Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Social Commentary
We’re a couple of misfits
We’re a couple of misfits
What’s the matter with misfits
That’s where we fit in!
On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, at 7:00 PM Central Standard Time, I gave up. A thick overcast had blanketed North Texas the entire day, and by evening the clouds still hung low, all but blocking out even the strongest signals broadcast by the local television stations. The only networks I could tune in on my HD antenna were in Spanish. I don’t speak a lick of Spanish. So I gave up.
“It’s okay,” Mary assured. “We can watch it on DVD. It’s the same thing.”
I quit fussing with the HD antenna and turned around. Slowly. “It’s not the same thing,” I muttered. “I want to watch it the way it first came out. On the air.” I didn’t mention that when the NBC Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was first broadcast on December 6, 1964, I wasn’t even nine months old. And even if my parents had watched it on the old 19-inch console TV, it would have been in black-and-white, tuned in the old-fashioned way: by fussing with the foil-wrapped rabbit ears until the snow looked more like flurries rather than a full-fledged blizzard, not a total blackout due to weak signal strength. So much for improved technology.
Wordlessly, with much banging of the video player and with an even greater gnashing of teeth, I slammed the DVD into the drawer and shut it. “We didn’t have remotes back then,” I murmured, hitting the PLAY button. “We had to turn a knob. On the TV.” My anger quickly sloughed off, though, as the old newspapers dated Sunday, December 13, 1964 flashed onto the screen, alternating with black-and-white movie clips of cars stuck in foot-deep snow. Ahhhhh, memories of childhood snowstorms and Christmases past began to warm my heart. I melted into the couch, my wife and daughter snuggling against me. Mary was right, it was the same after all.
Then there he was: Sam the snowman, swinging his black umbrella and chattering away. Sam the snowman, slip-sliding across the snow just the way I remembered him, voiced by Burl Ives, a childhood staple whose music the teachers spun on the grade school record players. I laughed when he pointed out the Christmas seals. Mary didn’t get the joke, but I remember those old stamps folks used to stick to the back of their Christmas cards to benefit the American Lung Association’s fight against lung disease. Ahhhhh, memories. …
A year ago, curled up with a glass of Christmas cheer, I watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with my family, and that’s when it struck me: this Christmas special was more than just a cute story for kids—it was a reflection of good old American values in the early 1960s, at the height of the American Civil Rights movement. I realized as I watched that I was not only enjoying the memory of Rudolphs past, but I was also looking through a window of 50 years of social change, especially in the areas of diversity, inclusion, conformity, acceptance … and the definition of “normal.”
In 1964, the Christmas special portrayed a thin Santa as not normal. “Whoever heard of a skinny Santa?” Mrs. Claus inquires of her workaholic husband. And after Donner’s wife gives birth to Rudolph, she immediately recognizes his schnoz is a little, uh, different.
“He’s … he’s got a shiny nose!” she points out to her husband. Then, as any good mother influenced by the bucolic memories of the 1950s would do, she offers a practical solution. “Well, we’ll simply have to overlook it.” Overlook it indeed. Now that’s the way to fix a perceived impediment.
“Now how can you overlook that?” Donner hollers. “His nose blinks like a blinkin’ beacon!” Then to Santa he offers a more realistic assessment. “I’m sure it’ll stop as soon as he grows up.”
Santas’ reply: “Well, let’s hope so if he wants to make the sleigh team someday.” Wow, Santa. Really?
Protecting his pride, Donner does what any caring father would do in response to the thinly-veiled threat of his son’s potential unemployment due to a physical handicap. “Santa’s right, he’ll never make the sleigh team,” he tells his wife. “Wait a minute, I’ve got it. We’ll hide Rudolph’s nose!” Then after slapping a cap made of mud over Rudolph’s luminous proboscis, he assures his son, “You’ll be a normal little buck just like everybody else.” Yeah, normal. Hiding behind a mud mask his entire life instead of accepting his uniqueness and celebrating his differences. When Rudolph later complains to his dad about the mud being uncomfortable, Donner retorts, “There are more important things than comfort—self-respect! Santa can’t object to you now.” Really, Donner? Santa objected to his own elf choir, why not your son?
And Sam the snowman doesn’t help much either. “Well, for the first year the Donners did a pretty fair job of hiding Rudolph’s, uh, non-conformity.” Stinkin’ enabler. …
Speaking of non-conformity, what about poor Hermey, the elf with dreams and goals? In the world of corporate sheeple, Hermey’s aspiration to dentistry is a threat to company morale.
“What’s eatin’ you, boy?” the head elf asks a daydreaming Hermey as toys pile up at his station, waiting to be painted.
“Not happy in my work, I guess,” Hermey admits. “I just don’t like to make toys.”
But instead of celebrating this obviously bright and self-starting visionary, the head elf does his best to squash Hermey’s aspirations rather than recognizing his talents and supporting his desire to follow his calling. “Hermey doesn’t like to make toys,” the head elf shouts, publicly humiliating him and inciting the other elves to make fun of the poor lad.
“Well, sir, someday I’d like to be a dentist,” Hermey insists. “I’ve been studying. It’s fascinating, you know.”
