We need to talk about Kevin: French namesakes fight national mockery | France
IIt was once the most popular male name in France, partly inspired by Hollywood movies and boy bands. But for France’s more than 150,000 Kevins, the name has become so targeted with mockery, comedy sketches and class prejudice that a new documentary hopes to set the record straight and “save the Kevins”.
Kevin – sometimes spelled Kévin – had a boom in France in the early 1990s. More than 13,000 babies were named Kevin in 1991 alone, when it was the most popular name in all parts of the continent. Sociologists say it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for the French trend for the Celtic-derived name, but many families believe the name was boosted by imports of American films, including Dances with Wolves starring Kevin Costner or Home Alone, featuring child hero Kevin McCallister, as well as boy band singers such as Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys.
But now – as many French Kevins hit their early thirties – there’s a movement to counter national jokes associating the name with the stereotype of a beachhead in a tacky shirt with a car blowing up or appearing in reality TV shows.
“I was at a friend’s wedding and when the mayor read the groom’s middle name, Kevin, the mere mention of it sparked giggles from the guests, that’s what made me want to to do something,” said Kevin Fafournoux, a graphic designer and director who funded a film project called Save the Kevins.
Fafournoux was born in 1987 in downtown Clermont-Ferrand into an “ordinary” family of public sector employees. It was the start of Kevin’s boom which peaked between 1989 and 1994 when Kevin was the top five French boy name. “There were always other Kevins at school and in my class, and that wasn’t a problem back then,” he said. But by the time Fafournoux was a student, comedians regularly made jokes about Kevin, including Elie Semoun’s teenage character “Kevina”, and the name began to be played for laughs and ridiculed online.
“Kevin in France is clearly seen as a name of working-class origin – working-class families have chosen American-sounding names…and that’s what is being laughed at,” he said.
Fafournoux appeals to French Kevins to contact him with their experiences. More than 300 have already made contact and filming for the film begins this fall.
“Some of the accounts are really difficult,” he said. “A psychologist named Kevin was hesitant to put his first name on the professional sign outside his building, in case it would deter clients from coming to see him. I’ve heard of Kevins whose first name has come up in job interviews like it’s a problem. Professionals in senior positions – a neuroscientist, a doctor – said they noticed it was harder to be taken seriously.
He has 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 any matches, but when he put a different first name he did.”
There were also surprises. When Fafournoux asked Kevins about their parents’ choice, “I learned that a number of French dads chose him because they admired English footballer Kevin Keegan.”
The documentary will examine Kevin’s name from its roots in Ireland to its connotations in Germany, where the term “Kevinism” is sometimes used as shorthand to give your child an exotic name that could mark their social class or hinder their future.
In France, when Kévin Pfeffer, 32, and Kévin Mauvieux, 30, were elected to parliament in June – among a wave of new MPs for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party – the left-leaning weekly L’Obs wrote that it was a remarkable “historical first” in France that a man named Kevin had reached the National Assembly. “What was troubling was that their first names deserved 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 tall as Kevin. In the 1990s, the first name Dylan became popular, especially in the north of France, after the television series Beverly Hills 90210.
Baptiste Coulmont, professor of sociology at the École Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay, said that historically in France, working-class families had chosen traditional surnames that had been popular among the bourgeoisie decades earlier and passed down through society. But in the second half of the 20th century, this changed. “In the 1980s and 1990s, working-class families began choosing their own, often English-sounding, names that had never been used by the Parisian bourgeoisie,” he said.
Coulmont said a generation of children called Kevin had been associated with working-class roots. But he said society was entering a potential moment of change “because baby Kevins are reaching adulthood and many are in positions such as doctors, academics, researchers, elected officials. There are about 600 councilors 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 a single milieu.
Only a few French babies still bear the name Kevin each year. But Fafournoux said it was important to challenge deep-rooted stereotypes. He said: “The idea is to show that jokes can be very funny, but in reality the feeling of discrimination is real. If it can help open people’s minds, that’s a good thing.