Of course, you could dismiss this as a competition between a boy’s dog and a girl’s dog, but where would that leave me, the girl who loved Rin Tin Tin? And I wasn’t alone: Many of Rin Tin Tin’s most avid fans were young girls. In any case, an interesting matchup doesn’t just divide along gender lines: If Rin Tin Tin’s fans were all boys and Lassie’s were all girls, it wouldn’t have been a rivalry; it would have been a checklist question. Instead, what makes it catch hold is that a rivalry offers a sort of surrogate identity, a way to explain how you fit into the world and who fits into that world with you—and who doesn’t. In my case, I was shouldered aside in my affection for Lassie by my girlier sister, but I did feel more drawn to Rin Tin Tin’s ruggedness and solemn manner. That was it. I quietly signed on as a Rin Tin Tin person; that was who I was as a little kid, and who I’ve seemingly continued to be.
Rivalries never die. Many decades after it felt urgent to choose him, I started writing my new book about Rin Tin Tin [out September 27 from Simon & Schuster]. It was interesting to mention the project to friends who had also grown up when these dogs reigned on TV. Half of them would draw up to full height and say, with a bit of an edge, “Well, I was a Lassie person.” The other half would exchange with me the knowing glance of those who had made the same important choice, and there was nothing more we needed to say.