“My name is Sabrina Spellman, and I will NOT sign it away!”
So proudly announces the titular character of Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in the show’s official trailer. Throughout the first season Sabrina is shown struggling to decide between the mortal world of her boyfriend and friends, and the supernatural world of her family, at one point even fleeing from the ritual which is meant to officially baptize her as a witch at the expense of her soul. The above quote and first season rely heavily upon the traditional belief that witches gain their powers through service to the Devil and by signing away their name in his book. However, her speech and pressure to give up her name also represent the centuries of women’s names being defiled and erased, a trend that many recent women in fiction have begun to fight against.
The importance of a woman proclaiming her desire to keep her name can be examined through another obvious influence on the show and Sabrina’s above quote: The Crucible.
Here’s a quick English lesson for those who skipped this reading assignment. The Crucible is a play by Arthur Miller that takes place in 1692 Salem during the infamous witch trials. The protagonist, John Proctor, is not a great guy. Prior to the events of the play, he has an affair with his teenaged servant girl, Abigail Williams, and is found out by his wife. The climax of the play comes after John is arrested on suspicion of witchcraft and is urged to sign a confession admitting to practicing witchcraft in return for having his life spared. He signs, but refuses to let the prosecutors publicly show his confession to the rest of the town. When prompted why, John has an emotional breakdown and proclaims, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
Sound familiar to Sabrina’s statement?
John takes back his confession and chooses to die instead of losing his name, prompting his wife to affirm that he has redeemed himself by doing so. We see through The Crucible how important a man’s name is; we also see how unimportant a woman’s name is. Abigail’s name is left besmirched by the town due to rumors of her affair, yet we are to believe she is worthy of such shame. John’s wife, Elizabeth Proctor, is given no such reverential treatment of her name despite it being tarnished by her cheating husband’s actions. In the same monologue where John claims the importance of his own name, he laments that he is no Tituba (the sole black female character) or Sarah Good (a mentally unstable homeless woman). There name’s are inherently inferior to his simply because he is a man.
Unfortunately in this case, fiction reflects real life. Countless European kings had affairs with young girls in the same manner as John Proctor, and much like in The Crucible, the male monarch is forgiven by society due to his royal name while the mistress is seen as bearing the full brunt of their sins and is eventually discarded and sent away in disgrace, her name ruined. For centuries, it was common for female artists and innovators to take on an alias or their husband’s name while publishing works. Even if a woman did attach her name to her creations, such as in the case of the Italian painter, Artemisia Gentileschi who was known for channeling a very female rage into her art, they were often disbelieved and had their works attributed to male relatives or were simply ignored by their contemporaries.
This still happens. We associate Kim Kardashian with her sex tape, but does anyone know who her male partner was? JK Rowling was encouraged by her publishers to choose a name that sounded male so as to appeal to a larger audience. And yes, conspiracy theorists have suggested that Rowling wasn’t the real author of the Harry Potter series.
These women, like others before them, have had their names tarnished or detached from their great works. And this doesn’t even begin to cover the millions of women throughout world history who have not even held ownership of their own names, passing (only until very recently without a choice whether to keep or change it) from a father’s name to a husband’s.
Yet there has been a trend in recent years of showing fictional women proudly announcing their names.
Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones has become immortalized in pop culture with her numerous titles and tendency to boldly speak her name with the weight it deserves. At first, her titles largely refer to her relations to male relatives with terms like “The Dragon’s Daughter” or “Khal Drogo’s Khaleesi”. Yet as her journey progresses, she earns and places further emphasis upon titles that reference her own victories: “Queen of Meereen”, “Breaker of Chains”, “Mother of Dragons”, and becoming a khaleesi in her own right. She refuses to lessen the importance of her name and is supported in this by her female allies.
“The lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep?” the powerful Lady Olenna questions Daenerys. “No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”
In Moana, the protagonist’s grandmother affirms the importance of Moana’s name before she sets out on her journey. Originally, Moana’s plan is to find the demigod Maui and force him to save the world. She practices her introduction to him: “I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat and restore the heart of Te Fiti.” Yet later on, she realizes she cannot rely on Maui or anyone else to save the world. She must do it herself. Her mantra changes.
“I am Moana of Motunui. Aboard my boat, I will sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”
Moana always took pride in her name, yet the change in her speech shows the heroine taking greater pride in herself.
Wonder Woman herself is another proponent of this trend. At the end of the 2017 film, she learns that her father was the king of the gods, Zeus. Yet it is not her father’s name she invokes while declaring war on Ares, it is her name and her mother’s name that she proudly proclaims.
“I am Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. In the name of all that is good, your [Ares’s] wrath upon this world is over!”
We need to remember as a society the importance of women’s names and how they are due the same respect as any man’s. And we, as women, need to be like Sabrina Spellman and other fictional heroines: take pride in our name and refuse to diminish it simply because the world tells us we should.