Written by Lauren V. San Miguel
What’s in a name? Shakespeare asked himself the same question, yet Shakespeare never experienced backhanded racism. But no, really, what’s in a name? A lot. In a name, there is history, tradition, culture, and love, so why is it that Hollywood and other platforms of entertainment keep choosing the most generic, stereotypical, and easily pronounceable names for characters?
Representation matters—we know that—and as progressive as we are getting in representing POC and LGBTQ+ people in the media, why is there still a thought picking at the back of my brain whenever a POC character comes on screen? The thought is almost like a nag, causing me to cringe whenever I see the name of some character that I’m sure I heard some racist kid at my middle-school call a POC kid at least once. So, if representation matters, like the depictions of the characters themselves and their respective cultures…so do their names, right?
Oftentimes, the depictions of POC characters can be stereotypical and demeaning. A lot of that also has to do with their names, which is a detail so small that it can fly right over our heads, but the groups represented notice. Although the last thing noticed by an audience is a name, it establishes a sense of normalization to white people, allowing them to think that this character—will be every Latinx, Black, Indigenous, or Asian person they’ll meet is harmful. The notion allows an ignorant person to assume that the POC they will meet will be a stereotype with a stereotypical name, which can be incredibly harmful.
The first example of the awful name choices a white person has made is the horrifically iconic Cho Chang. Yes, we will never forgive, and we will never forget that She-who-will-not-be-named (ironic, isn’t it?) chose the name Cho Chang for a Scottish-Asian character in the legendary books that go by the name of Harry Potter.
Co-founder of Women in Film and my dear friend Evita kindly pointed out how every character in the books has a quirky, creative name—probably created under much pondering and time—but the one Asian character gets Cho Chang. Although “Cho” and “Chang” individually are real surnames of Asian origin, based in Korea and China, the usage was a prime example of what an ignorant white person automatically assumes would be an Asian name. The author just sounded it out, I assume.
Another South-Asian character I’d like to mention briefly, aside from the only pair of non-white twins in Harry Potter, is Apu—an Indian immigrant who owns a corner store in the Simpsons who is, to speak lightly, poorly represented. As to start, his last name is Nahasapeemapetilon. These “habits”, we will call them, are more than just blatantly ignorant, rude, or lazy—they’re very, very harmful to the party in question, the party in question being people of color.
Casually using un-researched names can influence others to use these names with malicious intent. I, for example, recently heard a half-Asian figure of Texas and future lawyer mention she got called L*ng L*ng while talking to middle schoolers through Zoom. Similar to Asian names and their stereotypes, come the Latinx community. As common as Gomez, Sanchez, Rodriguez, and Lopez’s names are, the use of some of the most common (because common means easy) Latinx or Hispanic names in media is exhausting.
So not only are most Latinx characters the comedic relief, drug lords, immigrants, or the only Latino comedic relief in a military movie who is only referred to by his last name which is always one of the examples I have provided. For another example of harmful surname usage, is in Superstore— a refreshingly woke sitcom about a group of oddball employees working at a megastore—where Dina, a white woman, calls Amy, a Latina woman, “Rodriguez” even though (through marriage) her last name is Dubanowski and then Sosa (maiden). It’s this reoccurring joke that never gets resolved or worked out, with no repercussions shown in the otherwise progressive show.
Take black characters, for example, who can be named “Lakisha” in a weak attempt to make her character sound “more ghetto” even though Lakisha is just a name, like Emily and Monica—it’s just ghettoized to make audiences forever associate these names with the demonized “ghetto” that they use to control black characters with to push stereotypes even further. The same goes for Middle Eastern characters. Or, like with Native Americans; how “Tonto” played by Johnny Depp in the Lone Ranger actually means “dumb” in Spanish, or how any character that is Native American always has some name somebody used Scrabble for or threw a dart at a wall filled with adjectives and animal names and called it a day. It doesn’t take much time or effort to research traditional names or surnames and their origins within the original locations of their respective tribes.
Although many of the names used can be common, it nevertheless shows a lack of effort. Though it doesn’t always mean ill-intent, it proves a lot of writers, directors just don’t care. It is as if every white guy you saw in a movie was called “William Roberts,” or every white girl was called “Emily.” Research is not that hard. Yes, it can take time, and yes, it can take effort, but yes, it’s the bare minimum, and yes, we will all appreciate it.
A tip for my writers out there; consult. Collaborate with someone in that group you’re writing about—ask around, or just research and pick a name significant to who the character is—even if part of the character’s arc isn’t even about their ethnicity or culture. Pick a name that isn’t whitewashed or conventional for a primarily Western audience. Make them learn the name, and make them say it right.
Written by Lauren V. San Miguel
Lauren is a contributing writer to the Women in Film zine and is currently based in the U.S. She focuses mainly on fiction writing, screenplays, and political journalism and plans to study law in the future. Her free time is spent learning new languages and listening to soundtracks, occasionally watching the movies that belong to them!