In Defense of Rudolph

Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t like the 1964 television film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Actually it’s not entirely clear to me that she’s serious; her article is so strange I wonder if it’s tongue-in-cheek or satire. But it seems like Flanagan probably is serious so I will respond as though she is.

In my view, Rudolph is one of the greatest films of all time.

So why doesn’t Flanagan like it? She calls it “55 minutes of Christmas-crushing despair.” She points out that the Abominable Snow Monster tries to kill and eat Rudolph (Flanagan says “murder” but I don’t think the Monster is capable of moral reasoning); that an elf is humiliated in the workshop; that some toys are abandoned to the Island of Misfit Toys; that Rudolph’s father rejects him; and that Santa seems mostly interested in Rudolph as a potential sleigh-puller.

Most of Flanagan’s details are correct, but she she neglects to mention that the film very explicitly criticizes the injustices that it portrays and that, ultimately, the characters in the wrong repent.

Oddly, Flanagan says that she likes A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman. But imagine if her review of Charlie Brown stopped at the part where all the children make fun of Charlie for picking out a straggly tree. Or if her review of Grinch neglected to mention that, oh, by the way, the Grinch reforms in the end. (I’m not going to defend Frosty; I think overall it’s a terrible film with anti-Semitic caricatures.)

I’d like to think that Flanagan’s essay is so bad that it’s actually brilliant. If it is brilliant, here’s what Flanagan was really saying: “Look, I’m going to (pretend to) smear, mock, and grotesquely misunderstand Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in just the same way that various characters in the film initially smear, mock, and misunderstand Rudolph, as a way of illuminating the film’s themes.” And then there’s the second-level meta-analysis: “And people who make fun of Flanagan because of this essay are similarly guilty of misunderstanding.” But perhaps I’m expecting too much Christmas magic here.

Rudolph is a great film, yes, for its fun animation and great musical numbers, but mainly because it addresses difficult and important themes. The theme is that there’s no such thing as a misfit.

It is pretty shocking that Rudolph’s own father, and even Santa Claus, initially act really horribly toward Rudolph. But this offers an important lesson. Even people built up as social leaders, even people in positions of power, can be extraordinarily mean and can commit moral wrongs.

The film also is about self-acceptance. Flanagan gets one important detail totally wrong. She claims that Rudolph leaves his friends (Hermey the Elf-dentist and Yukon the prospector) “unloved, unwanted, and alone.” Not so. His friends love Rudolph and do not want him to leave.

Notably, the film is morally superior to the song. In the song, all of the other Reindeer “love” Rudolph only after Santa asks him to guide his sleigh, owing to his bright nose. So they don’t really love Rudolph; they’re just impressed about Rudolph’s rise in social standing. In the film, by contrast, the characters who had treated Rudolph badly come to recognize their sins and make things right, and only then does Santa ask Rudolph to guide his sleigh. Thus, ultimately the film is about genuine love and friendship and sincere acceptance of people for their differences.

Notice that even the Abominable Snow Monster ultimately reforms, once Hermey pulls out his teeth. Again, I don’t think the Monster is a moral agent; he’s more like a wild animal that is tamed.

Flanagan does suggest a way to interpret the film that I had not previously considered: It functions as a allegory to coming out as gay in a society hostile to homosexuality. In retrospect this seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe this wasn’t intentional. It seems too coincidental that Hermes the Greek God had homosexual relationships. Notably, Hermey the “dentist” ultimately is accepted back into his Elf family and loved for who he is. Various others have noticed the “obvious gay subtext” of the film. It is important that Hermey is one of the film’s heroes, a caring friend, and a major player in setting everything right.

Oh, and, in the end, Rudolph and the gang also find homes for all the “misfit” toys.

A cultural note: In a brilliantly tragic episode of Orville, two of the characters show Rudolph to a third character in an effort to convince him to resist his society’s obliteration of the feminine.

Whether Flanagan was playing it (uh) straight or feigning the role of a meanie reindeer for effect, her essay presents the opportunity to point families to this profoundly important cinematic masterpiece. It’ll go down in history.