A stranger in fiction

Oct 6th 2005

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.


By Anonymous (not verified)
October 7, 2005 1:28 AM

I just assumed that by naming her Mackenzie they were signaling that the show takes place at least 35 years into the future...

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 7, 2005 1:42 AM

Yeah, it's probably going to take that long for the country to wake up and realize it needs a woman to get us out of all the messes we're in!On another topic, I have some friends who desperately wanted to name their son Kal-El but didn't do it, opting for William instead. Nicholas Cage had more guts! But his son will have to live up to Superman image.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 7, 2005 7:23 PM

That's a lot to live up to if you have the name of superman when he lived on a pplanet of super people. His coach will beg him to do wrestling in High School.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 8, 2005 4:07 PM

Mackenzie is actually Ms. Phillips' middle name; her first name is Laura. But you're right; nobody was giving their daughters the first name Mackenzie in the late '50s/early '60s, so it does sound jarring to have a 45-year-old female TV character with that name. There are plenty of time-period-appropriate names that sound "no-nonsense" enough to fit a female leader and aren't necessarily androgynous: Barbara, Susan, Jean, Carol, Janet, for instance.

By Psyche (not verified)
October 8, 2005 5:11 PM

There's also Alexis Carrington, the character played by Joan Collins' in Dynasty back in the early 1980s. I don't think Alexis had been much used on girls before that, and I've heard the whole point of naming that character Alexis was to make her sound strong.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 9, 2005 1:48 AM

hey now....what is wrong with the name Mackenzie for a woman?....it so happens that i am 21 and female and ironically Mackenzie Allen is my name...but i don't look like Geena Davis......believe me it does get quite interesting when I am talking on the phone to set up an appointment and giving out my name to them....for some reason most people think my first name is Allen

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 9, 2005 9:34 PM

>>hey now....what is wrong with the name Mackenzie for a woman?....it so happens that i am 21 and female and ironically Mackenzie Allen is my name...but i don't look like Geena Davis.Nothing wrong with the name Mackenzie; I like it a lot. I think Laura's (and my) point was that it was pretty much unheard of as a girl's name before the '70s so it just seems weird to have a 40-something woman character on TV with that name.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 10, 2005 1:52 AM

hmm, I live in Vermont and know quite a few kids with "red" names and "blue" parents--not just Ethan either, although the name does have special local significance.As for fictional characters, the last book I finished had a main character named "Moist von Lipwig"- anyone care to take that one on?

By rosewater99 (not verified)
October 10, 2005 9:14 PM

I have a baby name book from fifteen years ago which lists Mackenzie with other unisex surnames and says that all these names convey the image that a child will be a future CEO because as surnames they sound so serious and professional. It's funny because when I read through baby name message boards today, most people (or at least most name nerds) seem to view those same names as being too trendy and cutesy to fit a professional woman.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 12, 2005 3:54 PM

Thanks to the anonymous poster who pointed out that MacKenzie Phillips' FIRST name is Laura. I want to point out further that in all likelihood, Scott McKenzie took HIS name from HER, being as how his real name is Phil Blondheim and he was only 15 when she was born. (Note: He is MCKenzie, and she is MACKenzie.) He and John were in several bands together and remained friends until John's untimely death, so far as I know, but I think her MacKenzie came first, and I think it might have been a family name on her mother's side of the family.(My two cents.)

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 13, 2005 5:14 PM

In case it hasn't been pointed out, Mackenzie Phillips is really named Laura Mackenzie Phillips. She was known as Laura until she started acting and needed a distinctive stage name.

By -bill (not verified)
October 17, 2005 2:33 PM

ALSO...There's a doctor (female) on Grey's Anatomy who is presumably a 40-something named Addison. Three cheers to ABC for having shows with improbably named characters (for their age cohort)!

By Sid (not verified)
October 22, 2005 5:42 AM

i had a similar thought when the Movie Amelie came out. Amelie is a recent trendy name in France. it's roughly the French equivilent of naming yr 20something protagonist Madison. quite improbable.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 23, 2005 1:53 AM

On the show Hot Properties, also on ABC, there's an Emerson in her mid-twenties. Not as improbable as a 40ish Addison, but certainly not likely.

