Friday, December 08, 2006

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The newly remastered Rudolph is on. It's gorgeous, and it tells the story of the evils of socially constructed disablism. But, damned, it sure is disturbing.

First, Donner's initial reaction on seeing his son's physical difference is to demand that Rudolph wear a cosmetic prosthetic. When Santa (Santa!) sees the "deformity," he attacks Donner for siring defective offspring and warns that even a prosthetic doesn't cut it with him.

Months go by, and we see nerdy elf Herbie being ostracized for his atypical behavior. Is Herbie an Aspie? Whatever, he sure doesn't "fit in."

Meanwhile, the other reindeer boys discover that Rudolph has a unusual nose. At this, they heap abuse on Rudolph. And these bullies are egged on to do it by the adults. Once again Santa, who acknowledges Rudolph's physical prowess in jumping, again abuses Donner for having a son with a difference, and Rudolph is sent packing.

So far, the only ones who accept Rudolph for who he is are his mother and Clarisse, the girl he is smitten with. Not being vicious bigots appears to be the role of the females in Christmastown, for they certainly aren't welcome as workers or even as students.

Rudolph and Herbie find each other, and mutually decide to make a break for it.  Along the way to where they don't know, they run into Yukon Cornelius who, despite some odd behavior, is brimming over with acceptance and good advice.  The triumvirate travel together, in search of treasure, or, more exactly, in search of searching for treasure.  The Abominable Snowmonster notices Rudolph and begins following them.  This is unfortunate, because Rudolph has taken his society's devaluation of him to heart, and decides to save his friends by putting himself in danger.

So, what do we have so far? A North Pole society hallmarked by disablism and misogyny, with Satan Claus--I mean "Santa"--enforcing this rigid conformity while demanding a cheery demeanor and obeisance from his subjects.   Fortunately, this is a morality play in which the virtues demonstrated by the second class citizens end up saving the day.  A guilt-ridden Donner, Mrs. Donner and Clarice, and Rudolph's friends all set out independently to find Rudolph, who had managed to find his way home on his own just fine.  When they all end up in danger of being Abominable Chow, Rudolph's misfit friends show up in the nick of time to save them all.  And then Rudolph saves Christmas by functioning as a fog light, enabling the newly socially conscientious Santa to embark on a mission of social inclusion.  So, uh.  Yay?

What if turned out that Rudolph couldn't actually save the day?  What if he had just been different but not "special?"  Being different was enough reason for Herbie to be unwelcome, and his horrible difference was to want a professional career.  If Rudolph had been a lousy jumper, if he had had a snotty nose instead of a glowing one, would Santa have continued his exclusionary regime?  I know I am not the only who came away from the show as child with a profound distrust of Santa.

Oh well.  At least, Christmastown doesn't have a Jenny Craig.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for submitting this for inclusion in the upcoming Disability Blog Carnival #5. It's being held on December 14th at

We look forward to seeing you there!

Anonymous said...

I think there's some serious frontier mythologizing going on in Rudolph, too. There's the North Pole, bastion of civilization, the sole source of warmth and industrial productivity in a land of wilderness and injuns--er, Bumbles. But it's now so desperate to maintain its perceived status that it's rejecting the very sort of innovators ("Dentists? What kind of crazy talk is that! Next you'll be wanting us to all share the wealth and-- waiiiit...) and, frankly, mutants ("Glowing noses?!? Next they'll be flying!") that made its success possible.The social reformers who are, of course, mostly female and not part of the patriarchal power structure, are largely ignored.
Out on the frontier it's a different story; there's not only the wonderful Island of Misfit Toys (how could you not discuss this Home for the Disabled? Tsk!) and the nigh-sentient animals tht befriend Rudolph when he strikes out alone, but the Bumble itself, a fairly clever, bipedal, predator who only hunts people until socialized to learn another lifestyle. And of course there's Yukon Cornelius, the modern ideal of the frontiersman, free of society's limits but educated and innovative in the extreme, interested in treasure only as an excuse to leave the house. It's clear he doesn't believe in disability; hey, he thinks weiner dogs can pull a sleigh! Anything is possible with luck and pluck and Rankin-Bass ingenuity!

Rudolph uses his Bumble-defeating celebrity to try and change things in the North pole, as "token" celebrities often do. And it's clear the reforms inspired by Rudolph and co. have given Christmas Town a cultural renaissance, with healthcare and enhanced roles for women in the future. But it's still an aging empire. Beware, Island of Misfit Toys, and look to your borders! Admiral Santa's Black Sleds will soon arrive!

yanub said...

Tilliebug castigated me: "...there's not only the wonderful Island of Misfit Toys (how could you not discuss this Home for the Disabled?)"

Mea culpa! It's a huge omission, but what could I do, tipping-typing furiously during the commercial breaks? The story of Rudolph clearly needs a roundtable discussion to fully explore its reflection of mid-20th century conceptions of otherness. Ooh! And we can tie it to the Tiny Tim stereotype! Or you can, cuz the ball is in your court. And it's a good thing its a metaphorical ball, cuz otherwise I'm afraid it will have left the court and rolled into the creek, and then where will we be?

Yukon Cornelius. God, I love anyone who not only uses weinie dogs to pull his sled, but lets the dogs ride the sled instead while he pulls it.

datri said...

I wondered why I always cry when I watch this. Yup, makes perfect sense now....