This week’s question comes from A.V. Club Deputy TV Editor Danette Chavez:
What’s your favorite time that a work of pop culture used your name?
There are few Danettes in pop culture—in the world, really. Growing up, the only time I saw my name was on my schoolwork, or written in my books to declare ownership. Beyond our first names, I have absolutely nothing in common with DC Comics’ Danette Reilly, a.k.a Firebrand (the second Firebrand, if we want to get specific). She’s a volcanologist turned flame-throwing crimefighter, early member of the All-Star Squadron, and an heiress, to boot. But I discovered her in grade school, when I was first getting into comic books, which was also when I was getting shit from some of my peers for being into comic books. It was reaffirming to see my name in the pages of my new passion, especially since Danette/Firebrand was also pretty cool and kind (and could set things on fire). Eventually, I found out the character is named after Danette Thomas (now Dann Thomas), wife of DC’s Roy Thomas and a comic book writer in her own right, which just made my discovery even cooler.
What a fun question! You know, when I think about pop culture using my name, it usually goes the other way. Like, say, in 1997, when Will Smith’s Big Willie Style made it a truly terrible year to be a fat middle-schooler named Will. Or the roughly billion times I’ve had to smile politely at a horde of uncles doing their best Mr. Ed-style “Hello, Wilbur”s. Or the time my sixth-grade basketball coach gave me a “motivation” award at the end of the season because I sucked at everything else, but the other kids on the team had come up with the chant “Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.” That one isn’t even a pop culture thing, it’s just one more way it sucks to have a name that’s both a noun and a helping verb. God, I hate my name. “Danger, Will Robinson!” Yep, never fucking heard that one before! Jesus Christ. “Fire at Will.” Clever! Good one! Let’s all get jiggy with it, right?!
The question? What question? Oh. Uh… Will Riker. Will Riker’s a pretty good dude.
I’ve heard my share of Sam-I-Am jokes, but this question is an embarrassment of riches for a Sam. Do I pick Samwise Gamgee? Samwell Tarly? Sam Wilson? Hell, I’d even count Samus Aran as a Sam, but there’s really only one choice for me: Sam Witwicky from those awful Transformers movies. I couldn’t care less about the character, as he’s kind of an entitled jackass, but I’ve been obsessed with The Transformers since I was a kid and it’s just really damn cool to hear Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime say my name. If I close my eyes and ignore the terrible movies surrounding the brief seconds where Optimus Prime says “Sam,” it’s almost like he’s talking to me! Finally, I can achieve my lifelong dream of becoming Optimus’ best friend, and now he’ll show up outside my house, tell me he needs my help to stop the Decepticons, and then take me away from this stupid real life. But then I open my eyes and realize he’s talking to Shia LaBeouf….
I was not surrounded by many other Gwens growing up: Mine was the type of name you would never find on personalized bicycle license plates or Disneyworld souvenirs. My name was so exotic that for awhile as a kid I went by the fake name of Wendy, which at least people had heard of, thanks to the Good Little Witch and Peter Pan. That all changed when I discovered my brother’s copy of Origins Of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee, in which the chatty and engaging author traces the history of a variety of his creations, including Spider-Man. Then Lee introduced me to my first and favorite Gwen in pop culture: Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s glamorous blond girlfriend, outfitted in white go-go boots and kicky black headband. She was the first proof I had that other Gwens not only existed, but that they could be super-cool. Unfortunately, Green Goblin killed her (or was it the webbing?). But now Earth-65’s version of Stacy, Spider-Gwen, attaches my name to a straight-up super-hero, which makes me ridiculously happy after so many years of Gwen anonymity.
There isn’t a whole ton of aspirational Nicks in popular culture. There’s Nick Tortelli from Cheers, and he’s a manipulative scumbag. Nick At Nite is fine television, but it’s difficult to identify with a rotating block of programming. I was teasingly called Nikolai Volkoff (the
“evil Russian wrestler”) with some regularity in grade school, which is a great insult to sum up an era defined by the cold war and rampant theatrical steroid abuse. But none of this comes close to the time I sat across from my father and presented him with my astonishingly, painfully stupid notion—presented with the utter straight-faced sincerity that only a teenager is capable of—that I was going to legally change my name to Nicodemus when I turned 18. Why? So I could better emulate the magical, Gandalf-like rat of the same name from The Secret of NIMH. I would still go by Nick, I assured him. To my father’s credit, he refrained from calling me a moron and instead patiently suggested I wait before deciding. He was right, of course, and demonstrated the wisdom of Nicodemus himself.
The name feels omnipresent now, but honestly, there didn’t seem to be that many Alexes running around the pop-culture landscape back when I was a kid. Still, there was always one place I could turn if I wanted to hear my name uttered aloud on TV: reruns of Family Ties, with Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton. The character was funny, which helped, and after the first few years of “hippie parents vs. conservative kid!” shtick was toned down in favor comedy based in interpersonal relationships on the series, it didn’t even matter that much that Alex was kind of a dickish Republican at heart. (Nothing tones down a TV character’s worst tendencies quite like having them explode in popularity thanks to a star-making turn by its actor.) For years, when a kid at school wanted to name-check me somehow, it was always with a reference to the arrogant and slick oldest child of the Keaton household. And thanks to this question, I now know the “P.” stands for “Peace.” ...Jesus, Steven and Elyse really were a couple of dirty hippies, huh.