What’s in a name? The politics of naming

Jacci Pillar is a stage name.  There is no secret about that and people who know me off stage know my “two names”.  Even people who barely know me may know them. There is no earth shattering conspiracy here.   Over the last four years, I’ve been surprised when people misunderstood a stage name.

But people often ask me about why I have a stage name for genuinely curious reasons.  I like to joke about my “other life” until recently I heard that people actually took that reference seriously.   As an Autistic person, I thought I was meant to be the literal one!

Anyone who asks me about my personal life for more than ten minutes (when acting in my “other” capacity or “day job”), will hear me say I write and perform satire and comedy in my personal life.  If they ask I will gladly give them the link to this blog (it is, after all, my stage name and a public blog, therefore I gladly share it).  I will exercise my human and constitutional rights to associate and have creative and artistic expression about political topics without hesitation in whatever name I choose.

If you have ever read the late great Chrissy Amphlett’s book, Pleasure and Pain, you will read a discussion on why she wore a school uniform on stage.  It was a way to let go of performance anxiety, a character to revel in and give the middle finger to the establishment.  That establishment said, that by way of her gender identity, she should be passive and nice and she did not conform to that view.  The onstage persona gave her permission to be herself.  Stage names are similar.

Jacci is an adopted misspelling of Jacqui.  A fellow comedian in Alice Springs got it wrong on a poster.  I liked it because it’s more gender neutral.  Pillar was my grandmothers maiden name.  She was a slight but fierce advocate for the rights of women and the vulnerable in the early 20th century (Dad was 20 years older than my mother, so she’d be around 120 years old now).  The name Jacci Pillar is one big fuck you to the establishment.

So, honestly, the three times in as many years that people have become “suss” over my use of a stage name, I’ve felt genuinely amused.  To me, it’s just something you do to free yourself of creative blocks if you want to write and perform.

Then, thinking about why it freaks some people out, I put on my anthropologist hat.  I realised that to some people with internally oppressed worldviews, it may look like I am trying to hide something – as on stage I talk about being queer and anti-establishment (and I am).  Also,  there is a history of shaming those born female about performance (in fact we weren’t allowed on stage through some of our history),  I suppose it’s not surprising that some people still see us as attention seeking or dangerous.  But we are just performers, like any other performer.

Some people may have so internalised the lack of personal freedom defined by rigid gender roles that they can’t imagine practicing the personal or creative freedom of having a nom de plume.  Their own life is so limited in application of creative and identity freedom that they immediately expect criminal activity.  That’s rather sad. I feel sad for them, but I also wish they would take their power trip elsewhere and stop infringing on my personal freedoms.

It is true that some people have multiple names in order to commit crime.  But there are also a number of legitimate reasons for people to have multiple names and has been across all cultures and all times and spaces, since forever.

For all legal purposes I have a singular name, so nothing legal is signed or agreed to as Jacci Pillar (for festivals contracts are signed in my birth name and it is acknowledged on legal documents).  Jacci Pillar is nothing more than a stage name that helps me break free of performance anxiety and I fucking like it and it has meaning to me.

So here it is…some thoughts about stage names or non de plumes and the politics of naming and reclaiming names and renaming.  Some of this comes from my honours thesis, which by the way, was written in my married name (*SO OMG! There’s a THIRD name! bahahahahahaha…call in the freedom conversion crew because I dared to divorce an asshole! And reclaim my QUEER!).

Names have power and the perceived control over naming conventions that can dictate relationships of power and violence.   Colonialism and the agents of oppression have long renamed places and people in order to control them.  James Cook consciously did this, often renaming his “discoveries” (cough, cough, this guy was such as ass! as if you can discover a continent other people had lived on since forever) after wealthy benefactors.  Then the Indigenous names were erased as they carried on unseen frontier wars, killing as they went and wiping out the names and replacing them with the names preferred by  colonisers (the invaders).  Some Australians still carry on when an Indigenous place name is restored like it’s a crime. The real crime was the covering up of the crimes of their ancestors against first nations Peoples that they now fail to acknowledge and still benefit from.

