Why Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer Was My First Queer Hero
A queer review of the fiercest reindeer of all.
You know Dasher and Dancer
And Prancer and Vixen,
FULL STOP! We’re off to a queer start! Prancer and Vixen are the names of two other male reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. Really? They have GOT to be gay!
As a little boy I loved the classic Christmas cartoon, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. I must’ve watched it every Christmas as a child, then as a teenager, and almost every year since.
Rudolph was my first queer role model and he was fierce!
Rudolph was young, innocent, and playful. He just wanted to make friends. The other young bucks called him names and kicked him out of their reindeer games.
But Rudolph showed strength of character at a young age, unafraid to venture into the unknown and make friends with other outcasts and mis-fits just like himself.
Viewing the 1964 cartoon, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer through a queer lens.
After the story introduction we meet the new-born Rudolph.
His father, Donner, decides after meeting with Santa that Rudolph will never make the team with his shiny nose. He covers Rudolph’s nose with mud and says,
“You’ll be a normal little buck just like everyone else.“
Rudolph, cross-eyed looking down the bridge of his nose, is confused. His father reassures him,
“Now, now, you’ll get used to it.“
Sam the snowman, the narrator of the story, tells us that for the first year,
“Rudolph’s family did a pretty good job hiding Rudolph’s, uh, non-conformity.”
What does the “uh” mean? He could have said, “His shinny nose.”
But this is a queer tale, one that questions heteronormativity. It’s about what is not said. Sam expresses linguistic and spoken discomfort (a pause when deciding what to say) to find the most polite and inoffensive way to say that Rudolph is not like the other boys!
The Abominable snow monster of the north
What does the Abominable monster represent? An anger, a queer rage, a suppression of the self so extreme that he hates everything Christmas and wages destruction in his path. Sounds like he needs to come out!
We meet our next so-called misfit, Hermey, the elf who doesn’t want to be an elf. He doesn’t want to be like everyone else. He’s a non-conformist who wants to be a dentist.
Just look at that wave of blond hair! If anyone is gay in this cartoon it has to be Hermey! As we see more of him his manner is defiantly “precious.”
Oral fixation, anyone?
In Santa’s workshop the elf supervisor criticizes Hermey who’s behind in his work. The supervisor asks why. Hermey’s answer is too incredulous to hear! He doesn’t like to make toys!
The news travels down the work table, elf ear to elf ear, like a terrible secret. The elves declare in unison,
“Oh, shame on you!”
When asked what he’d rather do instead, Hermey says,
“Someday, I’d like to be a dentist.”
With no room for discussion, his supervisor cracks,
“Now listen you. You’re an elf. And elves make toys. Now get to work!”
Hermey is forced to work during his break under threat of termination — if you don’t fit into the box like everyone else then you suffer the consequences of being different.
Keep it in the closet and no one will know.
Meanwhile, Rudolph’s father is determined to keep his son’s nose a secret with a nose cover. Rudolph is upset, as he should be. He doesn’t like the nose condom and it’s uncomfortable. His father puts his hoof down and tells him,
“There are more important things than comfort: self-respect. Santa can’t object to you now.”
Rudolph leaves the comfort of the family cave to sing a heartbreaking song of queer adolescence,
“Why am I such a misfit,
I’m am not just a nitwit.
Just because my nose glows
Why don’t I fit in?”
Seriously, that fucking breaks my heart! He wants to fit in without having to hide any part of his true identity! Even his parents, who brought him into this world, want to repress him. Well, just his father. His mother, being a good little woman (it’s 1964 people!) has no say in the matter.
It’s April and the young bucks are about to meet the does for the first time. Rudolph’s father, in his heteronormative manly tone, tells him to get out there and not worry about his nose.
“Remember, you’re my little buck.”
(Ya. Thanks dad. I’m sure you mean well, but you’ve covered my nose with this fucking nose-rubber that makes me sound like a doofus when I talk!)
But things are looking up. Rudolph is greeted by Fireball who invites him to be his buddy.
(Really? Fireball? Fire balls? Who came up with these pseudo-suggestive names?)
But wait! Now for the best, most unlikely of double entendres you’ll ever hear in a 1964 children’s cartoon. Rudolph asks where they’re going and Fireball(s) says,
“To the reindeer games. Makes antlers grow. Besides, it’s a great way to show off in front of the does.”
You’ll never fit in
Back in Santa’s workshop, Hermey is fixing a doll’s teeth and has missed performing in a musical number that disappointed Santa.
(A musical number? Isn’t that, like, kinda gay?)
In response to his supervisor’s frustration at missing the show he says,
“I just thought I found a way to fit in.”
But that’s not what his boss wants to hear, who shouts,
“You’ll never fit it!”
