There's no other name for it -- narcissism

…argues that the American narcissist ""does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, in the manner of the acquisitive individualist of nineteenth-century political economy, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless perpetually unsatisfied desire." Two decades later, it's sobering to realize that we can easily substitute the word "children" in that sentence for "goods and provisions."

National Post
October 7, 2003

There's no other name for it — narcissism
Anne Kingston

Sure, it might be tempting to sneer at the news, reported in this paper last week, that North American parents are now naming their children after luxury brands. How tacky, one might tsk-tsk, to name one's child Chanel or Porsche or Chivas; what an indictment of the pervasive grip of consumerism.

But, really, shouldn't we regard this trend — to the extent it is a trend — merely as the latest manifestation of children's evolving role as "aspirational" commodities, precious extensions of the parents' hope and ambitions? What more clearly telegraphs parental expectation of superior performance and status for their children than naming her after a well-calibrated Lexus (or "Lexxus," as one Cambridge, Ont., couple spells their daughter's name to make it "unique")? It's utterly consistent with the modus operandi of "hyper-achieving" parents, as exposed in this week's National Post series, who enroll their two-year-olds in French immersion and their older children in a gruelling schedule of extracurricular academic and athletic activities to give them a competitive edge.

Of course, such hyper-achieving parents would be the first to sniff at names like Evian or Nike, considering them lowbrow. They already have a Lexus in the driveway; they don't need to compensate by having a little human Lexus playing there.

But naming a child after a coveted product is no greater an indictment of social pretension than the current mania for, say, Jane Austen-esque Anglo names (Emma, Harry, Matthew), earthy Gaelic names (Colm, Liam, Bronwyn) or romantic French names (Phoebe, Madeleine) which have nothing to do with family heritage. In such a climate, the burgeoning popularity of a name like Camry, a brand lower down on Toyota's status hierarchy, is downright refreshing. It's as if little Camry's parents are saying: "Had we wanted to put pressure on you, sweetie, we would have called you Avalon."

Long before babies were used as cute props in Gucci ads, their names reflected parental convictions, be it respect for ancestors, religious leaders, politicians and movie stars, or self-reference as they routinely named children after themselves. The contemporary twist is that modern baby names reflect parents' desire for their little bundle of joy to provide "mini-me" style statements as they ferry them around in kiddie SUVs, like the hugely popular $1,000 Dutch-engineered Bugaboo Frog stroller. Completely lost in this need to self-actualize through parenting is the recognition that a child's name defines him or her for a lifetime. And that what is adorable for a five-year-old can become a puerile burden 30 years hence.

Or it could become a source of annoyance if you have parents so self-referential that they name you after the place of your conception. British soccer star David Beckham and his former Spice Girl wife, Victoria, boast they named their son Brooklyn for that reason. They're not alone. The singer Nelly Furtado recently confessed that her newborn daughter, Nevis, resulted from a tryst on that tropical isle.

Someone should remind these narcissists that the personal and cultural consequence of names is profound. The Cambridge, Mass.-based National Bureau of Economic Research recently issued two papers which investigated whether the trend dating back to the 1960s within the black community, to give children distinctively black names, has held them back in the job market. One report looked at 16 million births in California between 1960 and 2000 and concluded it had no significant effect. The other study, titled "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?," tracked dummy resumés sent to 1,300 classified ads. It concluded that black-sounding names were 50% less likely to get a callback than white-sounding names with comparable resumés. Of course, this doesn't suggest that black families should or will start calling their children more identifiably "white" names, like Emily or Christian. Taking pride in one's culture and heritage is a pivotal point of personal identity.

Extending that pride to a pervasive consumer culture, of course, is perilous territory, particularly when children are involved (for proof, consider that that little Lexxus's parents named another child Tyson, after the fighter, before his rape conviction; that's quite the role model to saddle one's kid with). Parents slapping brand names on their children are, like good modern consumers, thinking in terms of the moment. They're also seeking the emotional payback explored in the new book Trading Up: The New American Luxury. In it, authors Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske explore "mass elitism," the willingness of the mass market to pay a premium for "luxury" goods, such as Godiva chocolates or Williams-Sonoma soap because they offer "emotional value."

Clearly, naming children Chanel or Godiva answers a similar need. In The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, Christopher Lasch argues that the American narcissist "does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, in the manner of the acquisitive individualist of nineteenth-century political economy, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless perpetually unsatisfied desire." Two decades later, it's sobering to realize that we can easily substitute the word "children" in that sentence for "goods and provisions." As such, how can naming children Fendi or Pepsi or Godiva or whatever be viewed as anything less than truth in labeling?

© Copyright 2003 National Post


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