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Photography sourced from Nylon

31 March 2023

Pseudonyms: What's in a Name?

FELIX GENDRY

Have you ever used a pseudonym? I have a couple different ones, for different purposes of course. 

 

First, there’s the one I give to Uber drivers when I want to practice my lying skills. They know my real name from Uber, obviously, so it’s just a riff on that. It’s a pretty ugly nickname. But I digress! It’s attached to a fake identity in which I’m a chemical engineering student from Vancouver. My dad is a ski instructor and my mom works in HR at a hospital. I feel like I could have a girlfriend in this one, but I’ve never gotten that far. 

 

Then, I’ve got one for men at bars. There’s an indie singer-songwriter who has the same name, so if you try to Google it, he fills up all the results. It’s practically airtight. I’ve used it in some dicey circumstances, but those are stories for another day.

 

I’m publishing a poem under a pseudonym sometime this spring too; I’m not sure what the name is or when they’re going to post it — it’s all at the discretion of the literary magazine that took pity on me. 

 

I mentioned that last one because (while I love to write and I always have), I hate the pressure that comes with blending identity and creation. What I want, and I’d wager that most pseudonym users agree, is to share my work without it becoming a statement about its creator. 

 

Anyways, the reason I’m talking about this is because it’s a gateway, a microcosm of the problem that I have with being a human in general. 

 

Growing up with the rise of Instagram and such, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about self-image — I’m a moth and the looking glass is my flame. I used to spend, like, hours upon hours in front of my bathroom mirror, picking apart my nose, my ears, my hair. It consumed every waking thought I had. There were “safe” mirrors and mean, “realistic” mirrors, which were the ones under that oppressive, white fluorescent lighting fashionable in public high schools. But I’m straying from the topic at hand!

 

What I’m trying to talk about (but keep letting my navel-gazing rants get in the way of) is that being a person, having my first and last names, my face, my body, my voice — feels so entrapping.

 

Especially in an age where so much of our identity is an external projection. Social media is this weird digital and visual depiction of self, whose success is measured by the volume of positive responses it garners. I feel like I’m a product with the Sisyphean task of getting everyone I meet to subscribe.

 

So, pseudonyms are a kind of fun way to give myself a break from it. Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina, or Love in a Maze,” is a fantastic example of how anonymity grants a playful sort of freedom; basically, an eighteenth-century, aristocratic woman wants to act like a prostitute. So, she puts on a disguise, goes to the opera and brings home a man. Eventually though, she falls in love with him — but he doesn’t want romance with a prostitute, so she puts on three other disguises and charms him as those characters. It works every time, until she gets pregnant and has to reveal her true identity. Understandably, she scares the guy off by revealing how she’s duped him.

 

I think the moral of the story was that while you can superficially escape yourself, through a pseudonym or disguise or whatever, you can’t escape the reality of being human. The relationships you form are real, no matter what. Your feelings can’t be transformed into somebody else’s — you’re always still you. Eventually, that’s gonna catch up with you: physically, emotionally, morally.

 

The reality of being a person is so dreadfully inescapable! So what do you do about it?

 

There’s this cliche in coming-of-age narratives that self-discovery comes when you’re tasked with solving your own problems. When you have nobody to rely on but yourself, that’s when you find out who you are. 

 

In my experiences, though, the notion of ‘who I am’ isn’t static. I can discover who I am at any given moment, but who I was an hour ago isn’t who I am now. 

 

And yet, my perception and projection of self is an amalgamation of everything I’ve ever been. How are you supposed to reconcile that into a cohesive identity? It’s so much more fun to escape it. 

 

Such discussions seem to end without a satisfying conclusion. First, there’s the option of running  from identity (Fantomina showed me that this is unsustainable.) Alternatively, you could resolve to reject everyone else’s opinion. This seems liberating, but alienating too. I think, deep down, everybody cares what their peers think; it’s inconsiderate not to. 

 

Then, briefly, I’ll wonder if people are more forgiving and perceptive than I’m giving them credit for. Reality shatters that delusion with ease. 

 

Far and wide, people are shamed, shunned and ostracised. Let me present the recent example of 2021’s Free Britney movement: curated documentaries broke her narrative into the mainstream. Everyone rallied around Britney after her moving testimony. Britney’s lucid, vulnerable recounting fit into the documentaries’ narrative of a lovable pop-star wronged by predatory management.

 

 In 2023, nothing about Britney’s story has changed — wrongfully stripped of her rights for years, she is understandably traumatised beyond our comprehension. What has changed, however, is her public image. 

 

Far from the glossy PR of BBC’s The Battle for Britney, Britney’s personal Instagram brims with grainy nude shots and repetitive spinning videos set in her living room. Her captions, laced with emotional intensity, read like a diary as they bounce from dark recollections to cultural commentary. 

 

With her autonomous reassertion of self has come newfound scrutiny; viral tweets and top-liked comments ask “should they have kept her in a conservatorship?” Meanwhile, gossip outlets ponder her “erratic” behaviour — as if we didn’t all learn the atrocities she went through, as if there is no reason to empathise. 

 

Britney’s case embodies this conundrum; social media demands a public image in the name of authenticity, yet these platforms are venues to ridicule vulnerability. When documentaries framed Britney as a collection of nostalgic 00’s albums and glamorous perfume campaigns, their disguise insulated her. Asserting agency over her public image, Britney became a target once more. What is the moral there? 

 

Something about our nature, or at least our culture, encourages us to villainise and ridicule imperfection. Being tied to my face, my name, my profiles, these imperfections become traceable. To be sloppy, stupid, rude, or unattractive is to damage a brand that I didn’t ask to  manage.

 

So, knowing this, how do you decide who to be? Can we really be authentic if we’re always tailoring ourselves to other people’s standards?

 

“Part of creating anything is knowing when to stop.” Someone close to me said that when she looked at a painting. It’s interesting in relation to life though, because life doesn’t stop — with every decision, you’re forming and reforming yourself. So why do I think of my identity as something to create? Maybe the reality of being yourself is something to experience, to sense.

 

I don’t make a conscious decision to be hungry, I just feel that way and verbalise it. Then, I’ll eat and transform into a not-hungry person. So, my identity changes along with my experiences, and nobody questions it. We all get hungry, so it’s an acceptable thing to feel.

 

I’m just saying, I wish feelings were like that. Being melancholic or funny or bitter or obnoxious or confident — why do those traits have to be permanent? Aren’t we all like that sometimes?

 

I’m not trying to find a half-baked answer to the existential questions that have plagued me all my life. I think that’s kind of a fruitless and boring endeavor, so that’s not what my writing is about. I’m just tearing apart my thoughts. Digesting, deconstructing, dissolving and reforming them into something better. 

 

Other people have spent time with these ideas. Sandra Pankhurst, subject of Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner, reached a succinct conclusion in an interview. 

 

Pankhurst could be listed as a textbook definition of moral ambiguity — I won’t give her story away, but trust that it’s laden with contradictions. Reading the memoir, I swung from empathy to frustration to admiration. Ultimately, though, I think Pankhurst gets me. 

 

Speaking about her death, she said, “‘Really to me it’s false bullshit when we all say, ‘Oh, such a lovely person.’ Oh, crap! I was a bitch at times, I was this, I was that, sometimes I was nice; get over it. Everyone who dies is perfect.”

 

We’re all a bitch at times; we’re all this, that, we’re all sometimes nice. I’ll learn from Sandra and get over it.

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