observations and opinion
Or, How to use the Different
The Holidays are upon us. Lobby muzak and satellite radio are infused with Christmas tunes. The coloured lights are strung up on the city’s downtown trees. Starbucks serves coffee in red cups. It’s definitely Saviour season.
Television is suddenly thick with “Holiday movies.” The W Network (W stands for “woman”) is infused with an array of inexpensive (that’s code for “Canadian-produced”) sentimental journeys. The classic Christmas shows will be popping up – Charlie Brown Christmas is my favourite, as will the classic movies – Alastair Sim’s A Christmas Carol is the best of the genre.
And then there is Rudolph. Rudolph began life as a song but, in 1964 with the then-magic of stop action animation, he became three-dimensional. And immortal. Generations have sat cross-legged in front of TV screens, watching the saga unfold.
Born to reindeer royalty (his father is Donner, a seriously macho member of Santa’s team), Rudolph should have it all. But he is afflicted with a bright red nose. You could even say it glows. Dad is immediately pissed off. Mom is distressed too. They decide to conceal the deformity, at first keeping little Rudy in the family cave. But once school starts, they have to send him out in public. So they cover his nose up with a big black plug.
At reindeer school, the boys and girls are separated (it’s kind of a Hassidic North Pole, in that respect – listen to “Mama and Papa Claus” do their Yiddish schtick). Rudolph joins flying class and after a fitful start, shows extraordinary form: he’s a natural. But there’s a problem – you can guess, if you don’t know – exuberant young Rudy loses his nose cover. His bright red schnoz, blazing like a Christmas tree light, is seen by all. His secret is out.
This is the key moment in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. What will happen next? We all know what happens, of course: Coach Reindeer kicks him off the team, the other young’uns mock and jeer him, and then there’s Santa. The jolly old elf, who comports himself in this film like the Mayor of Amityville in “Jaws”, tells Rudy’s parents that they should be “ashamed.” And of course, they ARE ashamed.
From that moment on the show becomes a kind of Joseph Campbell hero’s quest. Rudolph, along with an elf named Hermey who’s no good at making toys (he wants to be a dentist, although I suspect what he really wanted was to be a choreographer), decamp from the North Pole and begin a fairly frozen journey to…somewhere.
Along the way they find a place populated entirely by creatures like themselves, the Island of Misfit Toys – playthings that don’t conform to the usual standards (a Charlie-in-the-Box, for example). The Island is ruled by a winged lion, whose echo-chamber voice and kingly profile recall Charlton Heston or God himself.
All these social rejects hang out on the Island of Misfit Toys for awhile, in what one imagines now as a sad asylum for Sylvia Plath types. Or at best, Greenwich Village before Stonewall. But Rudolph is restless – he has some sense of mission and, as he grows, acquires a biting distaste for the way he was treated back at Santa’s village. He grows up too, with a pair of broad shoulders and a nice rack of antlers up top. Having reached late reindeer adolescence, Rudolph decides to go back and face what he ran away from. Noble fellow. He’s the hero after all.
On his way, with sidekick dentist elf and a truly jolly prospector named Cornelius, they encounter the fierce Abominable Snowman – the one meat eater north of Canada, it seems. The “Bumble” threatens them and, as it turns out, captures Rudy’s parents and love interest Clarice. Rudolph is tremendously brave, but kind of stupid. Fortunately, Cornelius and Hermey conspire to defang (de-tooth, actually) the Bumble. Like the lion with the thorn in his paw, I guess – once relieved of pain, even the evil monster becomes sweet. Even helpful.
The saga ends back at Santa’s village, in a fierce blizzard so blinding that Santa decides to cancel Christmas. At this point Rudolph’s nose goes off like a fog light, and voila! Santa sees the light, so to speak, invites Rudy to guide his sleigh that night. Rudolph says it would be an honour, and everyone cheers. The Bumble puts the star on the tree, the dentist finds work and Santa even deigns to go scoop up those Misfit Toys for whatever child he was otherwise going to screw-over that Christmas. Rudy saves Christmas and is redeemed.
Then all the reindeer loved him and they shouted out in glee, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, you’ll go down in history!”
There is no doubt at all that in the early 1960s, the theme of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer felt bold, well-intentioned and necessary: those who are different should not be shunned. But the rest of the message has always, and will always, be troubling.
