Name Bias Trope

A friend of mine pointed out a few months ago that in television shows the men are overwhelmingly referred to by their surnames while the women are referred to by their given names.  You may not have noticed it, but next time you are watching a show (that has a good mix of male and female characters in more less equal ranking) see if it is true.  It happens on Bones, Eureka! and Psych just to mention a few.  There are exceptions, such as Stargate: SG1, but that is because they are trying to be true to the military.

The fact is that surnames and given names have a different level of familiarity, and with that different levels of respect.  It is well established in our culture that using a person’s given name is pretty familiar.  You refer to people you do not know or people with a higher rank or standing than you by their last name.   It is expected that you will not refer to these people, or most people really, by their first name unless invited to do so or if they introduce themselves as such.

So why is it so common to call the men on these shows by their surname and the women by their given? Why is the head of the main company in Eureka! called Allison, but the Sheriff is called Carter?  When there was a man as head of the company, he was called Stark (not Nathan, except by Allison who was his ex-wife and co-director).  Even Fargo is referred to by his last name and he is the biggest screw up in town!  I am not arguing that this is a purposeful show of disrespect through familiarity.  I believe that it is an unconscious symptom of the (also unconscious) perceived differences between men and women.   It seems most likely that it is assumed that you can be more socially familiar with a woman, but men expect more outward signs of respect.

You could argue that, in some cases, this is just a way to differentiate between two people with the same surname.  Take, for instance, in the Harry Potter novels, the Lestrange couple.   There is Bellatrix and there is her husband.  He is referred to as Lestrange almost exclusively, while Bellatrix is always referred to by her first name.  Why isn’t it the other way around.  Bellatrix is clearly and undeniably the more important of the two.  Why doesn’t she get the more important name?

There are exceptions to this thread, but I believe they only highlight the difference.  To go back to the example of Eureka!*, there are two male characters and a female that go against it.

First of all, we have Jo(sephina) Lupo. She goes by Lupo a lot of the time.  However, she is possibly the butchest (and most gorgeous) character on the show!  She is ex-military (special ops of some sort) and knows how to use every weapon you can imagine.  And owns most of them.  She’s tough and no one would think to do anything but respect her.  The fact that she has so many dominant masculine traits (do not get me wrong though, you never forget she is a woman.  She wanted to be a ballerina and she is smokin’ even at her most severe) puts her in that male category.

On the other side of Lupo’s coin is Vincent.  He’s the effeminate (probably gay) owner and chef of Café Diem.  His character does not even have a last name.  This one named status does not remove him from this discussion, however.  He is not a spectacle in the way Prince or Madonna are.  He is a normal man, even if he is the center of all the town’s gossip.  Like I said, he is very effeminate and has a lot of characteristics you would attribute to a stereotypical woman.  He is gossipy, loves to cook, is very affectionate and he is easily pushed around (note I said STEREOTYPICAL woman, not actual in ANY way).  Because he has this often-subservient manner, despite his importance in the town, he is relegated to the ranks of the rest of women and is referred to by his first name.

That brings us to our final exception and possibly the most interesting, Dr. Henry Deacon.   He is not feminine or have some minor menial role.  He is arguably the most brilliant man in a town of brilliant people.  Yet, he is still referred most often as “Henry”.  In this case, the use of the first name almost puts Henry above all the other characters.  He does not need formality because he is so well respected.  He is the mayor.  He fixes everything from cars to time travel.  He doesn’t need the formality because he transcends it.

You may also be wondering why I consider such a small thing important.  Who care what a character is called, right?  They are treated with respect so who cares what name they use.  But the fact that there is a difference is telling.  The difference is clearly related to gender so it is an issue worth exploring.  On its own this issue, specifically in television shows,  probably will not tell you much, but once you include with other disparities between the genders you might start seeing a pattern.




* If you do not watch Eureka! I highly recommend it.  Unless you want believable science.  And if that is what you want you really should not watch any science-y television shows, but stick to the science channel.



About Tori

I am a graduate student working on my masters in Women and Gender studies. My masters thesis is on the gender nonconformity and ambiguity in modern film.
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4 Responses to Name Bias Trope

  1. Sita says:

    Great post! I hadn’t noticed the discrepancy (at least not on a conscious level) until you brought it up. Very interesting read. =) And now that I think about it, even in GLEE this holds true–Will is usually referred to as Schuester or Mr. Schu, but Sue is usually called Sue and sometimes Ms. Sylvester.

  2. wow says:


    • Tori says:

      I realize you are a troll of some sort, but I’m going to respond like you are an interested reader. I am open to disagreement. In fact, I want it so I can strengthen my opinions and arguments. However, I would appreciate more detailed feedback. Which part is idiotic? My writing style? My point? My examples? The variety of my examples (or lack of variety more likely)? Did I have a lot of grammar mistakes? Anyway, have fun with your trolling!

  3. Person of Interest says:

    A lot of your reasoning seems flawed and over conclusive without referring to facts or exploring the reasons that characters have the names that they have. I will admit that I have never seen Eureka but those three examples are a little absurd. Lupo appears to be a sheriff, so it makes sense that she would be referred to by her last name (similar to Lassiter and O’Hara from Psych (a show that I do watch)). Saying that an effeminate man is somehow relegated to the status of a woman by being referred to by his first name does not make any sense and says a lot about some potentially latent negative views that you have about women. Maybe Vincent is such the toast of the town that everyone is familiar with him. Also the fact that you would say that Henry transcends names and make it a gender issue (when race would make more sense for the potential ‘snub’) is just plain reaching. Also, regarding Psych, are you saying that Gus is somehow referred to by his last name because calling someone named Burton Guster seems more like a nickname than anything else. As far as the Lestranges, Bellatrix certainly is the more important character which is why she is referred to by her first name. JK Rowling likes to do a lot of obvious, Latin-based names to reveal details about the character. Bellatrix likes war and her husband, Rudolph, is pretty much nameless. I guess she could have gone with a war-based last name but that would seem to give the authority of the name as description to her husband when that is not the case.

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