“Don’t Ever Call Me ‘Doll’”: The Power and Subversiveness of a Not-So-Simple Metaphor

Not terribly long ago, over a weekend, I happened on the good ol’ 90’s animated/live action smashup film Space Jam. It had been a while since I’d seen it (I mean, seriously, I think I may have still been in high school when I last watched it.). So, of course, if only for nostalgia, I let it play. It’s fun stuff – Looney Toons and the best basketball players at the time. (Best of all time in my opinion because I haven’t cared enough to follow basketball since.) Fun, peppy music. I mean, really, what’s not to love?

I had honestly forgotten about the movie. Most of my adult life has been consumed with other more pressing items than what a rad flick Space Jam was. So I was flooded with “Oh yeah….that!” when Lola Bunny delivered her tag line to a room full of men thoroughly trounced at their own game – “Don’t ever call me ‘doll’.”

As I am well beyond sixteen years old, eager to dance with my then boyfriend to “For You I Will” at the junior prom, I can appreciate, dissect, and interpret this line so much better now. I’ve got years of experience and an advanced language degree under my belt. And I’m about to put all that to use.

Words have always fascinated me even from the time I was a child, so I have always paid them significant attention. I recognize that not everyone else feels the same awe of them that I do, nor does everyone have the compulsion to break them down and try to figure out how they work – not just on a syllabic level (one of sound) but also on a semantic level (one of meaning). I’m sure I have mentioned this before, but I’ll so do again. The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt them” can be very effective in teaching personal resilience – aka. Don’t take everything someone says about to to heart. Be rubber. Let it bounce off. In this way, the old saying brings sound advice. However, from a standpoint of personal responsibility, it does an abysmal job.

Consider the direction of the communication when this adage is used. If one is the recipient of derogatory words, the advice communicates that words don’t matter, and we’ve boosted self-esteem and increased self confidence. Sweet! Extremely helpful. But if one is the broadcaster of said derogatory words… Well, it’s still communicating that words don’t matter, and that’s neither helpful nor true. Here, the advice makes it seem like it’s okay for me to say whatever I want because it’s the person over there’s responsibility to be rubber. But that’s not how language works in real life. Words matter an awful lot because – get ready for this – words are a significant building block of human reality, perhaps one of the most significant.

The above statement can cause incredulous stares when I make it in public. Many people immediately write it off as false or, at very least, the whimsical notions of a silly woman who spends way too much time thinking about words. We all know that reality is made up of subatomic particles and fields, even the air we breathe. Obviously, my statement is false. And from a strictly physical standpoint, yes, my incredulous and now moderately annoyed audience is correct. Words are nothing more than energy waves cruising through some air, causing it to vibrate, part of reality but not the bricks of reality. But think for a minute about how we know that atoms exist in the first place.

  • Scientists and thinkers had ideas about what the world was made of.
  • They made measurements, either manually or by using human constructed instruments.
  • They did some math and declared, “These measurements tell us X.”
  • After many successive ideas, measures, maths, and proclamations, humans determined we were comfortable, to a sufficiently high probability, that atomic and subatomic particles exist.

All along this journey of identifying the the universe’s construction materials, humans were observing, interpreting, making statements (“An atom is one micron, and oh, by the way, I’ve decided this length is a micron.”) , and agreeing (“Oh yes, I too believe this is a micron. You have presented enough convincing evidence here.”). Lather, rise, repeat. If enough people get on board with X (ie. “This is a micron.”, “This is an atom.”, “These measurements show that atoms exist.”), over time, it enters the realm of fact. The idea is accepted as reality. My point is that while I firmly believe science and math to be the best means to describe the physical world, both are, at their core, a reliance on human interpretation and cooperation at fundamental levels.

Let’s consider another example, one person may invent a math (Sir Issac Newton comes up with calculus), but if other humans don’t validate it and reproduce results with it, the whole notion/process gets buried under heaps of time and history and passes out of human apprehension. Had other scientists and mathematicians not validated calculus or, as some, claimed they invented it first, god knows what college students would learn in their math classes. Ultimately, the establishment and acceptance of calculus boiled down to a bunch of guys declaring calculus worked because they could reproduce Newton’s calculations and make them work in other applications. I fully back the process of science. It’s the best shot we have of being right. But as you can see, there is a good deal more to the human experience of “reality” than atoms, subatomics, and fields. We think we know. But once we start breaking down how we know what we know, even in the face of computer-controlled, precise measurements, our “reality” starts getting murky, elusive, and a lot less stable than humans typically prefer. Because of that, we tend to put it on the mental back burner.

