and organisations have their own particular style sheets but some similarities can be found across platforms. One of the strictest rules in such style sheets is naming people. And again, every organisation can have their own rules. Most of these rules are pretty basic, such as going in either alphabetical order or by seniority when you refer to multiple people in the same sentence.
As a news writer, I am supposed to follow these norms. But these norms aren’t always as objective as they seem on surface. Especially when it comes to writing about people from multiple genders.
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Take any entertainment news report. Recently, I had to cover the break-up of the adorable Hollywood couple Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck. However, in any of the reports you might have read, it’s highly unlikely they wrote Armas’s name before Affleck. Even though Ana trumps Ben alphabetically, it is an unwritten rule in entertainment reporting to always put the gentleman’s name ahead of the lady. It might be a cultural practice because Ben is more senior to Ana in the industry.
But could it simply be a gender bias too? Men are always mentioned first. It is clear that going alphabetically is not a rule in many such reports, so for argument’s sake, let us assume the criteria to be seniority? But then I read many articles about “A Suitable Boy” and in all of them, Ishaan Khatter, a very young and talented actor, was mentioned before a cinema legend like Tabu or even the female lead of the show around whom the story revolves. Lata Mehra is the focal centre of the show, yet the intros about this beautifully made piece of fiction always mentioned her after Ishaan Khatter, who was secondary to the plot. Is it because filmmakers are sure a product cannot sell if a woman was in the lead, and they always need a male character, albeit secondary to the plot, to go in headlines and intros?
Now let’s consider the name itself. One of my editors had directed me that while writing, use the last name for men, and first name for women. It baffled me.
Then I noticed this pattern repeated by other media houses, both print and TV, especially when it came to politicians.
Some time ago, Twitter was abuzz with talks about Kamala’s fierce suit. Not Harris’s. Common people still choose to refer men in politics by last name in the same breath they talk about women using first names.
But at least ever since I was on Twitter, I never read a tweet or a post from any journalist or citizen talking about Vice President Joe or Vice President Mike. They were always VP Biden or Pence.
Even in our everyday talks, so many people talk about Sushma (Swaraj) as a great politician. Yet I’ve never heard people talk about Arvind (Kejrival), Arun (Jaitley), or Amit (Shah). All conversations, both private and public, refer to these men with their surnames.
Initially I thought I was reading too much into it, that no one else would be bothered by such a bias.
A paper titled “How gender determines the way we speak about professionals”, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences probes into how women are talked about in professional situations.
“A woman isn’t as well-known and thus needs to be identified by her full name – and if she isn’t as well-known, then she isn’t as important or deserving of recognition,” wrote Melissa Ferguson, the author of the study.
They discovered that men were twice as likely to be referred by surname in domains such as science, literature, and politics as opposed to women who are referred by first names. They concluded that this very minor difference can result in up to 14% higher chances of getting a reward in their field.
They discovered sports commentators would refer to female athletes by first name and male by surnames. Media professionals would to the same with female scientists, politicians and film stars.
During my journalism course, I was taught we use last names because the people in power are not our buddies. We have to show them respect. But this gets thrown out the window when talking about women: no matter if she’s won an Oscar or is the first female Vice President of a country. Choosing to address her by the first name shows a level of intimacy. And when it comes to women, intimacy is assumed because they are kind-hearted and gentle creatures, motherly figures or sisterly companions.
Women across all fields are infantilised. It is a subtle way of letting them know that no matter where you stand, you will be second. By refusing Harris and accepting Kamala we forge a sort of companionship with her that we wouldn’t dare with Biden or Pence, who are men of power. She is a woman who is second-in-command to a man in power.
In my search for naming privileges, I noticed most of these women are still privileged. Harris belongs to a Hindu-UC class, Tabu and Ana de Armas are people with clear power and influence. Women from marginalised communities have so little positive reporting in the media that it is almost impossible to get any data on how they are named or represented.
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But there are others who still are struggling to be even given their first name—case in point: trans women. Going through social media profiles of many trans activists, I realised many of them are still referred to by their dead-names. With TERF activists like J.K Rowling straight up refusing to accept that trans women even exist, their name is often misrepresented when they are talked about on social media platforms. The first name itself becomes a privilege in such a case.
Coming back to the infantilisation of women by referring to them by their first names, I also wonder if it is a way to ascertain that the surname actually belongs to the man, and the woman simply co-opts the identifier (with father’s and later, the husband’s name). As seen in the case of 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton was almost never referred to by her last name. Some may claim it is because they didn’t want the news piece to be confused for Bill Clinton. Even though Bill publicly shamed his family name (as many have said) the surname still belongs to him, it is his identifier for now and forever. Hillary, on the other hand, simply co-opts this name and can never own it.
The surname, or family name, is often the identifier of the man. When I say Dhoni or Kohli, you will immediately picture a man in blue jersey holding a bat. But when I say Nehwal or Mirza, it might take you a moment to realise they are prominent athletes as well.
Can a women — cis, privileged, trans or marginalised — ever own the right to her last name?
Anwiti Singh is a journalist, writer, and a full-time fiction-bot with a flair for the dramatic. When she is not writing or reporting, she can be found immersed in books and lost in stories. Loves to overanalyse media content. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.