The classic stop-motion animation Christmas special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sells itself as a paean to acceptance and tolerance of non-conformity. It’s a noble message indeed — and one that deserves more than the scant lip service the Rankin-Bass production pays it, as a close reading of the show proves.
When Rudolph is born with his festive red nose, there’s not a hint of acceptance or excitement, but a heavy blanket of stubborn repression. Within moments of Rudolph’s birth, Mrs. Donner embraces denial: “Well, we’ll simply have to overlook it.” Deeply entrenched in this draconian regime of conformity, Donner quickly works up a plan to hide his son’s distinctive attribute. (In a subtle remark on the distancing effect of familial rejection, Mrs. Donner cuddles Rudolph to her bosom for just a moment before his fake nose pops off, suggesting that future affections in the Donner family will be wary and hesitant moments at best.)
Donner’s makeshift solution (which, the narration tells us, Rudolph suffers for years) not only disguises Rudolph’s natural appearance but also smothers his natural voice, a metaphor too powerful to overlook. Donner privileges his own reputation over Rudolph’s identity and dignity. As he reapplies the mud to Rudolph’s nose, he desperately growls, “Santa can’t object to you now!”
But Donner is wrong. Santa’s ability to object is overwhelming: he rails against a song of devotion composed by his elves, he complains about the weather (AT THE NORTH POLE, Y’ALL), and after acknowledging that the newborn Rudolph is clever and handsome, he undermines all his compliments by rebuking him for his ambition to serve as Santa’s pack mule. “Every year I shine up my
slavebells sleighbells for eight lucky reindeer.” Here are your shackles, slave: how lucky you are to wear them. That’s right: Santa’s self-centeredness is so complete that he believes the lithe, lissome creatures who drag his massive sleigh, the incalculable weight of a world’s worth of toys, and Santa’s own not-inconsiderable bulk are lucky.
Let’s examine Santa’s role in the Rankin-Bass universe. [Note: Let's be clear, here. The supposed Santa of the Rankin-Bass specials is NOT, I repeat, NOT an accurate portrayal of Santa Claus. The real Santa is a jolly old elf, a kindly and venerable fellow who brings great joy to children and adults alike. Please direct your complaints the the estates of Mr. Rankin and Mr. Bass. Frankly, I think Santa should sue for character defamation.] Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer quickly establishes Santa as the overlord of this isolated state: in the very first scene, we learn that the North Pole is a vast wasteland ruled over by its “Number One Citizens,” Mr. and Mrs. Claus. They live in palatial grandeur in the “first castle on the left — matter of fact, the only castle on the left.” Ahahahaha, unbalanced distribution of wealth is hilarious!
And of course Santa is wealthy; all year long, he exploits the labor of a racial underclass. Like the reindeer, the elves are apparently born into slavery. They work frenetically to produce an endless stream of toys, which Santa whisks away with no thanks or acknowledgement. And who gets the glory, the eons of fame, and the adoration of children? Santa, of course!
When one brave elf has the self-respect to stand up for his own dreams and desires, he is soundly ridiculed by his superior and peers alike and consigned to the workbench while the other elves frolic in their brief respite from the assembly line. Hermey only wants to better himself, gain and education, and learn a professional trade to escape the ranks of servitude to which his heritage has confined him. But in this restrictive regime, he must throw off not only the comforts of community but even the safety of his home. Our snowman guide’s only comment on this brutally enforced serfdom to Santa? “Oh, well, such is the life of an elf!”
At the same moment, Rudolph is facing the shame of uncloaking his hidden identity to his peer group. Just as the derision reaches its peak, with even Rudolph’s father joining in, Santa steps in. “Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself!” For a moment, the nonconformist’s heart leaps; surely Santa is about to deliver a speech of understanding and individuality! But no. Santa dresses down Donner for his chicanery, and in an aside he utterly rejects Rudolph. “What a pity. He had a nice take-off, too.” Santa lets his bigoted worldview deprive him of a worker of obvious skill and prowess.
Is it any surprise that our unorthodox protagonists prefer to take their chances on the snowy wilds rather than suffering a lifetime of their homeland’s continual shaming? As they sing at their first meeting, “Why am I such a misfit?/ I am not just a nit-wit!*/ They can’t fire me; I quit!/ Since I don’t fit in.” (*Note that even Hermey and Rudolph, who are so bitterly rejected for their deviance from the rigid and demanding norm, gleefully deride those whom they view as lesser-than or other-than, just because they can.)
When Rudolph, now grown to buckhood, returns to Christmastown, Santa tells him that his parents and his sweetheart Clarice have been wandering the icy wastes for months. “And I’m very worried!” Santa adds. Worried for their welfare? Worried because the ice-bound badlands of the arctic pose many dangers? No, worried because “Christmas Eve is only two days off and without your father, I’ll never be able to get my sleigh off the ground.” Santa’s concern is for his own enterprise, not for the endangered lives of his slaves.
And here we learn the answer to the musical question posed by Hermey and Rudolph: “We may be different from the rest/ Who decides the test/ Of what is really best?” Despite its token message of acceptance and tolerance, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer clearly demonstrates “who decides the test”: it’s Santa, of course — Santa who lives in the only castle, Santa who dictates not only the careers but the entire lives of those under his reign, Santa whom we all acknowledge as the arbiter of who is naughty and who is nice. This adherence to the absolute authority pervades the entire text of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
Even on the Island of Misfit Toys, the final authority rests with King Moonraiser, the leonine king who flies around the world each night seeking out misfits to spirit away to the island. His flight and his authority both suggest that King Moonraiser is the dark doppelganger of Santa, a stark authoritarian whose whims have the power of law in his despotic kingdom. This tale that seems on its surface to celebrate the individual ultimately caves in to the hegemonic power of authority, which predicates its acceptance of the unique or odd on their usefulness. Rudolph and Hermey are welcomed only after their idiosyncrasies serve the needs of the larger orthodox society — and even then, they are only accepted under the imprimatur of the autocratic leader whose interests they serve.
Lest you spare any pity for the brutally critical Santa we meet in the movie’s first moments, the cranky old guy who refuses to eat and can’t think straight because the sung praises of his underlings ring too loudly in his ears, remember the words of our narrator: “Mrs. Claus will have him plenty fattened up by Christmas. It’s always the same story.” Fatcat gets fatter; news at 11. It’s always the same story. Indeed it is, creepy inching-toward-us snowman. Indeed it is.