My wife and I have our third boy due in March 2020 and have been struggling to find a name that can hold its own against our first two boys, Wolf and Bear. The conversation has taken place in snippets, sometimes in person and sometimes through a bathroom door. Random texts pepper our days and spontaneous outbursts interrupt our phone calls.
“What about Moose?”
“I’d think of Super Troopers. He’s so bulgy, he’s like a Moose!
“Ugh. I don’t mind the name, but he’d end up getting called Perry for short, and I would always think of a guy from college who is the worst human I’ve ever met.
“It can have more than one meaning.”
“Yeah, but everyone is going to go with THAT meaning.”
This has been going on for months.
I’m usually the instigator. Working from home means more time on my hands to ponder it. I once followed her around the house, reading possibilities from a National Geographic bird book.
“Makes me think of Winnie the Pooh.”
“Northern Beardless Tyranulet?”
Sometimes we have names that stick for a few days but then we grow tired of them.
Otter was in the lead for a while.
“Wasn’t one of the characters from Animal House named Otter?”
“Yeah, you are right. The lead guy? What’s the actor?”
“Mathews? Mathieson! Tim Mathieson!”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Do you think people would make that association?”
“Meh, if they did, it would be a good conversation started with the boys.”
It was actually a good conversation starter for my wife and me.
Animal House is a “classic” that continues to do the rounds in dorm rooms of college freshmen everywhere, at least in poster form, with John Belushi/Bluto’s incredulous face and “College” etched on the chest of his drab and dirty sweatshirt.
Rewatching it for the sake of this essay, it is also an equal opportunity offender of nearly every sensibility from beginning to end: substance abuse, racism, classism, homophobia, and toxic masculinity, just to name a few.
I’d actually never seen an uncensored version before, having only viewed the dulled-down abridgement acceptable for a broadcast on NBC. So even I was a little taken aback at the Pinto’s devilish conscience yelling “faggot” when Pinto decided to not take advantage of a passed-out teenager, doing the right thing and taking her home, unsullied.
So, what would I do if someone made the connotative connection of Animal House to a little boy named Otter?
I wouldn’t worry too much.
Animal House is just one piece of an entire American anthology made up of cinema, literature, and songs that would not fly in today’s market.
Take for example the era that our parents or grandparents know as “The Golden Age of Music.”
Other than the Acid-induced foray by the Beatles in 1967, the vast majority of pop hits are one giant bastion of toxic masculinity and worse.
This occurred to me the day after our Otter conversation, as I bobbed my head and tapped my feet to the radio in our favorite restaurant blasting “Run Around Sue” by Dion. This is a lamentation warning all the bros that Sue [gasp] “goes out with other guys.”
Taken in isolation, this Number 1 hit from the Billboard 100 in 1961 doesn’t seem that bad. Afterall, no one wants to think that their romantic partner is untrue.
But what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander.
Dion’s B-side hit, The Wanderer reached #2, only a few months after he slut-shamed Sue. Here, he lionizes his philandering faithlessness, listing off all the women he has known, even the ones who didn’t know him long enough to get his name. It’s unclear if alcohol was involved.
Dion was not an outlier. This is a hypocrisy that was oh-so common even only a few years ago. With only a few exceptions, if it made it to the top #10, it would have failed the cultural Bechdel Test. Hell, even Katy Perry’s homage to same-sex experimentation was vexed by the possibility that her boyfriend might not like it.
Do I smash my vinyl? Unravel my few remaining cassettes? Nuke the CDS and wipe my hard drive?
Furthermore, do I castigate my parents for their utter lack of wokeness in 1962?
I’m doing none of these.
I will unapologetically bob my head to Dion and chuckle when Bluto spies on a bunch of pillow-fighting women. If and when my sons wander into the room, I’ll explain to them, what toxic masculinity looks like and that women don’t generally dance around in pajamas having pillow fights. This is the same type of parenting that explains that Wile E. Coyote getting up from being hit by a Mack truck is make-believe and why we still need to look both ways before we cross the street.
I will do this, because knowing where we are going as a society depends on knowing where we have been. In one long arc of human history, each generation’s foibles become the next generation’s fables.
We are undoubtably better off in a world of #MeToos. But we are not better sanitizing our history, getting rid of things just because they suddenly make us uncomfortable.
We still don’t have a name for our third son. Otter is way too cute to ride with a Wolf and a Bear. But we’ve got some solid music and film history lessons waiting for him when he’s old enough to understand.