Why It Matters That J-Lo Is Now J-Aff

It could be the plot of a Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl date, fall in love, get engaged … but, alas, the nuptials are not to be. Boy and girl go their separate ways, each getting married, having children, getting divorced. They remain the “one that got away” to each other. And then, older and wiser, they fall in love again.

The second-chance romance leading up to last week’s nuptials between the multihyphenate star and the actor and director Ben Affleck was a pandemic gift that kept on giving, for romantics and celebrity gossip addicts alike. Every chapter of the Bennifer 2.0 love story gave us something new to chew on.

The most recent nugget: J. Lo’s decision, first announced in her subscription-only “On the JLo” newsletter, to change her last name. “Love is a great thing, maybe the best of things — and worth waiting for,” she wrote, signing off, “With love, Mrs. Jennifer Lynn Affleck.”

True love wins! Except, also, oof!

Ms. Affleck may be surrendering to the power of love with this, her fourth marriage. But given the cringe-y history behind the practice, a woman taking her husband’s last name feels to me like a submission — a gesture that doesn’t say “I belong with him” so much as “I belong to him.” And at this fraught moment for feminism in America, a woman like the former Jennifer Lopez deciding to change her name feels especially dispiriting.

Credit…Filippo Monteforte/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sure, taking your husband’s name might be a way of saying “this is for keeps.” But it is also a gesture inextricably rooted in peak patriarchy: specifically, in 11th-century laws of coverture, which held that a married woman was, for legal purposes, merged with her husband, with no standing or identity of her own. That notion hung on for centuries, and still endures in various forms around the world.

In the United States as late as the 1970s, some state laws required married women to use their husbands’ names to vote, or get passports or credit cards. That’s when the trend of women keeping their surnames began to catch on — at least among a subset of older, more educated, big-city brides who’d established professional identities before saying “I do.”

I am emphatically part of that subset. When I married for the first time in 2001, I’d been working as a journalist for 10 years and had published my first novel. I had a professional identity, and I’d survived for 31 years with my awful, frequently mispronounced, playground-joke of a surname.

Most of my female friends — doctors, lawyers, nonprofit executives, venture capitalists — kept their names after marriage, too, so I felt zero pressure to change mine: not when I married for the first time, and not when I wed my current and final husband in 2016. I’ll occasionally use his last name as a quasi-secret identity for when I’m logging my bike rides on a fitness app or signing into open houses for properties I want to tour but have no intention of buying. But I’ve never felt the need to make it official.

Yes, it’s sometimes complicated. My daughters have my first husband’s last name. (My opposition to the patriarchy succumbed to my reluctance to saddle another generation of women with my awful last name.) I have my last name. My husband has his. Buying plane tickets or showing up for parent-teacher conferences can be confusing. And I suspect if I didn’t live in a deep-blue coastal city, there’d be more raised eyebrows.

The idea of taking a husband’s last name always made me uncomfortable, reminding me of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, the handmaids, who exist to carry the babies of the elites, are stripped of anything that identifies them as individuals, including their names. They become just “of” the first name of their commanders: Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren. .

By changing her name — to Jennifer Muniz in a previous marriage and now to Jennifer Affleck — J. Lo is aligning herself with the majority of women in America. In the United States, only about 20 percent of women have kept their maiden names in recent years, according a 2015 analysis by The Upshot.

If you believe a 2003 “Access Hollywood” interview, changing her name to Ben’s has long been J. Lo’s plan. But the early aughts were a different time. In 2003, Donald Trump was a failing casino owner and tabloid mainstay. Covid had not yet arrived to lay bare the sexism of the household division of labor and flush millions of women from the work force. Roe v. Wade was the settled law of the land.

Maybe the question of whether or not a pop star-slash-global-brand changes her last name feels unimportant — or, in an era where Hillary Rodham Clinton ditches her maiden name (in some contexts) and Amy Coney Barrett keeps hers, politically insignificant. Between the recent Supreme Court decision, and #MeToo, and the prospect of attacks on contraception and same-sex marriage, feminists have bigger fish to fry.

But these gestures matter. Names confer identity. And married women continue to give theirs up, while married men rarely reciprocate. No matter what else changes, that power imbalance endures. Dr. Rachael Robnett, an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told me in a telephone interview that it reflects “men’s greater status and power in relationships, and also in society.”

In 2016, Dr.Robnett surveyed undergraduates about their perceptions of women who do, or do not, change their surnames after marriage. What she found is that the women who keep their names are perceived as less committed to the relationship, and that their husbands are perceived as less masculine. “Some of the students were very blunt about it — ‘oh, she wears the pants in the relationship,’” Dr. Robnett told me.

Whether or not to take a spouse’s name is a personal decision. But the personal is political — now more than ever, and especially for celebrities. Like every star, or every mortal with an Instagram account, Ms. Affleck has constructed a persona for public consumption. She has used her platforms to tell the tale of the upward trajectory of a strong, independent woman, a woman who has gone from backup dancer to global superstar. Her brand is intense competence and hard-core self-sufficiency — “in control and loving it,” as she sings in “Jenny From the Block.” Whoever Jennifer Affleck is in her private life, J. Lo is a woman who might love a man but doesn’t need one.

Imagine if, in her newsletter, she had said, “I love my husband. Right now, though, women are under attack, and I won’t participate in a tradition that’s historically rooted in women relinquishing their identities and their legal standing. I’m giving my husband my heart, but I’m keeping my name.” Imagine if Ben Affleck had become Ben Lopez.

“People just view it as a nice tradition that doesn’t matter,” Dr. Robnett said. “But it is about power. And it does matter.”

Jennifer Weiner is a novelist whose books include “Good in Bed,” “Mrs. Everything” and “The Summer Place.” She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, her daughters, and all three of their last names. She is on Instagram at @jenniferweinerwrites and on TikTok at @jenweinerwrites.

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