Nashville • The long delayed nuptials of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck has generated a predictable flurry of commentary about everything from the bride’s trousseau to her decision to take the groom’s last name. The dresses are pretty, sure, but it’s the name I can’t stop thinking about.
What does a choice like that by one of the most recognizable and influential women in the country, say about our cultural moment? A moment when coordinated attacks on women’s privacy and autonomy extend across the red-state legislatures all the way to the United States Supreme Court?
Other writers have made the case that J. Lo’s name change is yet another troubling reminder of the patriarchy’s inescapable persistence, and God knows those reminders are everywhere. But I can’t help wondering if this particular decision says only that J. Lo, helplessly in love, has happily surrendered to every romantic trope our weary, worn-out culture can offer. Maybe this is just what a person who has weathered a few unhappy marriages does when happiness comes unexpectedly. Maybe it’s a sign of committed love and pure delight, nothing more.
When I married 34 years ago, I did not take my husband’s last name. I pondered the question, of course, but my future husband and I didn’t have much of a conversation about it: A man who lived in the Social Awareness dorm in college is not a man who gives a lot of credence to unexamined social norms. For him, this was my decision to make, and mine alone.
I could see good arguments for changing my name, especially living in the South, where not changing it would mean endless explanations for the rest of my life. I was drawn to the idea of an outward sign of deep and fundamental connection. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh,” I learned in Catholic school, and I was all for that. Bring on the cleaving unto! But this was my name, as much a part of me as any other part. In the end, to change it would have felt like losing myself.
Back then, the decision to keep my name worked as a cultural signifier. For traditionalists, it suggested that I was only provisionally invested in my marriage. For my fellow liberals, it identified me as a feminist and my marriage as a partnership of equals.
I leaned hard into that identity then, and I continue to embrace it now, but I no longer believe that a woman’s decision to change her name signifies anything except what feels right to her. Many of the most passionate feminists I know — gay and straight, male and female — share their spouse’s last name. Some of them have hyphenated names. Still others use two names: their own at work, their spouse’s for family life. None of it is remarkable anymore.
Outward symbols and public gestures are always evolving, and because of that they are also vulnerable to misinterpretation. Before the rainbow came to represent the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community, it was for hundreds of years a Judeo-Christian symbol of God’s covenant with the human race. Christian bookstores still carry rainbow-adorned mugs and tea towels accompanied by the relevant passage from Genesis, but that’s not what a picture of a rainbow signifies to most people anymore. As the Nashville comedian Josh Black has pointed out, Christians are never getting that rainbow back.
A symbol works to telegraph meaning only if everyone agrees on what its meaning is, and I don’t think everyone agrees on anything these days. Maybe it’s always been that way. Human beings are complicated creatures, incapable of being summarized by a single position or reduced to a single idea.
Consider the example of Liz Cheney, a married woman who uses her maiden name and who plays a powerful role in public life. From these facts alone, she looks every bit like a feminist, but she is also a deeply conservative lawmaker who cheered the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Cheney’s political positions are anathema to me, but during the Jan. 6 hearings she has nevertheless become my hero, defying a party that no longer upholds her conservative values — or, frankly, any values at all.
In systematically uncovering Trump’s elaborate efforts to subvert an election he knew he had lost, Cheney put her entire professional life on the line. She has been stripped of her leadership position, and she will most likely lose her seat to a primary challenger — merely for defending American democracy and the rule of law at a time when her Republican colleagues are working to subvert both. Reviled by liberals and shunned by conservatives, she carries on anyway. “I believe this is the most important thing I’ve ever done professionally,” she told The Times’s Peter Baker, “and maybe the most important thing I ever do.”
It is not a coincidence that most of the Jan. 6 rioters were men, and it is not a coincidence that the women who testified in the Jan. 6 hearings have come in for far more right-wing media calumny than the men who testified. Online it’s even worse: These women are enduring savage attacks from men who take profound delight in attacking women, even those who share their politics.
It’s entirely possible to argue that Cheney and the young White House staffers are only reaping what they have sowed. Their party transparently works to limit female autonomy. Women who support that party shouldn’t be surprised when it unleashes a pack of trolls to frighten them into silence if they step out of line.
The truth is that nobody, right or left, should be subjected to such treatment. More to the point, these women deserve our admiration, and not just because it takes so much more courage for a woman to stand up for truth than it takes for a man to do the same. They deserve our thanks because they might well end up being the force that saves American democracy. This is in fact the most important thing Cheney has ever done.
It would be much more convenient if the people we admire were consistent in the way they moved through the world, sharing our values, making all the same choices we make and for all the same reasons. How much simpler and tidier life would if those choices were reflected in some overt, outward sign — a name change, a party affiliation — that reveals a pristine inner truth. But how much more interesting it is that human beings work in no such way.
So I send my heartiest congratulations and best wishes to you, Mrs. Affleck, on your happy marriage, and I send my heartfelt thanks to you, Ms. Cheney, for your perseverance in the face of relentless attacks by your own craven countrymen. The two of you have given people a lot of hope and a lot of joy this summer. And in this ragged old world, we all need as much hope and as much joy as we can find.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.