What’s in a name? Quite a lot.

“Imagine being born with a name like Miles Davis. You’ve already got it made.”

–from Trumpet by Jackie Kay

During my second year of college, I went to Ireland for spring break. I returned with a souvenir pin bearing my mother’s maiden name.  According to the back of this pin, her former surname is Gaelic for “troublesome” or “light-haired.” Coming from a family of sarcastic blondes, I was delighted to learn that little fun fact. Really, it shouldn’t matter to me one way or another. It isn’t my last name and I could just as easily be a pleasant (ha!) brunette. But our names–whether we acknowledge it or not–influence our identities and even our dispositions. In short, our names are more than something listed on our birth certificates.

Alike of the film Pariah (which you need to see) knows something about the complexity of identity. She is a seventeen-year-old poet and Brooklynite who also happens to be a lesbian. Her sexuality is never really the driving conflict of the film. Alike knows who she is and accepts it. The problem is that her parents refuse to see or support her sexuality. Her constant shift from the person she wants to be (complete with a girlfriend and masculine clothing) to the person her parents expect her to be (complete with a pink, clinging shirt) is the movie’s main source of tension.  Like so many other girls on this blog, Alike is caught between her parents’ ideologies and her own evolution.

I could go on and on about how Alike’s constant clothing changes symbolize her struggle, but I would probably bore you. Anyways, everything you need to know about the protagonist’s journey can be found in her first name. It is pronounced ah-LEE-kay, but is also visually semantic. For all you English majors out there, the OED defines alike as “Of two or more things: like one another, similar, of identical form or character.” Alike’s gruff-but-loving father and her flinty, worried mother have certain standards. They want Alike to adhere to the strict gender code that other teen girls seemingly follow without issue. Arthur and Audrey  see that Alike is physically uncomfortable in frilly clothes. They sense that her friendship with another girl from their church congregation is more than platonic. But they simply cannot handle it. Despite alike‘s coded meaning for conformity, their individual daughter will never act exactly as they planned.

For she is Alike with a better, bolder pronunciation. She deals with heartbreak, isolation and insensitivity from her parents, but you can’t help but feel happy for Alike throughout the movie. Even though she has to hide herself from her parents, Alike is decidedly living on her own terms. After an intense verbal fight between Alike, Arthur and Audrey, Alike decides to move out and attend a prestigious writing program on the other side of the country. Film critic Stephen Holden argues that “Alike does a better job than many young women of negotiating life…while protecting herself until it is time to break free.” That is true–to an extent. I am just as excited for Alike as Holden is, but her identity is not as simple as free/not free. Like her name, Alike’s role as an Outside Girl is up for multiple readings and interpretations.

Yes, Alike’s decision to break away from her family is agentic, independent and the best decision for her. But I have to mention that her otherness is not fully self-inflicted. Most of the other girls I have discussed on this blog are white and upper middle class. They have the freedom to buck tradition for awhile and can return to the status quo if they ever need to. However, Alike’s outsider status is threefold and the most complex: she is black, she is gay, and she needs to get away from her family’s constraints and gender policing. Yes, her family is middle class, but there is a distinct urgency to the way her parents behave. Arthur perceives Alike as “Daddy’s little girl,” but her burgeoning masculinity is a threat to his own. Audrey is so afraid of what other people will think that she sees Alike’s sexuality as a personal affront. How can she build a happy life for Alike when her daughter insists on wearing butch clothes and actively “turning into a man?”

I don’t say any of this to undermine Alike’s journey. The truth is that choosing to walk away from your social circle (with the full knowledge you can waltz right back) is another unfair privilege of being white or having money. Alike is a great character who decides to leave her community instead of waiting around to be pushed away. If I was in her position, I would do the same. But it is important to note that this isn’t just another case of getting bored and making a change in your life. This is a case of leaving everything you love behind and knowing full-well that it is for good. Director Dee Rees might have named the film after a social outcast, but I probably would label Alike “Brave as Hell.” Then again, her awesome name already says it all.

(Image #1 courtesy of en.wikipedia.org; #2 accessatlanta.com; #3 courtesy of usatoday.com)

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