So what on earth does any of this have to to with Lola’s professed aversion to guys calling her “doll”? Remember, because there has to be some consensus on what is “right”, words are a building block of reality.

If we accept Lola’s words as she states them, it means she actually understood the subversiveness of the word’s use, and whether she was concerned about its far reaching effect or not, she didn’t like it. (The irony of her tag line and the actual depiction of her in the film are a matter for another article, but I’m going to focus on the linguistics today.) It’s possible that those calling her “doll” did not understand what the words tumbling of their mouths both meant and did, but their lack of understanding doesn’t undo the effects of the word choice. Consider the word “doll”. It’s a noun that refers to a child’s play thing – a toy in the likeness of some living creature – typically a human, though animals are common. The term, as applied to a woman, may be intended to highlight physical cuteness (a level of metaphor – defining one in terms of another). Children’s toys are certainly made to be cute. However, the act of calling a woman “doll” is the act of making a metaphor – defining woman in terms of something else (doll). Humans do this all the time in language without even thinking about it, and there are theories that assert that this is actually how language works on a fundamental level. No matter one’s communication intentions, one does not get to pick and choose the characteristics that are communicated by a metaphor. Period. Full stop. That’s just not how language works, and until we learn how to more finely control what is communicated, we have to deal with this. No matter what is intended, the brain of the receiver will apply other characteristics of “doll”, whether they ultimately accept that characterization as valid or not. By using the metaphor, we open up that channel, just like when we tell people not to the think of the white elephant. Suggestion is powerful. Again, whether we “mean to” or not, the result is the result. If it’s not what we “mean”, we should pick a different word.

So considering the above, what are the guys saying about Lola when they call her “doll”? Well, we’ve already discussed the “cute” level. They are also, as context indicates, commenting on her desirability – most kids find dolls appealing and want them when they are presented. This may be okay. I mean, after all, it’s just notions that should be complements, right? But then we get to – oh yeah…right… Dolls are used for play. And guys, Lola is not here to play. Lola is a skilled athlete; she means business; and she should be taken seriously. But calling her “doll” suggests that she won’t be and also that she isn’t what she very clearly is. So yeah, I get her. No matter what was intended, don’t ever call her doll. She’s not one. The best metaphors are accurate descriptors on all the major levels and most of the minor ones. The more levels that match up; the better the metaphor. The problem is that “doll” is a bad metaphor for Lola. It’s bad communication, perpetrating erroneous information to Lola about herself and perpetuating erroneous information to others about her. And she recognizes it.

I can already hear the objections – “But they meant it as a complement.”; “You’re reading too much into it.”; “People can’t say anything without someone being offended.” Notice that the objections are rarely, if ever, to the accuracy of my statements. Rather the objection is to the effort in which I am asking people to engage before they let their words fly. The objection is to the personal responsibility I am asking they take. My response is simple – stop being so intellectually lazy and analyze a few moments before you speak. Not all words need to be released into the world. God knows, I censor myself all the time. Why? Let’s return to one of my very first points. Words matter an awful lot because they are significant building blocks in human reality, and people should have more respect for reality building than that.

Just a few paragraphs prior, I demonstrated that even very exact tools for measuring reality like science, math, and rulers are only valid working tools because other human beings were able to verify and reproduce results by utilizing them. This validation and reproduction requires human communication, interpretation, and agreement, so ultimately, the information we deem fact is still processed through human senses and interpreted by human brains. Additionally, human communication is a prerequisite for any of this to happen in the first place, and guess what. Human communication relies heavily on words. Humans have five accepted, verified physical senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Communication can happen through any of these channels, but unlike most animals, humans are chatty little buggers. We tend to communicate most frequently though language, and that has a profound effect on us.

For just a moment, I want you to try something that most people rarely or even never engage in at all, but psychologists do in spades. I want you to think about how you think. What is going through your head when you have thoughts?