By Erin (not verified)
October 23, 2005 9:32 PM

Has anyone else ever watched America's Next Top Model on UPN? It is a reality show, and while there are always Jessica's and Ashley's, there are quite often girls with really unique names as well. Last year's winner was named Naima, there's been a Coryn, Jayla, Kyle (for a girl), Kahlen, Keenyah, Lluvy, Brita, Norelle, Magdelana, Toccara, Jenascia, Mercedes, Shandi, Xiomara, Yoanna, Elyse, Kesse... in the past 5 seasons. I always found it interesting that a larger than usual proportion of unusual names. Not only are the girls gorgeous, but they have cool names too?? How unfair!

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 25, 2005 8:34 PM

do you all ever stop to think that you may be over thinking this whole name thing? Was that name unusual in her age group? Maybe so but does that mean that parents wouldn't use that name then? no. I don't think it should take away from the character or the show. Just my two cents and I mean no offense.

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 30, 2005 8:02 AM

of course part of the reason they are getting such anachronistic names is that the writers are young and don't know what was really popular in the time period

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 31, 2005 3:19 PM

perhaps Addison on Grey's Anatomy was named after Addison's disease.-bill (again)

By Anonymous (not verified)
October 31, 2005 11:13 PM

Disease names--there's a whole new catagory for you, Laura! Malaria, anyone?

By Stitchwitch D (not verified)
November 6, 2005 5:20 PM

Even young writers must have met some women over 35 in their lives, like teachers, friends' mothers, mother's friends, etc. Good writers understand the power of names, and how much can be suggested about a character just by picking the right name.

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By Anonymous (not verified)
November 28, 2005 2:00 PM

hold up. my parents were going to name me madison. i dont understand what you are all freaking out about with names. My dad was fom Madison, GA, and so he liked the name. I bet there are 500 towns in america called mckenzie. I know there is McKenzie Tenn. maybe the character great great great grandfather was from McKenzie Tenn? What is this "those names are not in fashion now" BS?

By Anonymous (not verified)
November 29, 2005 7:08 PM

In response to the person who asked what was wrong with Mackenzie as a girl's name:The Mc- and Mac- prefixes mean "son of."Thus, Mackenzie = "son of Kenzie." And yes, Kenzie is a name, though not popular anymore.

By Anonymous (not verified)
December 2, 2005 3:06 AM

Correct me if i am wrong, but wasn't the host of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" named McKenzie? She is probably mid-40's.

By Anonymous (not verified)
December 7, 2005 12:14 AM

Meredith Viera took over as host of "Millionaire" when Regis went on to other adventures.As for the previous post about name fashions, that's the whole purpose of this blog, so of course we're all "freaking out about names"!

By Gedca (not verified)
December 8, 2005 4:31 PM

Going through these names my favorite "fictional character" name to recieve attention lately is Trinity. It went from not in the top 1000 in the 1980's (althiugh it was 990 in the 70's), to 627 in the 90's, to 48 in 2004.Really it makes sense. With the release of the Matrix recently the name is suddenly being heard alot. And after all it is a nice name with a little religous meaning to it.

By Anonymous (not verified)
December 10, 2005 4:41 AM

Mackenzie AllenHillary ClintonBoth first names are masculine names that are still considered androgynous but would rarely be given to a boy.Both last names are surnames that would be suitable as masculine first names.Oh no, there's no subliminal messaging there! *rolls eyes*

By Anonymous (not verified)
December 10, 2005 5:01 AM

take out the first masculine...please and thank you.

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 23, 2006 1:40 AM

I'm a twenty-something Madyson so I don't see why it seems so improbable for people to have "unusual" names for their age

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 25, 2006 4:25 AM


By Kerrie (not verified)
June 4, 2006 5:29 PM

My 21 year old son is named Mackenzie Allen. According to the name boos we researched, "Mackenzie" means "Son of the wise ruler" which is why my husbnad wanted to name him this, I just like the ruggedness of the name and how it made his last name sound more distinctive. He once asked me why I gave him a "girls" name after so many started naming their daughteres Mackenzie. I just told him to look up the meaning. Apparently some mothers either didn't look it up or didn't care. No big deal to me. Mackenzie Astin is Patty Duke's son.

By Moebius (not verified)
August 5, 2007 4:32 AM

"The real key, I presume, is androgyny.....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."

I'm glad to have found this site where somebody else has noticed this absurdity. It has gotten to the point where I have a simple method for deciding whether or not I will watch a show or movie about a groundbreaking female: If she has a feminine name, I will check it out. If her character has an androgynous or generally-masculine name, I automatically dismiss the show as cliched crap and don't watch one minute of it.

By Moebius (not verified)
August 5, 2007 4:35 AM

...and I might add, the writers of such shows are demonstrating that deep down they are really not feminists but masculinists.

