The illogic of Rudolph

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No, this isn’t an environmental screed.  Rudolph and Santa actually seem to live a pretty low impact life in the North Pole, in that small self-contained community powered mostly by reindeer and elves.  And I accept the bad biology inherent in Christmas fantasies:  talking flying reindeer with electric noses and, in this case, a large carnivorous primate-like mammal known as the Abominable Snow Monster (hey, I’ve seen all those sketchy videos.  Who’s to say?)


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Let’s even get past the sexism of 1964, when Rankin/Bass created the animated TV show Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Rudolph’s girlfriend Clarice and his Mom (who remains nameless, identified only as Donner’s mate and Rudolph’s mother) clearly are just pretty window dressing to the main male characters (who are reminded by narrator Burl Ives that they need to get the “women back to Christmastown” after their escape from the Abominable Snow Monster).

The fundamental problem with Rudolph is the nastiness of the adults, namely father Donner, reindeer coach Comet and most of all Santa.  Well yes, some parents behave that way (perhaps more so in the 1960’s before parenting became a verb) and probably even more coaches do (after all, it’s not their kid and the goal is to win, right?  Right.)  But Santa?  Proxy that he is for Jesus in a secular Christmas, every kid knows that Santa should be a model of acceptance and fairness.  After all, if Santa rejected Rudolph because of a physical nonconformity, accepting him only after he became useful, what does that say to the rest of us kids who aren’t perfect?  Get a job?

Perhaps Rudolph is a bit of a period piece reflecting prejudices of its time.  (To calm my righteous indignation I tell myself that the ongoing Rudolph reruns are retro and reflect parents’ desire to relive their childhoods rather than preferences by today’s children).  But even in 1969 when my six-year old self gobbled up its adorable animation, it just felt wrong.  The correction at the end, when everyone realizes the error of his ways and celebrates Rudolph’s unique attributes, just can’t set right the fundamentally incorrect starting place:  Santa wouldn’t do that, ever.  And by the way, in our Christmas fantasies, parents and coaches don’t either.

This error of course makes the alert viewer particularly sensitive to the numerous other illogical heresies, like the Island of Misfit Toys:  If these misfit toys were rejected by children in the past, then why will they suddenly be accepted now?  Does Santa’s epiphany transfer to all the world’s children?  And if they weren’t previously rejected, then why did they end up on this island?  How did Santa not know about them?  If Santa knows if we’re naughty or nice, then surely his omniscience extends to neglected toys.  My geologist husband adds that it bugs him that Yukon Cornelius is prospecting for gold where there’s no bedrock, just ice.  But my husband is clearly a nerd: This particular technicality is not up there on the list for the rest of us.

(Coincidentally, after writing this I learned that both of these story lines underwent revision in 1965 for subsequent broadcasts.  I haven’t been able to find a copy of the original 1964 version to see for myself, but according to several websites the original broadcast apparently left unresolved the issue of the misfit toys, leaving them seemingly stranded on the island.  In response to viewer outcry over this cruel fate, the producers revised the program to show Santa returning to gather the toys.  Either way, the underlying unfairness that forms the foundation of the story shines through, no matter how much you try to correct for it later.   Less significant to humanitarians who are not geologists, the so-called Peppermint Mine scene was deleted in this revision to make room for the misfit toy recovery.  In this scene, Yukon Cornelius reportedly licks his pick – as he does throughout the story – but discovers peppermint this time.  He realizes that he’s found what he’s really been looking for all along, namely, peppermint.  But I’m not sure that scene will satisfy literal-minded geologists either.)

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Honestly, I don’t go around applying biofeminist analysis to How the Grinch Stole Christmas,  A Charlie Brown Christmas or other favorites.  As a child, I didn’t believe in the Grinch or Charlie Brown’s wonderfully unsupervised friends and dancing beagle.  But they made a good story and you didn’t have to buy it all to enjoy.  (Although I have to say there’s no way that little dog could have budged that ginormous sled full of the Who’s Christmas goodies one inch up Mount Crumpit.)  In fact, despite its many flaws Rudolph remains one of my holiday traditions.  But tradition can be a sort of twisted tautology at times:  It’s tradition to follow traditions at Christmas.  And so, Rudolph lives on.

3 thoughts on “The illogic of Rudolph

  1. I have to agree with most of what you say Amy – mostly because I am sure that we discussed as children the inherent unfairness and downright meanness of Santa as depicted in Rudolph. I will add that our family also rediscussed this issue the other night while watching Rudolph. As is typical, Brian and I had to describe what attitudes were like in the 60’s and 70’s towards women and minorities. I now tend to view Rudolph a little less harshly when I realized that it was written during the Civil Rights era. Sure Santa (and everyone else) was cruel to Rudolph because he was “different,” but they learned the error of their ways and became inclusive. Could this be liberal Hollywood’s subversive way to brainwash America’s youth back in the 1960’s into being more inclusive? Because if you can identify with Rudolph’s pain, then maybe you won’t bully the kid in your class who is dark, or fat, or gay. Even Santa (symbolizing the powerful, big, white employer) chose to unbend and be inclusive; he hired a minority for an important job. Not only was Rudolph was successful in that job, he was successful in changing the views about other minorities i.e. the misfit toys.

    Our family’s absolute favorite line is Donner saying, “This is MAN’S work,” when Rudolf’s Mom wants to help search. The older girls latched on to that in elementary school and still use it when there is a big task ahead of us. Of course, they always saw the ridiculous sexism in the line. The fact that both female characters actually decide on their own to go out and search is weirdly empowering as well (especially considering the time it was written for). It is not just “man’s work” to search for a loved one, and the womenfolk were just as successful (or unsuccessful) as the menfolk.

    Having said all that, I still watch Rudolph reluctantly since it is not my favorite cartoon. Santa is too mean, the Dad’s lack of acceptance and cover up of Rudolph’s nose is sad (what would Donner have done if Rudolph were gay? What kind of cover up/white washing would that have required?), and the peer rejection is just painful. For the record, only the unnamed “Rudolph’s Mom” and Clarice are blameless. They love him as he is. Something else to be said for the positive role modeling of the female characters in the movie.

  2. Yes, I agree completely (full disclosure – Deb Lynch is my sister and we shared outrage over this as kids). I realized as I was posting that one’s attitude about Rudolph is a glass half-empty vs. half-full situation. Clearly, everyone comes around in the end and reaches the right conclusion. But the journey is maddening!

    The Clarice and Mrs. Donnor situation is as you say “weirdly empowering” as they immediately disregard Donnor’s ridiculous comment about “man’s work” and set out on their own. It’s reassuring that your girls can confidently mock this line now and gratifying to recognize that only the female characters were right all along. -Amy

  3. Hi Amy,
    Watching these shows as an adult (with my now two year old daughter) has been an enlightening experience. I have already nixed or limited several Disney shows in our household for similar reasons and I have had many of the reactions you mention regarding the Rudolph holiday show (Frosty and Santa Claus is Coming to Town by Rankin and Bass don’t have as many or to my mind any notable issues). Santa was a curmudgeon in the Rudolph show as well…he wouldn’t eat, didn’t like the elf song, was harsh and judging towards Rudolph. Not a very good Santa! Knowing that my daughter will benefit from so many other positive messages in her life and that Rudolph is a seasonal thing makes me not as vigilant about this one; as you say, it is tradition in spite of itself. But I agree about the way the few females in the show are depicted and that North Pole city seems a pretty judgy sort of place to be living. Hilarious re: Yukon Cornelius looking for gold in the ice! Interesting post for those of us who grew up with this holiday tradition!

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