Similarly, the first fleet saw many people with “difficult to pronounce names” (for English speakers) anglicised to Smiths, and Browns and other generic names to strip them of cultural identities other than white and British.

I can guarantee you many of my Irish migrant ancestors did not associate with mother England, but as Gaelic speakers from Gaelic cultural backgrounds and identities.  In case you don’t know that history, google will serve you well.  So stripping people of their names (for themselves or their places) that they assume because they have personal meaning or as part of Indigenous or non-white-Anglo-Saxon-Christian values is a way to take away their autonomy or personal power.  Renaming turns people and places into objects of governance – taking away personal and cultural sovereignty in powerful ways and often accompanied by acts of violence.

People that insist you have one name, for a place or a person, have internalised the view that the only legitimate name is one that is agreed upon by an arbitrary belief in “government authority”.   That personal identities must be subject to government control.   It’s a kind of neo-fascism of sorts, attached to ideas of capitalism largely.

I find these people to considerably lack imagination.  Or a sense of humour.  And to be on a power trip usually.  And just plain fucking boring.

The irony is, they can sometimes be people who’ve been affected by colonial or oppressive regimes themselves (either in their own cultures or personal lives).  Fear drives this notion that personal identity must be fixed and not fluid and certainly not autonomous and must be controlled by the state.   Fear that they will be subjected to what their ancestors were subjected to.  So they conform to conservative cognitive dissonance about identity politics and become generic socio-political clones.

Renaming “other” people as a form of control of physical bodies, particularly if assigned female at birth.  No where is this quite as visible in the world of reproductive and sexual rights.  An obvious one is the drama some people are creating about sex (male or female) on birth certificates to see the control of bodies by the state. I heard someone say “how will you know what sex someone is on their drivers licence if it’s not on the birth certificate or can be changed”. For fuck’s sake, as if your sex organs determine how you drive a car (although I believe there are still people around who still believe women are worse drivers, but that is a post for another day. Or a PhD in sexist bullshit). It is totally irrelevant but the power trippers of the world still think it is.

A subtler example is the shit-awful practice of taking on a person assigned male at birth’s name because you married them.  What a load of crock.  Women then become owned objects of the man by proxy.  The practice of maiden/married name is relatively new and many cultures have never practiced it.  Again it’s the product of some uptight fucking British monarchs obsessed with world domination and religious pontification (and certainly excluding pagan religions).

The marriage licence or the institutions of marriage vary in application all around the world and modern marriage and divorce are, products of the 14th century.  Sorry folks, but we’ve been anatomically modern for 100 000 odd years, so these new “laws” are capitalist hodge-podge and not set in the stone of humanity at all.

I understand some people still practice this and hold it dear.  You can have it.  Have it all!

Just. hold. it. the. fuck. away. from. me. dear.

As for the convenience myth for taking your partner’s name – convenient for who? Who benefits from the giving away of your identity to someone else? There is no legal reason to change your name to the same name as the person with a penis you just shackled yourself to.  Children are not going to be confused, they will be adaptable.

You will cope with having separate ID documents.  The only person it is convenient for is a bunch of stuffy bureaucrats and bankers who are too lazy to treat you, your significant other and children as human beings (and not just as sources of taxation revenue).

Stage names and nom de plumes are explicit ways to mock the above acts of oppression and our cultural  acceptance of them.  They are ways we reclaim the fact that our identities are our own, not that of the state.  They are often held by people who are marginalised or ostracised for their culture, history, sexuality, skin colour or political associations.  Freddie Mercury. Need I say more? Whoops, sorry that’s my obsession, but there are many more examples.

There is some protection from discrimination in a stage name from our ‘day jobs’ often as well.  For all the reasons above – and for me, being as Queer as I actually am on stage is freedom.  And sorry, but a name for purposes of enhancing performance and protecting myself from the discrimination of a workplace is not a crime – but a freedom.

And if anyone else rides on that freedom removing high horse trying to bring their own version of shitsville into my life and have a problem with me having a stage name… then they can get down off that horse now.

How I practice my art and creativity and what name is attached to that? If that is a problem to them; they can fuck off, and when they have fucked off, fuck off some more. And go read this when they’ve fucked off far away from me – https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/freedom-association

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