Could Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer premiere without controversy in these times? Since its debut nearly fifty years ago, the television special has delighted generations with its tactile charm and catchy songs. But despite its timeless appeal, Rudolph also offers a glimpse of a bygone era carrying a different set of social mores. Over the decades, outdated messages and symbolism—whether intended or not—have emerged from the stop-motion antics of Rudolph, Hermey the Elf Dentist, Santa, and the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys. For some viewers, Rudolph delivers a rousing rebuke to prejudice and discrimination; while others note how far society has progressed from the patriarchal rule of the North Pole.
Rudolph’s father, Donner is a creature of the mid-sixties, head of the household in a patriarchal society. Right off the bat, he refuses to accept his son’s nose, covering it with mud. His iron hoof extends to matters with his wife, who he handles with Don Draper-esque élan.
Much of what Donner says to Rudolph during the special could be considered borderline abusive, though TV Tropes posits,
… considering the time when the creators were growing up and the movie was released, it was probably wasn’t intended to come off as abusive and was meant to be a typical father-son relationship. Men being hard on their sons was considered the norm, whether it was fair or not, and could still be considered reasonably well-adjusted.
Like Rudolph, Hermey fares no better with his fellow elves on the admission that he doesn’t like to make toys. The Head Elf harangues him for his interest in bicuspids and molars, while his toy making peers—all male, by the way—roundly mock the erstwhile dentist.
The shunning of Rudolph and Hermey appear to be motivated by absolute fear of offending the most important figure in town: Santa Claus. Truly bizarre and comical is just how irritable St. Nick comes across during nearly every one of his scenes. When given the opportunity to set an example, perhaps by consoling Rudolph during the reindeer games, Santa piles on, shaming Donner no less. (For further proof, this supercut lays bare the OG Bad Santa.)
Though thorny issues regarding power existed in the mid-sixties, they were not viewed in the same light as present day. Social change begets reevaluation of prior morals. In recent years, perhaps no group has identified more with Rudolph’s central story than the gay community, many of whom believe that the special’s creators, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, intentionally created an allegory depicting their struggle for acceptance. Rudolph exhibits sheer flamboyance. He was born this way and should not need to conceal his true self.
With his grand swoop of blonde hair and delicate speaking voice, Hermey is a closeted elf desperate to follow his heart’s desire amongst belligerent peers. Is there any wonder how a young person who deviates from gender norms might see themselves in either as they light up when sharing their dream? Colleen Claes of Cultural Voice-Over writes,
… tell me you don’t feel—with your adult senses—that the word “dentist” could easily be replaced with “homosexual.” For instance…
Hermey: Hey, what do ya say we both be independent together, huh?
Rudolph: You wouldn’t mind… my… red nose?
Hermey: Not if you don’t mind me being… a… dentist.
The spotting of gay archetypes continue with assertions that Yukon Cornelius fits the bill of a bear and that Charlie-in-the-Box speaks with a tell-tale lisp. LGBT site Dallas Voice goes as far as painting Bumble the Abominable Snowman as a “sloppy bottom.”
While it’s fun to claim hidden meanings and assign cheeky symbolism to these iconic characters and events, viewers may also come to grips with the unpleasantries that many in the gay community face. For those who feel outcast, perhaps no scene hits closer to home than the reindeer games. The young sleigh team hopefuls—again, all male—take to flying lessons. After nervously flirting with a doe, Clarice (I guess he could be bisexual), Rudolph gracefully takes to the air and lands with ease. When the mud concealing his nose pops off, the other reindeer rip into him, calling him a host of names.
For some, the situation rings familiar, as evidenced a satirical poem written by Domenick Scudera for the Huffington Post:
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
Had a very shiny nose,
And if you ever saw it,
You would even say it glowed.
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names:
“Queer,” “dickhead,” “fruit,” “fairy,” “faggot,” “ho-ho-homo,”
“Retard,” “douche,” “gay,” “tranny,” “pussy,” “sissy boy.”
Rankin and Bass, of course, weren’t responsible for this turn of events; they merely followed the action laid out in the popular song written by Johnny Marks. While present day viewers may brand the mocking reindeer as bullies, we take satisfaction in knowing that Rudolph will prevail.
However, for Long Island University Professor George Giuliani, Rudolph’s triumph is beside the point. He argues that the Christmas special actually promotes bullying, and even claims to have written an alternate version of the Rudolph legend titled, “No Bullies at the North Pole.” Presently, the book cannot be found online, so there’s no telling whether Dr. Giuliani is sincerely making perhaps too fine a politically correct point, or if he’s deliberately trolling the right-wing of the country. Either way, FOX News took the bait, inviting the author to debate against conservative “comedian” Brad Stine.
If Rudolph weren’t steeped in a half century of tradition, would FOX be so dismissive to claims that it’s anything more than a children’s story? Maybe not.
Claus the Redeemer
Did the creators have an inkling that these characters would stir such feelings of association from those who felt different? In an interview with Jim Colucci for the Archive of American Television, Rankin refutes that the special was specifically geared to anyone other than children in general.
I think all kids feel slightly inferior, cause, as the man said – when he went to send his daughter to the psychiatrist – he says “What’s wrong with her?” The psychiatrist says, “What do you mean, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ She’s four-years-old, she’s three-feet tall, and she’s broke! She’s got problems.’ Kids have problems whatever they may be, and to see other characters that also have problems, they can associate with them.
Rankin and Bass likely paid little heed to issues of gender norms while honing the script. However, a telling example of gender expectations can be found in the credits. Though the voice of Rudolph was performed by Billie Mae Richards, a Canadian actress in her forties, the part is credited to Billy Richards. Rankin would later explain that he wanted to keep people from being confused. Nevertheless, this switch would seem to subvert the moral of the story: Be yourself—even when voicing a felt creature of the opposite gender.
This lack of an agenda to provide succor to those who felt strange and unloved might explain the odd decision to omit the famous scene of Santa returning to the Island of Misfit Toys at the end of the special. Indeed, when Rudolph first aired in 1964, Charlie-in-the-Box, the train with square wheels, spotted elephant, and girl rag doll (who Rankin would later reveal had “psychiatric problems”) were left on the island, tearfully counting down the days until next Christmas. After a letter writing campaign, an additional scene showing Santa’s rescue was filmed, and has been the proper ending ever since. By engendering empathy, Christmas is saved year after year, offering hope that misfits will find their place in the world.