What bothered me about the story, and bothers me still, is that Rudolph (and his crew of Misfit Toys, Cornelius the failure, the dentist elf, et al) could not be loved – could not even be tolerated – until they were seen as useful. Indeed, even the kindest man on earth (Santa) is repulsed and angered by the very sight of them. Until he needs them, that is. Rudolph’s utility is what makes him acceptable, nothing more.
Now, at work – and the North Pole is most assuredly a very busy place of business – we are valued, primarily if not entirely, for what we contribute. So it is predictable that Rudolph, being necessary to the company’s mission, would be hired back. Predictable but, in the case of Rudolph, somewhat distasteful.
The story is not without worth. Rudy may (rightly) feel contempt for Santa and the crowd, but he puts that aside for the good of the kids awaiting their toys. He is a stoic example of muscular American manhood. The orphaned toys themselves are finally rescued, no longer hated and exiled for their physical differences, and even Santa Clause looks chagrined about being such a cruel prick all those years.
But with the exception of his misfit posse, babe girlfriend Clarice and guilt-ridden parents, Rudolph is despised for his deformed nose. Santa’s request for Rudolph’s help, couched in a half-assed apology, is driven only by what the “jolly old elf” needs. Those neighbours cheering Rudolph’s return are the same mean-spirited weasels who chased him away, now leaping onto the bandwagon.
The message of Rudolph is pretty simple: differences may be repulsive, but can be useful and we must not let our queasiness interfere with business. Acceptance is predicated on profitability. Yes, that’s a truth in enterprise, but I would submit, it is not a particularly good lesson to impart. Not without some footnotes, anyhow.
One hopes – idealistically – that even if we cannot like someone who is “different”, we can find a way to live with them that is not, entirely, rooted in our own gain. In a way that might, just might, simply be a willingness to accept. Or even better, to find some magic in, that we would otherwise be blinded to by our fear.
In this weirdly dry, sour Christmas season of 2015 – with head chopping terrorists plaguing innocents and a big-headed fascist dominating U.S. politics – it feels like even the bare message of Rudolph has been lost. If someone is different, you don’t accept them even enough to use them. You kill them, you arrest them, you shun them.
Or perhaps, the Rudolph message still resonates in a way: if someone is different, you USE them. You use their differences. ISIS thinks anyone who isn’t a cowed slave of their tyrannical faith, is unacceptable – unless they make for a good sex toy, or as a head to put on a spike, or as body to leave riddled with bullets. ISIS finds “the different” highly profitable, because isolating and victimizing the different is how they print their currency of hatred and fear.
American businessman Donald J. Trump (and some of his Republican teammates) have discovered exactly the same thing: differences are, as Santa realized, useful. Undocumented Hispanic immigrants are good at mowing lawns, true, but it’s the things that are different about them (their race, their language, their illegal status) which makes them REALLY useful to Mr. Trump.
A lady in a niqab wasn’t much use to Trump, until he realized that she could be painted as a killer. Suddenly Mr. Trump speaks, popularly, of barring Muslims from entering the country. He is a few short steps from banishing those already present, force-marching them across the border to the other side of his Wall of Fear, with the illegal Hispanics. Mr. Trump is openly advocating a form of ethnic cleansing. Because the useful are different.
The Trump message, like the ISIS message, will resonate with part of the population (what can you do? human beings are human, and they don’t seem to be attending worthwhile schools anymore). One hopes Trump and his types founder, the way the niqab-banning Conservatives tripped themselves up in the Canadian election in October 2015. One hopes.
It may seem grim and cheerless to read Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a message of poorly veiled intolerance. The story’s authors meant to send the opposite message, no doubt, and they legitimately deliver it – the pain of exclusion is real, in the sad faces of the misfit toys and Rudy’s crew, their redemption encouraging. And yet…
As a boy and in the many years since, the glorious return of Rudolph, has always felt a little hollow: he flies fiercely forward, his ugly bright nose a burning beacon cutting a clear path through the blizzard. The toys will reach the children. He saves the day, and all the reindeer love him. But you can’t help but wonder: what happens next Christmas, when there isn’t a storm?
Sing it, Clarice: