A stranger in fiction
I often hear from readers about odd names they've come across. But seldom about odd fictional names.
As a rule, the most perfectly named people on Earth are fictional people. They have an unfair advantage, acquiring their names as fully formed adults with complete personalities and life stories. Whether mundane or fantastical, fictional names usually fit their characters so seamlessly you never even pause to consider why they were chosen.
But one current example is anything but seamless, as readers have been telling me. It's "Mackenzie Allen," the female U.S. president played by Geena Davis on the TV series "Commander in Chief." For a young girl, Mackenzie is a perfectly likely and fashionable name. But President Allen, at a fictional 45 years of age, is a good generation older than any real female Mackenzie...save one.
In November 1959, John Phillips named his new daughter Mackenzie after friend and fellow musician Scott McKenzie ("If you're going to San Francisco..."). Phillips later hit the big time with The Mamas and the Papas, but back in '59 he was still a little-known New York folk singer, not a name-fashion maker. The name Mackenzie wasn't launched into public circulation until 1975, when teenaged Mackenzie Phillips starred in the sitcom "One Day at a Time." Her name's popularity climbed slowly but steadily until the 1990s, when it really started to soar.
So the president Mackenzie doesn't ring true, and it makes you stop and ponder what the writers were reaching for with that choice of name. Some commentators have suggested a plot to boost a presidential run by one particular real-life woman. James Dobson, for instance, claimed that Mackenzie Allen "sounds remarkably, poetically like" Hillary Clinton. But that's some sketchy poetry--Mackenzie and Hillary are far apart in sound and style. (Besides, if you wanted to conjure up images of Hillary would you cast Geena Davis?)
The real key, I presume, is androgyny. "Commander in Chief" has roots in creator Rod Lurie's earlier film The Contender, about a female V.P. candidate. Her name was "Laine Hanson," another surname conversion with a masculine edge. Lurie's other female characters have conventially feminine names like Cynthia, Rebecca, and Amy. But it seems that when he wants to conjure up a woman who sounds strong, sounds like a leader...he makes her sound like a guy.
He's hardly alone in this quirk. Consider Alien-fighter Ripley, C.J. Cregg of "The West Wing," Dana Scully of "X Files," Murphy Brown, even "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," otherwise known as Dr. Mike. When Hollywood wants to signal that a female character is tough and an authority figure, the quick shorthand is to give her an androgynous name. The real world may give us Margaret (Thatcher), Madeleine (Albright) and Condoleezza (Rice), but TV gives us Mackenzie.
The whole point of "Commander in Chief" is that the president is a woman. Mature, responsible, mother of teenagers, ruler of the free world. How curious, then, to give her a name so agressively coltish. Imagine for a moment the same character with a more realistically womanly name...say Dianne, or Susan, or Elizabeth (all names of current senators). Doesn't the whole scenario suddenly seem more real? But perhaps, in a political fantasy, it doesn't pay to get too close to reality.