Do you have the holiday tradition of watching Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer? The 1964 claymation film might be a little bit dated, and more than a little cheesy but it also speaks so intimately to anyone who has ever been discriminated against, felt like a misfit, or been rejected because of who you are. With good reason, the film has quite a cult following amongst queer audiences and serves as a bit of an anthem for any queer misfits figuring out who they are amidst discrimination.
Gender Nonconforming Reindeer
I don’t generally attempt to give any kind of nature lessons but before I talk about the film itself, I have to mention that there is some (likely unintentional) gender nonconformity/queerness happening that makes watching the film a little queerer and a lot more fun. Of note with actual reindeer all adult reindeers have antlers, not just assigned male reindeer. Also, In the spring and winter (when much of the film is set) assigned female reindeer are the only reindeer who have their antlers. So, although there are a lot of yucky patriarchal moments in the dialogue of the film, you could choose to read some interesting queer gender happening! But back to the actual film.
Why am I such a misfit?
One of the most iconic aspects of the Rudolph movie is the misfit song, and the ongoing theme of misfits setting off on their own life and banding together. The idea of misfits is introduced when Hermey, our very effeminate outcast elf who wants to be a dentist, realizes that he will never fit in with the rest of the elves who believe their only role in life is to make toys for Santa. At the same time that Hermey is struggling with accepting himself, Rudolph is being bullied by adults and kid reindeer because of his nose. In this moment we see both characters come to terms with not being able to stay in their family/community of origin and one might argue being literally pushed out because of who they are.
“What’s the matter with misfits? That’s where we fit in!”
The queer highlight of the film for me always comes as Rudolph and Hermey connect and run away together. As a queer person who ran away from home at seventeen and both survived and thrived by finding and building community with other runway, misfit queer kids, I strongly identify with these characters finding each other and banding together recognizing that not only can they be themselves, that they can survive, and also thrive in the company of others who also outcasts.
As Hermey and Rudolph leave Christmastown, they soon meet Yukon Cornelius, an arctic prospector who I have always thought of as a gay bear with his pack of delightful little unlikely sled dogs. Yukon not only helps protect Hermey and Rudolph from the harsh realities of the world (including the Abominable Snowman), but he serves as an older independent role model to these two new adults as they struggle to think about what kind of future they can have. These misfit characters have always read as somehow queer to me as they try to understand their own identities, self-doubt, and developing independence. In this way I think the film offers us important lessons about self-respect, self-confidence celebrating difference and resisting heteronormativity.
Rudolph and Hermey arrive on the isle of misfit toys finding so many more characters who like them do not fit in. The toys on the isle feel abandoned by Santa and have almost lost hope of being loved. These toys have built a world together protected by King Moonracer the ruler of the island. Sadly, and here’s one of the ways the film feels incredibly dated the misfit toys are….miserable in their difference. Unlike Hermey and Rudolph who have learned to celebrate being misfits the toy’s only desire is to be “normal” so that Santa will give them to children.
Difference can and will be commodified
Honestly the end of Rudolph is my least favorite part of the film and I try to fall asleep before the ending each time I watch the movie. The Santa in Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer is cold and opportunistic and is probably my least favorite Santa ever (as an aside my absolute favorite Santa depiction is North, the unmarried, very queer coded head to toe tattooed Santa of the Rise of The Guardians movie).
As the song dictates after his adventures in self-discovery, Rudolph returns to Christmastown and saves his emotionally abusive family (who had mistreated him in an attempt at masking his difference). Then, Rudolph discovers that Santa is in trouble because of a big storm and so needs to capitalize on Rudolph’s difference, and only now that he’s useful will Rudolph be accepted by everyone. This moment reminds me of the coercive aspects of heteronormativity: queer people will be accepted as being different so long as we can be useful in some way. It’s complicated of course because Rudolph and Hermey seem happy and ok with forgiving the members of Christmastown — so I suppose I’m happy they found their way home.
Unsurprisingly, I don’t like the ending of Rudolph, but I do think it’s a meaningful moral to the story for queer viewers. You can and should celebrate your difference, and should you choose you can build your own life and remain on the isle of misfit toys. in the end Rudolph and Hermey return to Santa and his heteronormative patriarchal world leaving behind the queer kinship they have built together to assimilate into the normative world of Christmastown. Essentially showing that If you choose to forgive your oppressors and make your difference tolerable, heteronormative culture likely will welcome you home/back but only if and when they determine that your difference can be commodified, manipulated or used.
Though only a small supporting character King Moonracer (king of the misfit toys) is to me the hidden queer heroes in the end of the film, as the only character who encourages his subjects to make their own decisions even if that means leaving him. He himself resists the confines and pull of normativity to remain in his misfit kingdom away from Christmastown. There’s room in the world for all of us: the Rudolphs and Hermeys the Yukon’s and Moonracers and regardless of if you choose to forgive those who have mistreated you or set-off on your own, just like for every misfit toy there’s a place for you.
About the Author:
Sassafras Lowrey’s novels and nonfiction books have been honored by organizations ranging from the American Library Association to the Lambda Literary Foundation and the Dog Writers Association of America. Sassafras’ work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Sassafras has taught queer writing courses and workshops at LitReactor, the NYC Center For Fiction and at colleges, conferences, and LGBTQ youth centers across the country. www.SassafrasLowrey.com