The stop-motion animated Rudolph story I grew up watching debuted on 6 December, 1964, or so says the internet. That makes this a timely post.
Every year I’m reminded how much the internet loves to hate on poor Rudolph (the TV edition) for being a tacky tale with its roots in advertising and a plot packed with of cruel, psychologically damaging life lessons. I’ve seen essays criticizing the show for being:
- capitalist propaganda promoting consumerism & conformity
- socialist propaganda promoting social justice and the death of Traditional Values ™
- sexist, ableist propaganda that insists the only human value is usefulness.
- pro-queer propaganda encouraging people to tear down social and family norms.
Those are pretty heavy messages to pull from a half-hour story about flying reindeer who transport a magic sleigh everywhere in the world overnight once a year. They’re also wildly contradictory. The think pieces only seem to agree on one point: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer isn’t a story children should watch or hear or read because they will internalize horrible ideas.
I disagree with all the nay-sayers despite agreeing with many of their individual points.
Yes, Rudolph is problematic. There’s little pop culture from that era that isn’t uncomfortable on on axis or another. Star Trek TOS holds up better than I thought, better than ST:TNG tbh. Despite being radically progressive for its time it still contains plenty of cringeworthy moments. BUT I DIGRESS.
Most stories in the 60’s that received wide distribution, especially visual stories, were landmines jam-packed full of sexist, ableist, utilitarian, Puritan messaging. To expect a commerical kid’s show to be an exception is asking a bit much.
And it’s a bit much to insist it was deliberate. Some creators did have an agenda. People were rejecting the (bogus)”traditions” which had been taught as Forever History during the post WW2 years. The grip of Boomer Mythology–the deliberate social engineering & history erasure movement undertaken by Social Leaders terrified of various marginalized groups–was already slipping.The idea of combatting dissent by doubling down is not exactly new.
But a lot of the bad storytelling came from writers putting their mundane unexamined biases & prejudices front and center of their stories. Take another Rankin-Bass “classic,” The Little Drummer Boy. It’s another one I loved as a little kid. Outsider orphan finds a place to belong after suffering & adventures? Plus magic animal companions? Should be great to revisit, right?
Ugh, no. it is unwatchable as an adult. Every last element of it is offensive and cringeworthy in the extreme. The plot is saturated with exoticism, egregious bigotry, and the worst excesses of Christian preachiness. The characters are racist caricatures, the dialogue is unbearable.
Rudolph, in contrast, holds up. It hits some of the same beats as The Little Drummer Boy (and they’re story beats that show up in my own work often enough for me to recognize my affinity for them, by the way) but it dodges the worst cultural baggage.
Oh, there are problematic elements a-plenty, from blind promotion of social & sexual norms and assumptions of what people should want to make their lives fulfilling, to a villain whose fate is to become a literally toothless minion of another character. Just to name a few.
But the basic premise — a protagonist achieving self-acceptance & pride in what others insist is a flaw, a plot that ends with them with stepping up to make sure things are better for those who come after, including and uplifting differences instead of bullying & rejecting others in turn? That theme still shines through the clunky parts.
For me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.
(In case you’ve never watched it, here’s my details-omitted plot summary of Rudolph. Child gets mocked and rejected for being different, gets no support from the adults in his life & leaves home to make his own way. Finds out he isn’t alone in being misunderstood & unwanted and makes friends. He matures, forgives the people who drove him off (in the process finding out they regretted their cruelty) rescues them from peril, returns home, and finds he is needed for the very traits people once mocked — so he makes his help contingent on ALL the rejects being included & people being accepted as they are.)
And the one trope that will ALWAYS suck me into a story is “Misfit outsider collects a band of fellow rejects and eventually save their haters despite being mistrusted and undervalued”
Rudolph’s story just reaches right in and curls up in my heart. So imma keep watching & loving it every year. And maybe accidentally writing it over and over into my fiction.
Anyway, that’s it. That’s the post.
But for your entertainment, here be a sampling of the “Rudolph Is Awful” material. Some of it is published as “parody,” some is wholly serious, and this is only a SMALL smattering of the Deep Dive Overthinking Analysis availble for the low, low cost of a few searches & far too many hours spent slogging through the prose.