“No, listen, you,” the head elf yells. “You’re an elf, and elves make toys. Now get to work!” And after Hermey figures out a way to fit in, by fixing doll teeth, the head elf launches a rocket aimed directly at Hermey’s dwindling cache of self-esteem. “You’ll never fit in!” he roars. “A dentist! Good grief!”
The message: if you ever want to succeed, you must conform. There’s no room for being different. Instead of celebrating uniqueness, the community must shun differences and insist on conformity. Put on your suit and tie and march to the tune of the company band. You will be happy because we tell you to be happy. Any questions?
Later, after Rudolph’s romance-inspired first takeoff, his disguise is knocked off, revealing his non-conformity, his true identity. The reindeer start to call him names. “They’re so prejudice!” Mary shouted at the TV. But it’s a reflection of the prevailing atmosphere of the early ‘60’s.
“Stop calling me names!” Rudolph shouts at the other deer.
As Rudolph tries to defend himself, Santa approaches Donner. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he chastises Rudolph’s father. “What a pity. He had a nice takeoff, too.”
As Santa goes for Donner’s jugular, Comet, the reindeer games coach, grabs the attention of the young bucks. “All right, all right now, yearlings, back to practice.” But to Rudolph he says, “Oh no, not you. You better go home with your folks. From now on, gang, we won’t let Rudolph join in any reindeer games, right?”
The gang replies with a resounding affirmation of their bigoted coach’s instruction.
As Clarice, the young doe, tries to soothe Rudolph’s bruised ego, her dad steps in and drives the final stake through Rudolph’s scarred heart: “Now there’s one thing I want to make very plain: No doe of mine is going to be see with a red-nosed reindeer.” Wonder if Clarice’s dad was named Jim. Crow.
After Hermey and Rudolph team up and decide to be “independent together,” Hermey’s anger issues over conflicted expectations versus his calling are clearly demonstrated during their singing of “We’re a Couple of Misfits.”
Why am I such a misfit?
I am not just a nitwit.
They can’t fire me, I quit!
Seems I don’t fit in.
While singing this verse, Hermey hauls off and punches a snow effigy of the head elf in the nose, destroying his face. Bet that felt good, eh, Hermey?
Later the misfits meet Yukon Cornelius, a prospector obsessed with money, as reflected in Sam’s rendition of Silver and Gold:
Silver and gold
Silver and gold
For silver and gold.
How do you measure its worth?
Just by the pleasure
It gives here on earth.
Okay, okay, isn’t this supposed to be a Christmas special? What the heck? What did the Apostle Paul write to Timothy about money? “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10a NKJV). Sam, Sam, Sam. … Tsk, tsk.
In the meantime Rudolph has become obsessed with his luminous snout, managing to make his nose the root of all kinds of evil. “We’re trapped,” he declares as the Bumble has pushed their backs against the proverbial wall. “There’s no way out. It’s my nose again. It’s ruined us.” No, Rudolph, I don’t think it’s your nose that’s ruined you. I think it’s your negative, obsessive thinking!
“Poor Rudolph realizes that he can’t endanger his friends’ lives anymore,” Sam the snowman points out as Rudolph plans to leave The Island of Misfit Toys, leaving his companions behind. “So, that night, he decides to strike out on his own.” So off he goes again, running away from his problems. Until last year I’d never realized what a truly messed-up cast of characters this Christmas special features—it’s a veritable smorgasbord of psychological screwballs! Even Santa Claus.
As I mentioned earlier, Santa had asserted prejudice against Rudolph, practically guaranteeing future unemployment unless his non-conformity was kept in check. When Rudolph the Prodigal Reindeer finally shows back up at his family’s cave, Santa points at him and blames him for their absence. And what’s Santa worried about? “Christmas Eve is only two days off, and without your father I’ll never be able to get my sleigh off the ground.” Okay, first, why doesn’t Santa have a backup plan? He himself reveals that the Donner family has been gone for months—that should have given him plenty of time to train up a replacement reindeer to get his sleigh off the ground. It’s known as redundant capability. Embrace it. Second, he’s more worried about the inability to deliver Christmas than the lives of the Donner family. Seems Santa has a bit of OCD and misplaced priorities to add to his passive aggressiveness.
After Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius and Hermey rescue the Donner’s from becoming the Bumble’s Christmas dinner, Yukon Cornelius and his dog team push the monster over a cliff. Sam the snowman, of course, provides his commentary: “Well, they are all very sad at the loss of their friends, but they realize that the best thing to do is to get the women back to Christmas Town. So they make it back, and when everybody hears their story, they start to realize, maybe, they were a little hard on the misfits. Maybe misfits have a place, too. Even Santa realizes that maybe he was wrong.”
Really? A little hard? Why did they have to prove their worth? And why are they still being called “misfits?” Of course, when Santa finally “sees the light” and asks him that famous line, “Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” then and only then do the other reindeer love him. No unconditional love in Christmas Town that night, eh?
And so the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ends, a tale I hope to enjoy for another 50 years. Because, after all, isn’t this story really about all of us workaholic, passive aggressive, judgmental, OCD performance approval addicts who just want to live out our dreams?
Merry Christmas, ya’ll! And to all a good night.
Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes