We need to talk about Kévin: French namesakes fight back against mockery

It was once the most popular boy’s name in France, inspired in part by Hollywood films and boybands. But for the more than 150,000 French Kevins, the name has become so targeted by mockery, comic sketches and class prejudice that a new documentary is hoping to set the record straight and “save the Kevins”.

Kevin – sometimes spelled Kévin – saw a boom in France in the early 1990s. More than 13,000 babies were called Kevin in 1991 alone, when it was the most popular name in every mainland region. Sociologists say it is hard to pinpoint exact reasons for the French trend for the Celtic-origin name, but many families feel the name was boosted by US movie imports, including Dances with Wolves starring Kevin Costner or Home Alone, with the child hero Kevin McCallister, as well as boyband singers such as the Backstreet Boys’ Kevin Richardson.

But now – as many French Kevins reach their early 30s – there is a move to fight back against the national jokes associating the name with the stereotype of an airhead in a bad-taste shirt with a souped-up car or appearing on reality TV shows.

“I was at a friend’s wedding and when the mayor read out the groom’s middle name, Kevin, the simple mention of it sparked massive laughter from the guests – that’s what made me want to do something,” said Kevin Fafournoux, a graphic designer and director who has crowdfunded a film project called Save the Kevins.

Fafournoux was born in 1987 in the central city of Clermont-Ferrand to an “ordinary” family of public sector workers. It was the start of the Kevin boom that peaked between 1989 and 1994 when Kevin was the top French boy’s name over five years. “There were always other Kevins at school and in my class, and it wasn’t a problem then,” he said. But by the time Fafournoux was a student, comedians were regularly making Kevin jokes, including Élie Semoun’s teenage girl character “Kevina”, and the name began being played for laughs and lampooned online.

“Kevin in France is clearly seen as a name of working-class origin – working-class families chose more American-sounding names … and that’s what’s being mocked,” he said.

Fafournoux is appealing for French Kevins to contact him with their experiences. More than 300 have already got in touch and the film begins shooting this autumn.

“Some of the accounts are really hard,” he said. “A psychologist called Kevin hesitated about putting his first name on the professional sign outside his building, in case it put off clients from coming to see him. I heard from Kevins who had their first name raised in job interviews as if it was an issue. Professionals in senior positions – a neuroscience researcher, a doctor – said they had noticed it was harder to be taken seriously.”

He also heard of difficulties in the dating world. “One Kevin told me if he put his real name on a dating app profile he didn’t get matches, but when he put a different first name he did.”

There were surprises too. When Fafournoux asked Kevins about their parents’ choice, “I learned that a number of French dads had chosen it because they admired the English footballer Kevin Keegan.”

The documentary will examine the name Kevin from its roots in Ireland to its connotations in Germany, where the term “Kevinism” is sometimes used as shorthand for giving your child an exotic name that might mark out their social class or hamper their future.

In France, when Kévin Pfeffer, 32, and Kévin Mauvieux, 30, were elected to parliament in June – among a surge of new lawmakers for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party – the leftwing weekly L’Obs wrote that it was a remarkable “historic first” in France that someone named Kevin had reached the national assembly. “What was troubling was that their first names were worthy of an article,” Fafournoux said.

Other American-sounding names found popularity in France in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Jennifer, Bryan, Jordan and Steve, sometimes spelled Steeve. But none were as big as Kevin. In the 1990s, the name Dylan became popular, particularly in northern France, after the TV series Beverly Hills 90210.

<gu-island name="EmbedBlockComponent" deferuntil="visible" props="{"html":"","caption":"Sign up to First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST","isTracking":false,"isMainMedia":false,"source":"The Guardian","sourceDomain":"theguardian.com"}” readability=”1.5″>

Sign up to First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST

Baptiste Coulmont, a sociology professor at the École Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay, said that historically in France, working-class families had chosen traditional names that had been popular among the bourgeoisie a few decades earlier and passed down through society. But in the second half of the 20th century, that changed. “In the 1980s and 1990s, working-class families began choosing their own names, often English-sounding, which had never been used by the Parisian bourgeoisie,” he said.

Coulmont said a generation of children called Kevin had been associated with having working-class roots. But he felt society was entering a potential moment for change “because the baby Kevins are reaching adulthood and many are in positions such as doctors, academics, researchers, elected officials. There are around 600 municipal councillors called Kevin in France. There are tens of thousands of Kevins in France and they are everywhere in the social space and can no longer be associated with one background.”

Only a few French babies are still given the name Kevin each year. But Fafournoux said it was important to challenge deep-rooted stereotypes. He said: “The idea is to show that the jokes may be very funny, but actually the feeling of discrimination is real. If this can help open people’s minds, that’s a good thing.”

The Guardian

Leave a Reply