Hermey choses to be himself and with the boss gone he sneaks out the workshop window, saying,
“I guess I’m on my own now.”
A doe, a deer, a female deer
While the young bucks are learning how to “take off”, Rudolph heads off to meet one of the does. After small talk Clarice says,
“Something wrong with your nose? I mean, you talk kind of funny?”
(Funny how? Like not very masculine? A little, dare I say it, queer?)
“What’s so funny about the way I talk?”
“Don’t get angry. I don’t mind,” says Clarice.
(Could this doe be Rudolph’s future fag hag?)
Then the sweetest thing to happen in a young boys life… the opposite sex says,
“I think you’re cute.”
Rudolph gallops away in glee, takes off, and masters air flight. He lands directly in front of Coach Comet, who gives him a resounding, “Magnificent!” — Rudolph’s first positive praise from a male thus far. Rudolph takes off into the air again, wowing even Santa with his future sleigh-pulling prowess.
“Hey, you’re ok!” says Fireball.
But the laughter, excitement, and fun are short lived. Rudolph loses his nose bag during play and his nose is exposed in all it’s radiating glory. Fireball freaks out, squinting against the glare.
“Get away! Get away from me!”,
Cries Fireball in a queer panic.
Sticks and stones
The coach and the rest of the bucks scamper over to see what the fuss is all about. One after the other they hurl insults,
What’s left for Rudolph to do but sheepishly say,
“Stop calling me names!”
And finally, the insult that later becomes the thing that defines his greatness,
“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.”
Santa, that fucker of a closed-minded heteronormative male, tells Rudolph’s father that he should be ashamed of himself. Donner hangs his head in shame.
“What a pity,” says Santa. “He had a nice take-off too.”
With that the commotion is over. Coach Comet, with his fragile masculinity, demeans and humiliates Rudolph by kicking him off the team in front of his team mates.
We all need someone to believe in us
Rudolph runs off and Clarice follows. He assumes she’s going to make fun of his nose like the others. But she’s wiser than her years and says,
“It’s a handsome nose, much better than that silly false one you were wearing.”
When you take of your mask, others can see your true beauty.
“It’s terrible,” he says. “It’s different from everybody else.”
“But that’s what makes it so grand. Any doe would consider herself lucky to be with you.”
(I’ve heard something like this before, from when I was 17 and broke up with the first girl I ever dated. I heard through friends that she thought I was the nicest guy she’d ever met, because I never once took advantage of her. Well duh, that’s because I’m gay!)
Racist, homophobic, or good old fashioned prejudice?
After a lovely, heart-warming song from Clarice about the possibility of your dreams coming true tomorrow, her dad shows up and stomps all over the moment.
“No doe of mine will be seen with a red-nosed reindeer!”
Rudolph is left alone, but not for long, when, as the fates would have it, Hermey pops up out of the snow.
Seriously? He pops up out of the snow, kind of like a squirrel, but maybe metaphorically like coming out of the closet?
“I’m independent” he declares to Rudolph. “Hey, what do you say we both be independent together, huh?”
(Is there a backroom or a glory-hole somewhere in that Christmas tree forest?)
“You wouldn’t mind my red nose?”
“Not if you wouldn’t mind me [pause] being a dentist.”
(Why the pause? What did Hermey really want to say? Is this like if a bi-guy says, “I’m only a top” and the gay guys says, “Well if you don’t mind that I’m versatile, we’ll get along just fine”?)
When your safety is at risk, hide in the closet
As the two misfits head out into the winter storm to escape Christmas-Town, Hermey hears the Abominable growling in the distance.
“The Abominable! He must see your nose. Quick, douse the light.”
The two make it safefly through the night. On the next day they meet Yukon Cornelius who’s on the hunt for silver and gold. Our narrator, Sam the snowman even asks,
“So what do you think of our friend, Cornelius?”
What does he want us to notice? Cornelius is the one character I can’t figure out. He’s a ginger, bearded, hyper-masculine, and alone with his dog sled in the wilderness. He happens across two adolescents whom he invites to come with him.
You can run, but you can’t hide
Suddenly they’re on the run from the Abominable who’s seen Rudolph’s nose again. They reach water’s edge with no where left to go. Thankfully, ginger-daddy outwits the Abominable basher by using his ax-pick to create an ice-flow and the band of misfits floats away, foiling the monster who can’t swim.
Back home, Donner is feeling remorse for how he treated his son who’s been missing for two days. Donner won’t allow his wife to come with him on the search saying,
“No, this is man’s work.”
Thankfully, women are often smarter than men and band together in times of crisis. Clarice shows up after Donner has left and the two females head out on their own.
Rudolph, Hermey, and Cornelius make land at the Island of Misfit Toys. They’re greeted by the sentry who’s a jack-in-the-box. But he’s not what he appears to be.
