Friday, August 11, 2006

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, deconstructed

The thing about autistic kids is that they never seem to get tired of the things they like. Not for a long, long time, anyway. Thomas will find a spot in a videotape he enjoys (it’s usually loud, with shouting or crying) and will happily rewind the tape over and over, listening to it with the same enjoyment. I think once I counted over 30 repetitions of one particularly annoying segment, before I finally cracked and ejected the tape.

G.K. Chesterton noticed this enjoyment of repetition in kids, too:

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still….The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.

I can’t pretend to have this same divine gift of infinite enjoyment. Seeing and hearing the same movie over and over usually just gives me very keen insights into all its flaws and irritants. In fact, I get so bored I begin to find annoyances that nobody else would dream of. One movie that I have been doomed to relive all year long (my kids don’t have any sense of appropriate seasons) is ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’(1964).

There is a fabulous site on this TV special at, for anyone who wants to read all about how the animation was accomplished and the score written. I, however, having spent hundreds of hours watching and listening to this movie, have had to deconstruct the whole thing just to keep my sanity.

Andrew Sullivan once wrote that he saw Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’ as a parable of adolescent homosexual coming-out. “Oh, isn’t everything?” was my response. I don’t agree with him about ‘Pinocchio’, but I think that that interpretation would much better fit RTRNR.

First of all, the portrayal of masculinity in this movie is overwhelmingly negative. Just look at the male authority figures:


Rudolph’s father, Donner, is a brutal, insensitive conformist, ashamed of his son’s “peculiarity”, who tries to get him to “pass” as normal in the community. When Rudolph complains that his fake nose is uncomfortable, Donner just shouts him down: “You’ll wear it and like it!” He’s a complete egoist, seeing his son as a mere extension of himself – “He’s a chip off the old antler!” “Remember, you’re MY little buck!” He’s a pushy, macho father who insists upon driving his son down the same path he’s followed – “Santa’s right – he’ll never make the sleigh team!” The movie isn’t too clear about what reindeers who don’t get chosen for sleigh duty do with themselves; after all, there are only 8 needed, and a lot more reindeers than that around. But Donner would see it as a big disgrace if his son didn’t become a sleigh reindeer like himself. He’s impatient with his docile, submissive wife, overriding her when she suggests that they should just accept Rudolph the way he is – this is only the first of many times that the females are shown to be superior in sensitivity to the coarse, brutal males. But of course, it’s the powerful, aggressive male who dominates and crushes the well-meaning but weak female.

The next male who enters the scene is Santa, who arrives shortly after Rudolph’s birth. You’d think he’s all cheery and ho-ho-ho, but don’t be fooled. There’s a streak of nastiness in him, too. Look at the way he just dismisses the choir’s performance – and of a song in honour of HIM, too! Typically, a woman has to come along and clean up his mess – Mrs. Claus gives the choir the appropriate compliments. To be fair, though, Mrs. Claus is not such a doormat as Mrs. Donner; she’s quite prepared to argue with Santa when he isn’t getting fat quickly enough, and he clearly has more respect for her than Donner does for his wife. Anyway, he’s as obsessed as Donner with what is the “proper” role for a reindeer, and shows himself to be another narrow-minded conformist. Despite Rudolph’s obvious talent for flying, Santa brusquely rejects him because he doesn’t LOOK like all the other reindeers, and humiliates his father into the bargain!

Another authority figure is the Elf Foreman, and he’s a real piece of work – a bellowing, sarcastic bully, who also indulges in public humiliation of Hermie, the non-conformist elf. The overwhelming theme of this story is that everyone should do what they’ve always done, and anything different is to be feared and stamped out.

King Moonraiser is a male authority figure, not as menacing as the others, because his kingdom is so remote and unimportant. It’s basically a toy dump, let’s face it. He’s not cruel, and actually does display some understanding of the world, but he’s distant and unengaged. He allows the travelers to spend the night, but offers them no help.

Yukon Cornelius is the one typical male character who’s portrayed in a positive light. He’s as loud and boisterous as the Elf Foreman, but he’s open to these “misfits”, with their non-conformist tendencies. Maybe it’s because he’s an outsider himself – he’s not a resident of Christmas Town, after all, he’s a wild outdoorsman who roams the wild looking for silver and gold (and peppermint). Also, his attempts to exert authority tend to be comically incompetent – just look at how his sledge dogs refuse to obey him. So it seems that this is a “safe” male character; he looks and sounds like the others, but he’s enough of an outsider to fall on the side of the good guys.

The other males in the story aren’t much to admire; Fireball is willing to be Rudolph’s friend until he discovers that he’s “different”. He’s snotty even when Rudolph returns: “I thought you’d gone for good! Hey, look everyone, it’s old Neon Nozz!” (At this point, I always mentally add, “Thereupon, Rudolph gored Fireball to death.”) Sam the Snowman, as the narrator, isn’t really a character IN the story, though he does say that he was the one who sent Hermie and Yukon Cornelius after Rudolph. He’s nice enough, but he doesn’t have any influence on how the story develops. He also seems a bit nonchalant about the problems of the characters he describes, as if he’s not really involved. “Ah, well, such is the life of an elf,” he comments sententiously, although that’s easy for HIM to say – he’s not the one who has to spend his life painting wagons when he’d rather be fixing teeth.

to be continued...


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