By MacKenzie (not verified)
January 26, 2008 4:17 PM

I'm a 14 year old female with the name MacKenzie. There is not other MacKenzie in my graduating class, but really wheather the name is seen as masculine or femine depends on the personality of your child. I'm a cheerleader, very girlie and outgoing, so to the people around me, MacKenzie is a very girly name.

February 26, 2014 12:23 PM

While it may well be true that "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," Sigourney Weaver's Alien-fighter Ellen Ripley is a poor example, "Ellen" being a rather unambiguously feminine name. One might argue that everyone calls Ellen Ripley by her gender-neutral surname, but that's not specific to her character - it's true of nearly every character in the franchise. The drudgery and isolation of being in space is evoked by the fact that even people who have lived and worked together for years call each other Lambert and Burke and Ash and Vasquez and Ripley.

As for Dana Scully: while it's always dangerous to speculate what other people might consider to be the norm, I don't think Dana is generally regarded as a gender-ambiguous name. In America, at least, it reads a lot like Leslie or Tracy. We're aware that men can have that name, and can probably remember exactly one male celebrity so named (Carvey, Nielsen, Morgan). But if you tell us the next person walking through the door is named Dana Smith or Leslie Jones or Tracy Ripley, we would be surprised, though not exactly shocked, if it was a man.




June 17, 2014 12:36 PM

A slight problem here, that I don't think anyone else has picked up on yet...
(EDIT: ah, actually, there's a mention directly above this (beyond the spam). Not sure how I missed that, as I scanned through specifically for it and it's right at the end of the thread ... oh well, onwards we go anyhow)

"Ripley"'s actual name in the Aliens series is... Ellen Ripley. Her given name is a very feminine one which manages to encompass a variant rendering of that of one of the most famous women from all of written history - Helen (or, if you like, Elen), the legendary beauty of Troy, as well as the French pronoun that corresponds to the English "she". Ellen is only referred to by her surname because, well, that's the convention on military and naval vessels, including spacecraft. All of the other crewmembers, at least in the first two films, are referred to by their surnames, including the female soldier (something E.R. definitely is NOT), Vasquez...

Oh, and her middle name is Louise. And the whole ship is run by "Mother"...

In fact, now I look it up, the credits don't seem give anything OTHER than the surnames for any of the crew, and thus it's an unknownable, perhaps deliberately genderless mismash. Ripley, Brett, Dallas, Lambert, Parker, Ash, Kane, Hicks, Hudson, Burke, Vasquez, Bishop ... can you spot the male and female from within that? And of course we then have Newt... aka Rebecca Jorden. It looks like a similar convention is used in the later films too, though I'm less familiar with them, and it even seems to extend to excising their given names from the script... literally all we have for some of them is the surname.

It's not that the characters actually have unusually androgynous names (though, as it's projecting through a lens that sticks out a couple hundred years in to the future, who can be certain?), it's just that the militaristic conventions governing how the whole system runs relies on using their intrinsically less gendered (and, thanks to history, more likely to be masculine) surnames.

Shifting gears but staying on the same road, C.J. Cregg's actual given names? Claudia Jean. Pretty feminine once again, so long as you take "Jean" as being the English form of "Jeanne", rather than the French form of "John". One presumes she took to using the initialised form just because it was a lot quicker and easier to say - and sounded more American, rather than, say, German - than "Claudia"... but "C" sounded a bit lonely all by itself.

Dr Quinn's position sort of hinges on how androgynous you think Michaela and its variants (including the Russian "Mikhalia") happens to be, seeing as it's basically "Michael" with an "a" hastily tacked on the end when the child's parents realised that merely hoping for a boy doesn't do diddly squat against a 50:50 coin flip. The strangest thing is how it gets shortened to "Mike" - more realistically I've found it gets shortened to Mickey or Mick... the latter is still fairly masculine but, cartoon mice aside, the former is pretty androgynous bordering on feminine these days... although also somewhat diminutive (...probably better to leave the discussion around THAT for another time?).


PS, to my ears, Mackenzie sounds androgynous edging toward feminine (sorry, Mackenzie Crooke... ;), and Laine is definitely more feminine than masculine. Simply going by the "feel" and its similarity to more well-established names (e.g. Raine, for a start, and Aine/Anya), and completely ignoring its roots... (which, let's face it, very few of us know for the vast majority of names we run across day-to-day anyhow). 

...can't do much to fix "Murphy", however :D ... what were her parents thinking?

June 17, 2014 12:33 PM

-zappo- (this original form of this comment now folded into the one above)

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