'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer': A Queer Appreciation

Earlier this month, a work buddy asked me if I’d watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when it was broadcast a couple of nights before. I told her I’d caught the second half of it. She then shared that her son “hates the message the story sends. If, and only if you fit in, the cool kids will be nice to you. He has a point.” “Luckily,” she continued, “the special goes beyond that and has Clarice and co. liking him no matter what...but the song? Not so much.” She had a point. “Rudolph is complicated for contemporary viewers,” I conceded.

Around the same time, a high school classmate posted on Facebook: “I wonder if I’ll still feel it’s necessary to watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer when I’m 90!!” “Let’s hope so!” I commented.

I’m sure I’ll continue to watch it every year, just like I’ll watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (which always makes me cry), The Grinch, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Me being me, though, these two exchanges got me wondering about the sources of Rudolph’s appeal. One obvious one is nostalgia. Like my work buddy, my classmate, and a lot of other people our age, the program was a childhood friend: Rudolph was first broadcast the year I was born, so revisiting it every year is a bit like following my classmate’s Facebook posts. But nostalgia is a complicated emotion for me. My relationship to my past was substantially ruptured when I came out as trans in my late 40s, and since then I’ve struggled to parse the person I was wired to be from birth with the persona I tried for too many years to project in order to appease a world I feared would reject and even kill me if I showed my true colors. It’s a messy process fraught with a lot of accumulated pain. Much of the nostalgia I associate with Rudolph, then, lay in how it connects me to a time when my difficulties were new, and my life less complicated (if no less challenging).

There’s also, of course, my affinity with the program’s “misfits.” In recent years, I’ve come to recognize how deep this affinity ran when I was young, and how differently the celebration of a red-nosed reindeer and a dentist elf must resonate with young viewers today. I’m not just alluding to changes in taste (and animation technology). My work buddy’s son and his peers have ready access to depictions of difference in all its many forms. Not so back in the days before the internet, when validations of being different were hard to come by. The struggles of Rudolph and Hermey, moreover, bore more than a general resemblance to my own struggles: they affirmed what it felt like to be a queer kid. And the program’s happy ending offered a fantasy resolution to the difficulties queer kids faced: yes, I was told, we could be embraced by our cis, straight elders and peers — a powerful possibility for a smalltown girl who could see no desirable alternative. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and Hermey the dentist elf weren’t just fellow misfits, then, they were queer misfits. They were surrogates for the companions I didn’t have, and bearers of a promise that better times would, if after much time and struggle, come.

Rudolph’s not so latent queerness has been frequently acknowledged and commented on in recent years. “A shockingly progressive queer allegory,” one writer terms it. “The parable of gay acceptance that many of us always wanted,” another observes. The complexities of this subtext, though, haven’t been fully explored.

Take for example the way Rudolph and Hermey’s experiences complement each other. More than one writer has contrasted the latter’s unwillingness to stay in the closet with the former’s reticence on this point. I think it’s more useful, though, to think of them as representing different stages of a queer kid’s coming to terms with their “nonconformity,” as narrator Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) describes Rudolph’s nose. In the young reindeer, we see the queer kid from the moment they become aware that their nonconformity is for whatever reason a problem to others around them. His parents’ initial responses to his nose are classics from the don’t-ask-don’t-tell school: “We’ll simply have to overlook it,” his mother opines, to which his father Donner replies, “How can you overlook that?” Either way, the message is clear: We don’t want to know. And when Santa himself registers his none too approving surprise on first seeing Rudolph’s difference soon after, the little reindeer’s path into the closet is cleared. Donner scrapes some dirt from the bottom of their cave — cuz that’s where nuclear reindeer families live, natch — and smears it on his son’s nose, assuring him, “You’ll get used to it.”

The next scene provides the classic rationale for “getting used to it:” the world is a dangerous place, in particular for those who stick out from the crowd. Letting your queerness show — letting your “very shiny nose” glow — can literally get you killed, as the threat posed by the Abominable Snow Monster of the North quite plainly demonstrates. This is, Sam tells us, the “most important” lesson Donner taught his son. It’s a lesson that all queer kids back in the day learned early on, one way or another: there are good reasons to “get used to” the closet.

But of course Rudolph won’t — not really, anyway — just as we never did. And that simple message is conveyed to us when we meet Hermey in the next scene. Hermey’s “nonconformity” (dentistry) isn’t as visibly in-your-face as Rudolph’s, but even before he confesses that he simply can’t get himself to like making toys, his exuberant swoop of blonde hair and a voice one writer characterizes as “indeterminate..., at once childish and fey,” tell us that there’s something different about this elf, something that makes him more like the blonde female elves than the other male elves. His confession earns him a public shaming from the Head Elf, the parental figure in the scene, and an injunction to straighten up and fly right that’s more damaging than Donner’s loving concern for his son’s safety: “Now listen, you’re an elf. And elves make toys. Now get to work!” Translated into the terms in which this young trans girl understood it: You’ve got a penis, and boys have penises. So man up! There were work arounds for danger, even Abominable Snow Monsters, but seemingly not for this. Can girls have penises too? Can the leopard change his spots?

Because Rudolph is a toddler, his parents are willing for a time to indulge his difference. “I’m sure it’ll stop,” Donner assures Santa, “as soon as he grows up.” Not so Hermey. Older than Rudolph, he’s the queer kid who has had his chance to grow out of his difference, who has tried to elf up and fit in, but whose queerness can’t be repressed. He’ll never be a toymaker — he’ll never be other than what he is. Because he won’t.