Try thinking of an experience – a beach vacation for instance, maybe you recall images, a serene scene like you’d find in a movie. You see a red-orange sun setting over blue-green water, casting bright white reflections off of the surface and splashing the sky with pink and purple. Perhaps, you feel the sand beneath your feet and squish it up between your toes. You can sense the grains covering them and sticking to them. Ouch! You just stepped on a sharp shell. The waves are crashing, bombarding your ears with their intermittent boom and rush, and the gulls shriek at intervals. You inhale the brackishness of salt. It permeates your entire being – you can even taste it right now even though you aren’t there. And how do you feel? Relaxed, calm, serene and in awe of the beauty of nature?

Theories in the science of sensation and perception maintain that as stimuli (light waves, sound waves, pressure, odors) are processed by our sensory organs (eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and skin) our brains create “images”, ie. neural representations, based on this input. Images in this sense are not simply pictures but rather imprints in our nervous system that correspond to the input type. You can have an “image” of sound, touch, taste, or smell, just as well as sight. These images are used by our brains to understand, remember, and react to the world around us. All are important to our brains and to thinking. However, humans (fortunately or not) are avid communicators relying heavily on the eyes and ears. Had our preferred senses for communication been a little more like dogs, we would likely have very different rules about rubbing our sweat on walls and peeing on things, but we didn’t, so here we are.

Human languages had their beginnings in acoustics and gesture. Various vocalizations and gestures were utilized to convey information (danger, the presence of food or water, inclinations to mate), and over time, these vocalizations and gestures became increasingly more refined. Different vocalizations and movements could be linked with surrounding objects and abstracted actions, and so we began to share information about the world in which we live. This was also the beginning of metaphor – using sound or gesture to indicate, convey, represent something that was not necessarily the original sound or movement – an object, an action, and as time progressed and communication became more refined, a feeling or a thought.

Though recalling a visit to the beach will call up all types of sensory images, if you focus on your feelings or thoughts in and about that moment, you are most likely doing so in words. And if I ask you to figure out a solution to a problem, most of you will have some sort of internal dialogue with yourself. Think about it. Now get ready for the real shake up. Because words have become so essential to human thinking, it is even possible that they can effect what we think and, thus, how we act. We can literally be limited by our building blocks. For more in this vein, read my article Argument is… How We Can Have More Constructive Arguments. In it, we look at how a war metaphor impacts not only how we talk and think about argument but also how we participate in argument.

So, we have come full circle. As words impact how we think about, talk about, and interact with the world around us, perhaps those of you who were giving me a hard time when I sided with Lola have a little better understanding where it’s coming from. No, I’m not really being the Grammar Police. I’m not going to correct your sentences with a red pen, but I am absolutely your friendly neighborhood Language Safety Officer, and I am absolutely warning you that your words can trigger reactions that are the interpersonal equivalent to the Krakatau eruption. Words can motivate and enrage, both individuals and groups, and sometimes, the motion your words initiate have consequences you’re not foreseeing, especially if you didn’t even take time to think about what you were actually communicating. You have been warned. Remember that you have the power to make monsters – monsters of yourself and others – by simply effecting human thinking through your words.

Belief in magic was much more prevalent in ancient times than it is today (though of course that belief still exists). Spells, enchantments, hexes – all powered by words. Why was it so widespread? Sure – we hadn’t quite learned to science yet, but also words do have power and they do change reality, even if not through the mechanisms our ancient ancestors believed.

So to those who struggle with what to call someone – consider the context, consider what you know about the person, consider their wishes and preferences if you can. I have a dear friend who nearly drives me crazy by referring to women as “females”. Please note I would be completely fine with this if also he referred to men as “males”, but he doesn’t. By doing this, he creates a discourse that reduces women to their sexual organs while presenting men as more complex and nuanced. I know it is not his aim to do so, and no, I don’t yell at him because not only am I not the Grammar Police, I don’t even want to be. I know that he has to navigate a complex world of women who take exception to different words that are available to address them, and he can’t possibly please all these women. His is a simple solution to this infinitely complex problem of communication, but it is far from the least damaging because it continues to reinforce a woefully inaccurate discourse. It establishes inaccurate parameters. Personally, as always and to the very best of my ability, I will choose the least damaging options whenever I do anything, even if that option demands a lot of work and a whole lot of checking myself.

And in case you hadn’t sorted it out already, please, even if you preface by “samurai with working katana”, don’t ever call me “doll”.

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