(Charlie “pops” out of his box… breaking out of his box.)
Charlie is a jack-in-the-box, but because his name is Charlie and not Jack he’s a misfit.
“My name is all wrong. No child wants to play with a Charlie-in-the-box”, said with a detectable gay intonation. “So I had to come here.”
(Seriously, I am not making this shit up!)
We are entertained with another song riddled with more innuendo.
A jack-in-the-box waits for children to shout.
Wake up! Don’t you know it’s time to come out?
“When Christmas Day is here, the most wonderful day of the year.
(Funny, but the day me and many of my friends like to come out on is Pride, affectionally referred to as “Gay Christmas.”)
We’re introduced to all the misfit toys: the spotted elephant, and a train with square wheels. There’s even a water gun toy that shoots jelly, which he demonstrates by giving Hermey a facial. Rudolph, bless his orally-inclined soul, licks Hermey’s face clean. I think he enjoyed it!
The King of the Island searches the earth at night for misfits. (Searches or cruises?) Then he brings them back to his kingdom (Dungeon? Gay bar?) to live out their lives until somebody wants them (or takes them home for a good shag?).
Our merry band head to the throne room for an audience with the big king daddy who likes rescuing misfits. He greets them by asking,
“What do you desire?”
(Insert almost any sexual reference here…)
They ask the king if they could live on the island but he says, no, because the island is for toys only. Cornelius sees the discrimination in this, saying,
“How do you like that? Even among misfits, you’re misfits.”
But it’s not all bad because the good king has wisdom to offer:
“A living creature cannot hide himself on an island. But perhaps being misfits yourselves, you might help the toys here.”
While not what they were expecting, they’ve suddenly been empowered with a mission to create change and bring hope to others, just like themselves.
Facing the unknown
With his friends asleep, Rudolph decides to head out on his own to protect his friends from future danger. On the run from the Abominable, he makes friends here and there but he always has to move on.
(What was he doing? Sounds like he was sleeping around but could never get involved. ”It’s not you, it’s me”…)
We see a maturing Rudolph, with firm antlers and muscular hind legs, developing a new understanding of his situation in life.
He can’t run away from his troubles any longer and returns home. He’s greeted with the same disrespect as “old neon nose” by his peers. He learns that his parents and Clarice are gone and have been searching for him for months.
This is the point in classic storytelling of the dark night of the soul, or the insurmountable obstacle.
In this case the storm of storms hits Christmas-Town. It’s so bad Santa thinks he’ll have to cancel Christmas. Rudolph realizes he will have to confront the Abominable snow monster, who has taken his family hostage. He heads out into the storm to rescue them.
With blinding courage he fights the Abominable, but is knocked unconscious. Luckily his friends have been searching for him ever since he left the Island of Misfit Toys. They lure the Abominable out of his cave and knock him out.
Hermey, the aspiring dentist, extracts the monster’s teeth when he’s unconscious, rendering him harmless. Cornelius corners the monster when he wakes and forces him to the edge of cliff, where they both fall off.
But this is a 1964 cartoon. A man just fell off a cliff and presumably died, saving his friends in the process. We’re told by Sam the Snowman,
“They are all very sad at the loss of their friend. They realize that the best thing to do is to get the women back to Christmas-Town.”
Nothing like smoothing over death and tragedy by reinforcing heteronormativity in a children’s Christmas cartoon!
They return to Christmas-Town and everyone realizes they “might have been” a little hard on the misfits.
Really? Rudolph was gone for months. Cast out from society. His parents and his fag-hag were captured by the Abominable and almost eaten alive! Yes, that might have been a “little hard.” Sam, the narrator, says,
“Maybe misfits have a place too. Even Santa realized that maybe he was wrong.”
Why does it take a tragedy for people to come to their senses, to recognize that we all deserve love, respect, and equal representation?
Rudolph is finally accepted at the end of the story, nor for simply being who he is, but because he’s exceptional. His difference is his greatest strength and his asset. For that Santa realizes he doesn’t have to cancel Christmas. He can brave the storm thanks to Rudolph’s neon honker.
“Rudolph with your nose so bring won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”
Then comes an impotent fatherly denial from Donner:
“I knew that nose would be useful someday, I knew it all along!”
Too little, too late. Trying to hide one’s past injustices towards others, especially your son, doesn’t make you a better man. It does, however, reinforce the socially imposed limitations of Donner’s manhood.
Is there a winner in this story?
On the one hand, the moral of this story sucks. If you don’t fit into the status quo, is your only chance of being accepted having something that other people need or want?
The lesson of Rudolph is an interesting one. It brings up more questions about what we consider to be worth in others. Acceptance seems to be a issue of conformity. Unless you bring something unexpected and out of the ordinarily that will benefit others, you’re fucked.