Accepting this verdict back in the day was no easy task, though, as the stakes involved in doing so were higher, so our two queer protagonists continue for a while longer to capitulate to the cajoling and bullying of their elders and peers. The outcome in each case is predictable, however. Rudolph’s first time participating in the reindeer games a year later ends when the “black nose condom” (as one writer calls it) that his father has procured for him falls off. Public shaming and exclusion from future games follow, and he resolves to leave home. Lesson for queer kids: you can’t hide, but you can run.

Hermey skips the comparable group activity (elf practice), but with the same result. The Head Elf tracks him down, contemptuously dismisses his final attempt to accommodate himself to his assigned role (making “chewing dolls”), assures him of what we already know — “You’ll never fit in!” — and orders him to come to the practice so that he can “learn how to wiggle your ears and chuckle warmly and go ‘Hee hee’ and ‘Ho ho’ and important stuff like that.” The obvious irony in that last statement is the program’s first unambiguous wink to its young viewers that older authority figures don’t necessarily have all the answers — an important affirmation back in the day for queer viewers like me who likely weren’t receiving much if any validation of their difference. Hermey gets the message and also resolves to run away.

Unlike his future companion, Rudolph receives some consolation before departing: a glimpse of a brighter future in Clarice’s song, “There’s Always Tomorrow.” As sentimental as it is to my jaded fifty-something ears, I remember that this song resonated strongly for me when I was young. As Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice is often seen as an accommodation to the heteronormativity of the early 1960s — since he’s the titular character, Rudolph has to (appear to) be straight — and on one level, she certainly is that. But to this young trans viewer, her song, and role, resonated quite differently. Rudolph’s aching, inarticulate “I wish…I wish…,” which prompts the song, expressed the deeply conflicting desires I and I’m sure many queer kids had to be “normal” like other kids and to be accepted for who we were. Not only did Clarice’s response echo something my mom used to say to console me: “Every dog has its day.” Clarice herself was a fantasy projection of the girl I sensed myself to be. Her assurance that tomorrow might — would — be better, and her willingness to affirm that Rudolph’s real nose was “handsome,” and “much better than that silly false one you were wearing,” was like a message from the girl inside me that I too might — would — become the me I was meant to be, would become her. Not tomorrow, perhaps, but someday.

Before that someday, though, there were lots of todays to explore and lots of growing to do, and Rudolph and Hermey’s adventures mirrored my own journey. The program didn’t pull any punches about the difficulties of this journey. The Abominable Snow Monster of the North (hereafter “the Abominable”) was of course the ever-present and seemingly overwhelming danger that the world posed, while the Island of Misfit Toys was the marginal space queer folks occupied after they came out. Both of these equivalences have been widely observed. So too has the role of Yukon Cornelius as gay mentor and hyper-masculine “bear” or (my favorite) “lumbersexual.” (Just consider for a second the stuff he does with his pickaxe if you have any doubts about his orientation.) There’s more to say about the nature of Yukon’s mentoring, however.

Let’s consider the episode in which he chops away an ice flow and enables them to escape from the Abominable. The basic survival skills vital for members of marginalized communities are psychological as well as more immediately practical in nature, and here Yukon passes on not only a piece of useful info (“The Bumble sinks!”), but also a valuable lesson about self-esteem. When they find themselves stranded at the edge of the ice, Rudolph declares, “We’re trapped. There’s no way out. It’s my nose again, it’s ruined us!” Youth and inexperience factor into his inability to see a means of escape, of course, but so too does self-hatred. Having been taught from the get-go to feel ashamed of his difference, he’s hamstrung by the negative feelings he has internalized about it. Because he can’t see his nose as an asset, that is, he’s unable to see how things could possibly go other than badly when it — he — is “out,” and ultimately how anyone could see his presence as positive: “There’s no way out” = You (and the world) are better off without me. Needless to say, such feelings were familiar to at least one young viewer.

Besides affirming the queer kids’ value by saving them, Yukon also shows them here and throughout the course of their adventures the value of adopting a critical stance towards the received wisdom they’ve been taught. The Abominable, that monstrous threat to difference posed by the cold, unforgiving outside world, is to him just a “Bumble.” This verbal reduction doesn’t eliminate the very real danger the monster represents, of course, but it does demystify it. As the young me translated this lesson: perhaps the menace of the Abominable that your community used to drive you into the closet is really nothing more than the idiocy of the Head Elf’s “important stuff” writ large. If that’s the case, then perhaps there’s not only a work around for that menace, but also an alternative way to look at the whole penis/man up thing. Perhaps the assertion that you’re not who you know yourself to be isn’t some hard truth you need to accept, but merely gaslighting spurred by the fear and ignorance of the culture you were born into. I don’t mean to suggest that this realization came to me right away (it didn’t), or that I leapt into action the minute it did (I didn’t). The threat posed by the Abominable continued to feel like a clear and present existential danger long after I recognized its nature and scope. It wasn’t so easy to argue away the effects of the trauma that being gaslighted all those years produced.

Nor of course could a 50-minute Christmas special dispel them. But Rudolph did assure me that it was okay to struggle, and it offered a picture of tomorrow/someday that spoke powerfully to me in my youthful isolation. Difference is recognized to have value and is embraced by the cis, straight majority: Hermey helps save Rudolph and his family by pulling the Abominable’s teeth, and Rudolph of course saves Christmas. Even the “reformed” Bumble gets a job. (A thought: while chosen in large part, surely, for comic effect as well as for its role in the story’s denouement, Hermey’s choice of dentistry also suggests the importance of being honest about who you are: don’t let tooth decay — anything — fester, take care of it!) This model of acceptance through usefulness had its limits. How did transness fit into it? More basically, why did I have to be useful to be accepted? But the program’s broader message of expanded inclusiveness resonated, and continues to do so today, as does its reminder that nothing in this world is rigid and forever: beliefs and the power structures that enforce them are always susceptible to influence because they’re constantly changing. Or as Yukon puts it: “Bumbles bounce!”

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