Maybe Rudolph’s Just Not For You

Why are you picking on Rudolph?

The Feigned Outrage Machine must not be getting enough mileage out of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “the war on Christmas” this year, as the social media keyboard warriors and the beet-faced pundits who inspire them have zeroed in on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Talk about dusting off an oldie for a dressing down: Rudolph is nearly 80 years old, having first appeared in a 1939 Montgomery Ward promotion. If the story is as toxic as its detractors suggest, that’s eight decades of psychic damage done. Gloom! Doom!

Ten years after the original story was published, cowboy crooner Gene Autry had an enormous hit with the Johnny Marks-penned song that we all learned in grade school. Over 25 million copies of that track have been sold, but I suspect that it’s the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop motion television special that most people picture when they imagine Rudolph.

The folks at Rankin/Bass had their work cut out for them. Autry’s tune comes in just a little over three minutes, not much to work with for a one hour television special. Writer Romeo Muller added characters and subplots to fill the space, and thus Yukon Cornelius, Hermey the dentist elf, King Moonracer and his Island of Misfit Toys were born. And the Bumble, of course. We can’t forget the Bumble.

All of these characters support the basic themes of Marks’s original song, which most children unambiguously grasp because most children are Rudolphs. Some kids have physical imperfections, others mental or emotional ones. There are kids with weird names, weird families, and weird interests. Children might have unique accents, be “the new kid,” like the wrong football team or not care for sports at all. My point is that all children are unique, and at some point during their childhoods this distinguishing characteristic becomes a target for derision.

All kids know what it feels like to be excluded from reindeer games.

I can’t remember ever meeting a child who thought that Rudolph’s bullies were the protagonists of the story. Not one kid has ever said to me, “That freak had no business in the sleigh pulling industry. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” No, children empathize with Rudolph, and in the Rankin/Bass version of the story with his fellow misfits.

Nor do I remember any kid translating the climax of the story along the lines of “nonconformity must be punished unless it can be exploited for financial gain.” Children view Rudolph’s promotion through the lens of their own special feature. It’s a redemption story wherein my nearsightedness might someday become a superpower, for example, not some sort of Marxist analogy for the exploitation of the proletariat.

Santa’s role in Rudolph’s redemption is critical. He is the grown-up in the story, after all–the parent, the teacher. Particularly in the song, Saint Nick sets the moral example for the reindeer/children in the story, and they react accordingly by embracing Rudolph. While it’s easy to be cynical as an adult, “you can trust the grownups in your life” is a powerful message for a child.

Simple stories that reinforce moral lessons serve a very important role in early childhood education. When we try to import those stories into an adult world filled with ambiguity, bitterness, and cynicism they simply can’t hold up to the scrutiny. The Cat in the Hat is weird, Sleeping Beauty is a harrowing tale of non-consent, on and on. You can’t grasp the intrinsic value of Rudolph if you read the story through the eyes of a jaded old showgirl. It’s all very childish and corny, but childhood is childish and corny.

We age out of Rudolph just as we eventually put away all childish things, but just because they no longer have value to us doesn’t mean that they no longer have value. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer doesn’t celebrate bullying; rather, it reminds children why bullying is wrong. More importantly, the story reminds kids that they don’t need to be ashamed of the thing that makes them unique, whatever it may be.

So stop bullying Rudolph. Let young children be comforted for a few minutes that they aren’t too tall, too short, too black, too white, too smart, too dumb, too whatever. The worst that can happen is that they feel better about themselves for a little bit, which is why that little red-nosed reindeer is still beloved 80 years on.




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