Rudolph The Insensitive Reindeer

The Christmas classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was broadcast on TV recently.  It’s the timeless story of a misfit reindeer with the brilliant nose who ultimately saves Christmas during the Storm of the Century — and a misfit elf who wants to be a dentist rather than making toys.  First broadcast in the ’60s, Rudolph and its songs has been enjoyed by multiple generations of American kids.

94f266d0-ba5f-4498-9511-1268549977a0Until this year, I guess.  In the modern politically correct era where people are a lot more sensitive than they’ve ever been before, Rudolph doesn’t fare quite so well.  After all, the other reindeer are mean to poor little Rudolph at the Reindeer Games after Rudolph’s false nose falls off, and neither Coach Comet nor Rudolph’s own parents really stick up for Rudolph’s right to be different.  Poor Hermey the elf is facing a long life on the toy assembly line where he will be forced to hear the irritating chorus from We Are Santa’s Elves (Filling Santa’s Shelves) over and over again.  Hermey’s got no chance to follow his dental dreams.  Yukon Cornelius is not only a blustering blowhard, he’s a prospector who wants to tear up the landscape in search of gold when he’s not stalking and tormenting the Abominable Snowman.  And the poor Bumble, at heart a gentle soul beneath his terrifying exterior, ends up tortured by having all of his teeth pulled by people who won’t let him be himself.

And Santa, too, doesn’t exactly make a great impression, does he?  He’s certainly not very sensitive to Rudolph’s needs, or all that interested in celebrating Rudolph’s diversity.  At first he’s a bullying, self-absorbed boss, cracking the whip on the slavishly working elves and the reindeer to make sure that he can pull off another Christmas.  Even after Mrs. Claus succeeds in fattening him up and making him look a bit more jolly, he sees the light from Rudolph’s nose and embraces Rudolph’s shiny difference only when the Storm of the Century leaves him no choice.

Of course, all of these plot lines have been part of Rudolph since the beginning — we just haven’t seen the story in this light until now.  And yet, somehow, the kids who grew up watching Rudolph every holiday season ended up being reasonably well-adjusted people who aren’t out there yanking out the teeth of every passing Bumble just for the fun of it.  In fact, you might say that the story of Rudolph and Hermey and the challenges they had to overcome made those viewers just a little bit more receptive to the idea that people can be different — and that’s okay.  Would that message have the same impact if Rudolph and Hermey had been treated like champions from the outset?

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In Praise Of Rudolph

In the pantheon of annual must-see Christmas TV events, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is right up there with A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  (At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the supremely annoying Frosty The Snowman.)

Of course, Rudolph combined great characters, like Yukon Cornelius and Hermey, the elf who desperately wanted to be a dentist, with great settings, like the Island of Misfit Toys, and great songs, like Holly Jolly Christmas.  But the crucial and underappreciated significance of Rudolph is that it provided many teachable moments for growing boys.  For example, it featured a female character who wore a pink bow — which obviously was how you knew instantly that she was a girl reindeer in the first place.  This was vitally important information for the young boy eager to grow into adulthood.

Of course, Rudolph did a lot more.  It not only put a lot of flesh on the bones of the song, by doing crucial things like explaining what the heck were the reindeer games, it also prepared young boys who were watching for the gentle attention of whistle-blowing coaches and taught them how to react in the unlikely event that a girl ever said you were cute — as shown in the classic scene shown above.

Sure, sure . . . I know that some people argue that the real message of Rudolph is that people should just accept themselves for who they are and not try to hide their glaring red nose with some soot.  They’re wrong, of course.  The young boys who watched Rudolph knew that what it really told you was that if you felt sorry for yourself because you were different, disobeyed your parents, and ran away from home, you were likely to meet a flying lion and an intrepid gold prospector, fight and defeat the Abominable Snowman, and return home in the nick of time to get the girl and save the day.

It’s a great holiday message.