“Oh, na, na, what’s my name?”
“Oh, na, na, what’s my name?” - The challenge of taking control of your own identity.
Being original and maintaining a clear image for branding has always been important for celebrities, especially those who gain their income based on the marketing of their character.
In January, London’s Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that Topshop had used an image of Rihanna on a T-shirt without her permission and so the high street giant is banned from selling it. Rihanna won the initial case in July 2013 when she sued Arcadia, the company that owns Topshop, for $5m. The ruling judges stated that the use of Rihanna’s image without permission gave the impression that the singer was endorsing the product and damaged her prominent reputation in the fashion world. Topshop appealed against the 2013 ruling which is the reason it has come back up to trial.
Apart from highlighting how easy it is in today’s digital age to rip off an image for purposes that the image was not intended for, this case struck a chord with me for another reason. In his defence of Topshop, Geoffrey Hobbs QC argued that Rihanna was using British law incorrectly to imply that “only a celebrity may ever market his or her own character.” I find this statement by Hobbs problematic, both in terms of the case in which it is referring to, but also in its implications with the wider world if you substitute ‘celebrity’ with ‘individual’.
The statement that “only a celebrity may ever market his or her own character” means that only the person in question has the right to promote themselves and the qualities which they would like to be associated with. Only a celebrity has the authority to transmit and distribute their own image and the associations, which follow from that image. By claiming that this is a misuse of British law, Hobbs is arguing that it is acceptable for people other than the celebrity involved to endorse, transmit and promote aspects, qualities and their subsequent associations on behalf of the celebrity. In this way, the character of the celebrity is not the vision or plan of the celebrity, but an amalgamation of all kinds of influences from media, fashion, adverts, etc. We gain an understanding of the celebrity, their character and their values from where we see their image and what we associate with those images. Of course there are strict laws concerning endorsement and advertising, but Topshop blurred the lines as they were not using Rihanna to advertise them, indeed it could be argued that Topshop were advertising Rihanna.
The point is that Topshop used Rihanna’s image without permission. They exploited her character to sell £22 tops. And while Rihanna’s grievance was the theft of the image and the potential loss of earnings, I think that this case can be applied, however tenuously, to everyday life.
It should be that we, as individuals, have the authority to express ourselves and be known for however we wished to be known. Unfortunately, the world is not so ideal and people have very long memories, are unwilling to forgive and sometimes unable to move on. It is complicated and difficult to maintain control of how you are presented to the world, especially with the ease of the internet and the rapid pace of communications it can take just a few short minutes to have your character changed and marketed differently for the foreseeable future. It is accurate that people’s opinions of you will be formed by external factors outside of your control and that is something that has to be dealt with individually.
Having said that, I have always had an issue with identity and the way that we classify and rigorously confine people to certain archetypes and figurative boxes. Identity is a social construct, your identity is as much about how others perceive you as how you perceive yourself which is why it is so important that your character is marketed in a way in which you find appropriate. The names that we answer to and identify with are a major part of how we are received and inadvertently shape our character. I only realised this in my first year of university, in a seminar introducing myself:
“Hi, I’m Madeleine, that’s what I’ll be on the register, but it’s fine if you call me Maddy.”
The reaction from my lecturer to my simple introduction was totally unexpected. He put his pen down, looked me in the eye and said, “Are you sure you want to be called that? Take your name, embrace it! Don’t let anyone ever give you a name that you do not like because it becomes a way of owning you. Never let anyone own you.” He gave the same response to the Francesca, Alexandra and Eleanor who all insisted on shortening their names, then continued to explain identity theory and the critical school of discourse which theorises the ideas of the sign (the word, for example the word ‘table’) and the signifier (the image of a table) which combine to produce the signified (your understanding of a table through your knowledge of the word ‘table’ and its image). This can easily be applied to your name and the word and its image that create associations, which manifest into your character.
Now, this is a very watered down version of discourse theory, and if you want to find out about it in more detail google Althusser or Foucault. The essential idea is that names, nicknames, pet names, slang, slurs, all change the way in which you are perceived, like the image of Rihanna on a Topshop Tee changes the way in which she is viewed, however unconsciously, even if it is only in a microscopic way, the fact that the change has occurred is significant.
I am an advocate for personal change. Your identity should shift, change and evolve as you grow and experience new things. Change is the most natural process and without it we would not advance and participate in a cycle of rejuvenation, which is so important for maintaining an interest and excitement for life. However, the individual should dictate change. Indeed, often change is thrust upon us, for example through a stark change in circumstances such as moving or starting a new job, sometimes change is conscious, a deliberate move to alter an aspect of your life or outlook after an important experience, such as travelling. However change occurs is not significant, unless others who wish to define the individual in a certain way force the change upon the individual. This external manipulation of identity can be conscious or unconscious and is not always negative or derogatory, despite various connotations with ‘manipulation’. In fact, this could be affectionate name-calling, exaggeration of facts, or even just closely linking one person to another, and therefore the individual becomes identified by that other person.
Identity is one thing that should be totally yours. Unique, different, and clear. Personal identity is blurred explicitly by history, but in the more superficial level which this article engages with, it is changed by others; friends, acquaintances, strangers. This external manipulation of identity is inevitable but something that I encourage you to fight, specifically in terms of naming, as before you know it, you could become an embodiment of the name which you do not wish to have.
But this is coming from the girl whose mother once shouted across the playground to tell off my classmate for calling me ‘Madz’. Maybe this is just a chip on my shoulder and I should just get over it, be like Juliet:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.” (Romeo & Juliet II.i.85-6)
Madeleine is a final year student at the University of Exeter studying BA English with proficiency in French who has developed her writing and editing through her involvement with Her Campus Exeter. In her free time, Madeleine loves discovering new music in preparation for the UK festival season and searching for opportunities which can broaden her horizons, most recently this was volunteering as a teacher in Beijing, China, where she was immersed in Chinese culture and tradition. There are few things in this world that bring Madeleine more joy than glitter, velvet and sequins and her ideal dinner party guests would be Queen Elizabeth I, George Orwell and Taylor Swift. Currently, with graduation looming, Madeleine is exploring the idea of taking time out to travel the world on a shoe string before embarking upon a career in international humanitarian aid.