Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator the politics of ridiculing names

A few days ago, someone directed me to the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator. I entered my name, giggled a bit, and moved on. Didn’t think much of it. Then, a listserv I’m on shared the link, and my inbox was flooded with people sharing their Palin names. At first, I was annoyed simply because my inbox was being flooded by this, but then I started to wonder about the politics behind this name generator. A few others raised concerns about various aspects of the generator, including that conservatives are be on the list and might be offended. This wasn’t really my concern. At the surface, this seems like a simple case of fun and games: Many people think the names of Palin’s children (or at least some of them) are ridiculous: Track, Trig, Bristol, Willow, and Piper.

Last week I was told the story of a teacher who ridiculed a student’s name in front of the class because it was foreign and hard to pronounce, and the student had a thick accent, which made it harder to understand for this teacher. I remember teaching middle school and how, in the teacher’s lounge, teachers would mock some students’ names, particularly those names that weren’t traditional names, names like Willow. I won’t share any of my students’ names for privacy sake, but I was uncomfortable — or, rather, I remember being uncomfortable. Perhaps I joked along with them. I can’t remember exactly.

When something is funny, I think it’s important to ask ourselves why it’s funny. This name generator is funny to lots of people (and, from what I’m told, it’s not a matter of political allegiance, either). Let’s look at a hypothetical. I wonder, what if, instead of Malia Ann and Natasha (Sasha), the Obama’s had named their children names coded as African American or even Muslim? I think Malia and Sasha are slightly coded as “other,” but perhaps Jai’breon and Quanesha? (I found these names here.) What would be the reaction by liberals to a website called the Obama Baby Name Generator? I think the website would offend liberal sensibilities surrounding race, and the site would be called xenophobic and racist. And, I think, rightly so.

So, why is it okay to make fun of a name like Trig or Track and not a name like Jai’breon? What sort of names are Trig and Track? Perhaps they are markers of class or location. In my experience, my students with names that weren’t “normal” “American” names were generally from the margins of society: white working class or working poor, African-American, hippie separatist parents. Of course, I can’t draw a real generalization from my own experience (that would be epistemologically flawed). But I wonder if the Palin names are coded for class or location. And while racism is rampant in this country, very few people want to appear to be explicitly racist, but are fine with being classist or regionalist (think about how frequently rural Appalachian names are mocked).

But, as I wonder about the possibilities of how these names are coded as “other,” I think there’s other routes for disagreeing with this type of site. I think the site has two effects: 1) the ridicule of children, which just seems cruel to me; and 2) an assault on Palin’s qualifications as a mother. To name a child an “odd” name in our country is read as poor parenting: you are setting your child up for ridicule and possible ostracizing. Of course, we never blame our culture for the ridicule and ostracizing — always the parents. I think to ridicule the Palins for their choices of children names is to state implicitly that they are poor parents, and, since parenting is so tied in with citizenship in this country, it is also to imply that they are poor citizens. At least, this is my hunch.

Ultimately, though, I think mocking a person’s name is just a poor way to treat another person. I’ll admit my own culpability: I’ve mocked plenty of names. I’ll probably do it again, when I’m not thinking about it.

I brought this critique up, though poorly worded and accidentally anonymous, at the Blogora, and in the comments Jim Aune brought up the excellent point that “Ridicule is a perfectly normal and occasionally helpful rhetorical tactic.” I absolutely agree with him, as I’ve ridiculed plenty of things and seen plenty of ridicule that seems really effective. An example of such ridicule, though not so effective, is The Barack Obama Quote Generator. It’s not so funny, but it’s an attempt at ridiculing the way so many of Obama’s speeches are filled with generalities rather than specifics — a rather poor attempt, in my opinion.

So, I’ll try to wrap up. We mock names that aren’t “normal,” which creates a small range of names considered okay. But why? In the comments to the Blogora post, Kristin asks, “How do you choose your childrens’ names? What do you consider “normal” and how was “normal” created? Is Palin on the cutting edge or did she miss the moose?” I don’t really know if I have answers to these questions. I wouldn’t say that Palin is on the cutting edge of naming children. How do people (by “you,” I hope Kristin meant “people” and not me) name children? I imagine they choose names that remind them of something or someone in a good way, or they like the sound of a name, or probably for a variety of reasons. But how should people name their children? I think the exact same ways they do (with the exception of those parents who are intentionally cruel by trying to name their children profanity).

It’s then a matter of accepting different names when we encounter them.

(Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that this website is the “Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator,” and not the “Todd Palin Baby Name Generator” or the “Palin Baby Name Generator”)

I’m not denying that the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator is funny to a lot of people. Because of its unpredictability, it’s at least funnier than The Obama Name Generator, which simply gives you your first name, followed by “Hussein” with a strikethrough, and Obama as a last name. What I’m questioning is why it’s funny and if it should be funny. I also want to add that everything I’ve written above is up for revision, as I’m just thinking through this, and I’m not completely sure. Is it too hard-line to ask to not mock a child’s name ever? Is this too much of an ideal? Is it okay to ridicule the Palins as parents because they named their children Trig and Track? Is this really an issue of power for me, in that children have little to no power in public discourse, yet adults do? Is it okay to mock the name of someone with power? For example, I love the bumper sticker that says “The only Bush I trust is my own,” which borders on ridiculing a name (though probably not quite).

