Action figure or doll? Who knew?

Years later I learn this one little word was a big deal to my roommate.

By Cary Tennis

Published December 7, 2005 12:05PM (EST)

Dear Reader,

May I just say, before proceeding to today's question, that my house is being remodeled?

May I just say that I'm not quite sure about that shade of green?

May I say, further, that I feel a big scream coming on?

Ah. OK. That's better. -- CT

Dear Cary,

I lived with a friend of a friend for about nine months a few years ago. I just found out from our mutual friend that during the time we were roommates, he would send out stories about me, no doubt exaggerated, to his friends, making fun of me.

I heard that the thing that sparked his need to make fun of me was because I called his foot-tall action figure a doll.

I'm mortified, sad, angry and depressed. People that I don't even know think I'm some crazy person. What can I do? I feel like I want revenge or to confront him but I'm not sure if that's the right way to handle this.

I suppose I should just forget about it. It was so long ago and I definitely don't keep in touch with guy even though we still have mutual friends. Any advice would help.


Dear Mortified,

If I were you I would write this young man a polite letter explaining that it has recently come to your attention that he found the need, some years ago, to spread stories about you because you called his foot-tall action figure a doll. I would acknowledge that the term "doll," while perhaps correct in a strict dictionary sense, might not have been the correct term from the standpoint of contemporary usage. But I would plead utter innocence of any malicious intent. And assuming that he confirms what you've heard, I would call into question the appropriateness of his response.

Finally, I would ask whether he thinks an apology might be in order.

But not only that! While an apology might be enough for you, it would not be enough for me. I would be driven to ask why: Why would a young man find it necessary to belittle you because you called his foot-tall action figure a doll? Did he feel ashamed, like a man who had not grown out of childish things, or -- worse perhaps in the minds of some young men -- like a man who had not yet mastered his assigned gender role, whose vestigial androgyny had not been completely wiped out by the harsh catechism of American maleness, a man who no matter how forcefully he put his boot down still betrayed a mincing step, a man who for all his masquerading did not really feel in his heart the unambiguous roar of Marlboro manhood?

I would go deeper still. I would question why young men cannot play with dolls. At this juncture, in fact, I would not be able to repress a smile at a recent evening in the banquet room of the Blue Pheasant restaurant in Cupertino, Calif., celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of some dear in-laws. Sitting at our table was a hearty and gregarious worker in the field of construction and his cheerful and attractive wife. He was discussing his son's interest in knitting. It was very amusing.

It is usually amusing when people run against form. So it's unfortunate that this young man felt the need to lash out at you. Nonetheless, I would also, perhaps because I lack pride, want to see the little stories he had been sending out. I would want to know the details. I might recognize myself and laugh. It is fun to laugh at oneself. Also when one is lampooned or satirized for others' amusement, there is usually something true in it. At the least, one can be entertained; and if one is of a self-improvement bent, one can use such lampooning to better understand others.

Now, I hope you appreciate that while not wishing to make fun of you I have tried to approach this matter with a bit of humor. In that humor, too, though I am quickly tiring of this 19th century tone of moral instruction, there is nonetheless one more lesson. The lesson is this: We ought to take more occasions to make a bit of humor, to treat our annoying interpersonal predicaments as opportunities for good-natured comedy and experiments in social theater.

We have to find ways to amuse ourselves. So I'm serious about writing the letter. Even though it might seem strange. Now, maybe none of your acquaintances has a sense of humor. If so, you need to get some new friends.

Oh, and one more thing: It used to be that little boys played with little tin soldiers and little girls played with dolls. That was fine with me.

When my little boy friends and I played with little tin soldiers, we did not torture the enemy. We had learned from our comic books to be decent to our captives. We simply put them in the stockade and kept careful watch over them lest they try to escape. We did not burn them or humiliate them. We did not pile them up naked. OK, we interrogated them, sometimes roughly. But we did not torture.

I wonder how the young boys of America today are treating their little tin captives.

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