Rudolph’s Lessons

If you think the Rankin-Bass special is “problematic,” you’re missing an important point.

It can project light through the storm but Hermey’s finger is fine. Now, THAT’S problematic.

As it has for 55 Christmas seasons starting in 1964, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aired this week. And wow, did it ever bother some people.

You know the plot from the song: Rudolph had a shiny nose. All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. Then, one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa Claus exploited Rudolph’s shiny nose to find his way through the storm. The special famously expands on the song with a variety of other “misfits” trying to find their way in North Pole society. And the depth the special adds to Rudolph’s backstory sits behind this week’s outrage.

Twitter users tore apart the children’s cartoon like Bumpus’s hounds attacking a turkey, with the Huffington Post batting cleanup as the aggregator. Various characters get called out — the head elf, Rudolph’s parents, even Santa Claus himself.

The main takeaway from the critics: Rudolph is marginalized for being different, and is only accepted when his difference is deemed useful. (Remember this point.)

Plenty of voices have criticized the critics — and after all the discussion, it’s still just a show for kids. Children’s television from the 1960s through the 1980s wasn’t exactly known for having lots of attention paid to plot and characterization. On top of that, Rudolph is the cornerstone of the Rankin-Bass empire, which has its name on so much holiday programming you imagine there must have been a sweatshop-style animation studio churning them out. (When animators pass out sculpting little stop-motion snowmen, they would be dragged outside and replaced with an interchangeable artist. This is what I imagine working for Rankin and Bass in the 1960s and 1970s was like.) You don’t have to go too deep into their specials to start finding some plot holes. It’s sort of fun to go Mystery Science Theater on them.

Still, this year’s criticism seems a little more pointed, calling the special “bigoted” and “problematic.” That’s closer to a warning than a riff.

The criticism of Rudolph manages to be both factually accurate and way off the mark.

The people who have pointed out the flaws in North Pole society? They have a point. Santa acts like a jerk to his elves. He and Donner (Rudolph’s father) treat the young buck’s red nose not just like a birth defect, but something to be mocked and ridiculed. At the end, Santa and Donner don’t make any grand pronouncement or apology, the narration simply acknowledges that they were wrong to drive Rudolph away in the first place. Everything gets happy when Rudolph’s nuclear schnoz gives Santa a way to see through the storm.

Are we really looking at the moral compass of a program where a jolly elf can deliver presents all over the world in one night but has never heard of a spotlight? We are, and once again, the big message seems to be: Rudolph is marginalized for being different, and is only accepted when his difference is deemed useful.

That’s a highly narcissistic reading of the plot, though.

If you watch Rudolph and put yourself in the hero’s shoes, then yes, the lesson you will take away will be about Rudolph and his perceived value to the others in Christmastown.

Let’s try something different. Think about yourself as the other characters. Have you ever acted like Santa, and been short with co-workers? Have you ever held something against someone that isn’t their fault, then felt regret for it later, as Donner did? Have you ever made fun of a friend so that you could be popular with others, as Rudolph’s nominal pal Fireball did during the reindeer games?

Of course you have. We all have.

At the risk of thinking too hard about a cartoon, the lesson that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer teaches us is to avoid being mean to people, because someday we’re going to need help and will have to rely on others. Being mean is wrong because it makes people feel bad, and it also hurts us.

That’s not transactional, either. The lesson isn’t a simple trade of kindness now for kindness later. It’s that we are all vulnerable to the trap of being superficial and petty and mean, so step back and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If you’re taking a bad lesson away from Rudolph, you’re identifying with the wrong character. We all want to be the hero, but sometimes we’re not.

Maybe the answer isn’t to hate-watch Rudolph while pumping out hot takes on Twitter. Maybe the answer is to watch Rudolph’s dad, the head elf, and even Santa Claus and see in them the monsters we all can become. Maybe the answer is to sign out of your social media accounts, put down the phone, and take a long look in the mirror, realizing that maybe we need the type of forgiveness for our own behavior that we’re so jealously withholding from the little stop-motion characters we’re treating like American literature.

Or maybe stop worrying and enjoy it with family and friends. After all, it’s just a cartoon.