As we re-examine our cultural artifacts, another Christmas icon is coming under fire: The TV movie “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
The brunt of the criticism is over the way in which Rudolph is consistently and cruelly bullied. As a child that was bullied for being different myself, I identified with Rudolph and Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist.
I think there’s something deeper here, though. If we look at it in the cultural context, the key problem isn’t the bullying per se, it’s the social context that motivates it.
The TV movie first aired in 1964, when American culture was at a tipping point. The paternalistic masculinity that had driven the American narrative throughout the post-war era was eroding. A few years later, Simon and Garfunkel would reflect on the loss of the Heroic American Man with the lyric, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Don McLean would later score a hit with “American Pie,” his own reflection on the death of heroes (specifically, the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and others).
As far as racial issues go, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The National Guard had escorted Ruby Bridges to school in 1960. In 1961 and 1962, the movie versions of “Raisin in the Sun” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” reflected a nation struggling with racism and segregation.
The emerging cultural reckoning with homophobia was still brewing, and would explode a few years later (1969) with the Stonewall Riots. Sexual freedom and equality would dominate much of the Zeitgeist of the 1970s, with the publication of Ms. Magazine starting in 1971 and the election and assassination of the openly gay Harvey Milk in 1978. But for the 1960s, the culture struggled with the stagnation of manhood and the forced ending of legal Jim Crow policies.
This was a country navigating through an intense period of self-reflection, and in that context, the message of “Rudolph” becomes clearer: It’s not about bullying, it’s about traditional manhood and the marginalization of men who are different.
Key to this is Rudolph’s own father, Donner. He resists having a son who’s different, something that can be seen as a father dealing with a gay son coming out of the closet. He pushes Rudolph to cover his nose, berating him that comfort isn’t the only thing that counts.
Donner is verbally abusive and dismissive of his son. Later, when Rudolph runs away and his mother tries to go after him, Donner insists that the rescuing is “man’s work.” This is the sexism of the “Father Knows Best” era. It is a step on the ladder between the respectable depiction of the strong father throughout the 1950s and the mockery of that model that would come in the 1970s with shows like “All in the Family.”
Rudolph gets no relief from his peers, who mock him. Comet the coach leads the bullying, casting him out of the group for being a freak. Because Rudolph is different, he’s literally cast out of the cult of manhood, a familiar experience for many boys.
Clarice’s father, meanwhile, likewise rejects Rudolph as being different and, hence, not suitable for his daughter. Even Santa himself shames Donner for his Rudolph for a son.
The movie depicts how boys who are different are ostracized from culture, but the othering that takes place reflects the issues that men of the era were struggling with themselves. For the white American man of the 1950s, coming back from the war and re-establishing his presence in the household and the community, conformity was key.
Consider, for instance, the 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” where aliens destroy a town by leveraging the residents’ own paranoia. Or the 1968 classic zombie movie, “Night of the Living Dead”; the ending, involving the summary execution of a black survivor, has been interpreted to be a reflection of this Zeitgeist.
The Red Scare had already made anyone who was different suspicious, and it was up the white man to protect the family and society.
The parable shows the misfit being rejected at home, at school, and in love, but to complete the tableau, we need to see it happen at work as well. This is the story of Hermey, the elf, who wants to be a dentist. In a culture where a man’s role was dictated by social norms, it was an affront to step outside of those parameters. So Hermey’s boss mocks him as well, rejecting his dreams.
The other apparent adult male characters aren’t much better. Yukon Cornelius is another outsider, and is perhaps the best role model in the story. King Moonracer is officious and just flat-out refuses to let Hermey and Rudolph stay because they’re not toys: Even among misfits, they’re misfits. And the Abominable Snowman is atavistic.
Defenders of the story point to the happy ending. Eventually, everyone comes around to discover that everyone has a place in society, even people who are different. Hermey defangs the Snowman, while Rudolph guides the sleigh through the Christmas storm.
But… what if Hermey and Rudolph, in the end, had not had any particular function in society? What if their unique gifts were worthless to the mainstream?
They’d still be cast out.
The message isn’t that everyone has their own gifts; the reindeer who conformed didn’t struggle with acceptance, and they weren’t forced to prove their function.
The message is that people are only as useful as they can make themselves to society. That’s not a good message at all.
From the standpoint of a cultural artifact, the vision of masculinity in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is tragically aligned with the panic of the white American man who was seeing his traditional role eroding, without a viable alternative. If there is a learning opportunity here, it’s that we culturally allowed traditional American manhood to become irrelevant without creating a model for the void, allowing the cancerous toxicity of the last few decades to fester and metastasize.
That’s a heavy albatross to tie onto a children’s special.
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