I’m curious what other folks think of this issue. Is it an ethical issue? If so, what are the ethics?

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7 Responses to Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator the politics of ridiculing names

  1. k8 says:

    I don’t like that this draws focus to specific kids. I’ll admit that I like the Captain Underpants Name Generator (my name is Flunky Pizza Chunks). The difference is that it isn’t focused on a specific person or family. Whenever I hear people making fun of names, or when I catch myself raising an eyebrow over the name of a celebrity’s kid, I remind myself of one thing: My parents named my brother Hillary. He is very lucky that he turned out to be super-athletic, tall, strong, etc. He was sometimes teased, but it probably would have been much worse if he hadn’t been “that kid” who is 6 foot by sixth grade.

  2. Julie says:

    I’ve thought a bit about this issue over the years since I know I would be the “type” to give my kids “outrageous” names. Sometime I think the general public is harder on white people who give their children non-traditional names because it seems as though they are shirking their privlege in some way. They are “branding” their child, setting them apart from the status quo when they need not do so. I think racism creates a situation where it is “ok” for African Americans to have “non-traditional” names because “they” are different (at least in accordance with the status quo heirarchies of power).

    That Sarah Palin, a conservative white woman, would choose to break with the traditional names of her culture is indeed surprising (Given her religious proclavities I’m a bit shocked that her kids aren’t Micha, Job, and Ezekiel).

    Interesting stuff. BTW I would be Bush Gator Palin….lol

  3. collin says:

    Back in the day, while my friends all had names like Chris, Andy, Bob, Joe, and Jim, I had less-than-friends who teased me for both my first and middle, which were a lot different from the norm in the middle-class midwest. I didn’t meet another Colin (no double-L’s for them) until I was a junior in college, not counting the lead singer for Men At Work. 😉

    I’ve got a whole set of responses to the listserv episode, including the dismissiveness with which that community tends to treat anyone who dares to hold up the occasional mirror, but many of them are similar to yours. There are a lot of people out there with names that I don’t envy, just as I’m sure some of the people I knew as a kid wouldn’t have wanted my name. And that’s the place I come from when I see stuff like that. There are plenty of things to consider (and even sometimes ridicule, I suppose) about our political candidates, without the kind of casual cruelty (itself also perfectly normal, unfortunately) that lurks beneath the surface of the SPBNG.

  4. Lance says:

    Both you and Bill Degenaro posit the hypothetical of whether it would ok to do the same thing with Obama’s kids’ names (actual or hypothectically “black” names). Interesting. I like your speculation about Palin’s kids’ names being marked by class, and I think you’re on the right track.

    But I think (don’t know, though) there’s more than class–maybe it’s an identity category that cuts across class, geography, age, politics and/or other demographics. (I’m recalling the impromptu list of “brothers” Matt Damon’s character rattles off in Goodwill Hunting–Timmy, Tommy, Danny, etc. Very working class, but very much not from the same cloth as Track and Trig.) It might even be a middle class thing: an acquaintance of mine just named (with her husband’s input, I’m sure) her baby “Blaze.”

    If I have a another child, I’m going to push to name her or him “Blog.”

  5. Laura says:

    Thanks, Michael. Thoughtful post. My instinct is that yes, there are never an okay time to mock a child’s name. One, it’s a name, and, two, a child’s name – both reasons to treat it with the same respect we’d treat other human beings. Now, I can imagine a time to mock a parents’ reason for choosing a certain name – I don’t know, say the parent made the choice not with the child in mind but to USE the child’s name to make some kind of statement. That would be using the child (and the child’s name) as a means to an end. But hopefully—and I believe – that is a very rare circumstance. And even, then, the ridicule would be directed toward the parent and the parent’s motives, not to the child or the child’s name itself (because one it’s the child’s name, it’s the child’s name, and should be respected).

    I like the “The only Bush I trust is my own” bumper sticker, too. That’s a great example of using a name to make a statement about the person. Right — it’s not really any ridicule of the name itself. No one is saying “Bush is a ridiculous name.” They’re saying they can use the pun to make a statement. And, of course, it’s directed, like you said, to an adult who, especially in his case, has a massive amount of power in public discourse (obviously).

  6. Michael says:

    Thank you everyone for your responses. Collin, thanks for sharing about your personal experience with your own name. I found it strange, particularly because I’ve had so many college students named Collin that I see it as a pretty common name now. But your comment makes the connection to a bullying culture that I think the name generator plays within.

    K8, the Captain Underpants Name Generator sounds fantastic!

    Lance, I agree that it’s not a marker of a ubiquitous [working or middle] class, but some sort of class, or perhaps identity marker, as you put it. I love the name “Blog.” 🙂

    Julie uses the word “type” (with scare quotes) to demark white people who use nontraditional names. I think this might be the way to understand this. There are certainly various “types” of folks who use various different styles of names for children (A 1960s “hippie” is more likely to name a child Liberte or Sunflower, than a “Sarah Palin type”). But then again, this typification/classification is probably a dangerous/overgeneralizable road to go down.

    Laura, I agree that criticizing parents’ who use their children rather than do things for their children (in regards to naming) is important. Very Kantian. 🙂 Hopefully, this doesn’t happen too frequently in regards to name.

  7. John says:

    A bit late, but some, if not all, of the Palin children are named for personal interests and/or geographical locations. And, well, Trig is a perfectly good Scandinavian name.

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