I first noticed that one of my favorite Christmas shows, Rankin/Bass’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” was a tad sexist back in college.
It was around the time I was experimenting more with my writing, and had just written a tongue-in-cheek essay about how Dorothy Gale was evil, and the Wizard of Oz was really about a collectivist plot to take over America. It was 1984, after all.
I’ll never forget my writing teacher – God how I loathed that man – scrawling in the margin of my paper in a manner that suggested he’d taken personal offense at my bastardization of one of his favorites: “It’s just a story about a girl.”
But I was only half kidding about Rudolph.
Santa’s a dirty bastard
The show is sexist as hell, and I also wasn’t terribly thrilled about how it portrayed Santa. Sure, Donner is a dick. But his job is carrying the sleigh – it doesn’t really matter if he’s a nice guy, or deer. But depicting Santa as some self-centered, slave-laboring, disability-hating bastard – even if his character grows by the end of the film (though only just barely) – just seemed wrong in retrospect.
“Rudolph” was my favorite Christmas show of all time. It was “the” depiction of Santa, probably even more so than “Snow Miser and Heat Miser” Santa (who was also a bit of a whiner). But when you look back on Rudolph-Santa as an adult, you come to realize that if this Santa were the real Santa, he’d give himself coal.
Let’s start with Santa meeting the new-born Rudolph for the first time and see his nose aglow:
Santa: Great bouncing icebergs.
Donner: Well I’m sure it will stop as soon as he grows up, Santa.
Santa: Well let’s hope so if he wants to make the sleigh team someday.
Not a real profile in courage for Santa or dad on this one.
Later on, Donner and Mrs. Donner (as they call her – the shows creators couldn’t even be bothered to give the mother of Rudolph a name) smack a fake black nose on Rudolph’s face. This exchange follows:
Rudolph: It’s not very comfortable.
Donner: There are more important things in life than comfort: Self respect. Santa can’t object to you now.
Oh, wanna bet?
Rudolph joins in the Reindeer Games, and the inevitable happens. The faux nose falls off, and Rudolph is off shining again. And what does Santa have to say about it?
Santa: Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself.
Again, I get that Santa grows by the end of the tale. Because let’s face it, Santa only grew because they were facing the mother of all snowstorms, and not-so-jolly Nick realized that if he stuck by his petty prejudices, Christmas was ruined. That’s hardly an epiphany about prejudice – I’ll let the queer guide my sleigh tonight only because if I don’t, a year’s worth of work is ruined. The selflessness, it burns.
But regardless of whether you think Santa’s personal growth is real, this isn’t a story about Santa growing as a person. Santa doesn’t need to grow. HE’S SANTA.
It’s as if Rankin/Bass rewrote “Harry Potter,” and Harry starts the book as a sexist jerk, while Dumbledore diddles with little boys. But they both grow by the end, so it’s okay.
The lead good-guy characters in a children’s tale aren’t supposed to start off as sexist bigots (and end up still sexist). And while I can excuse Donner being a jerk (Donner is b-list anyway), I can’t excuse Santa.
Walmart in Elfland
Hell, Santa is practically running his own Walmart in elfland, with all the rules about who gets what job. In SantaMart, job picks you. And of course, the elves have to work Christmas.
But that doesn’t stop them from learning a song just for Santa, “We are Santa’s elves.” And it’s a cute song. But what does Santa say when the elves have finished singing for him? Nothing. Mrs. Claus applauds, while Santa simply says, “Hmm. Well, it needs work. I have to go.”
Now, when Santa finally comes around and realizes that he’s messed up, it’s still only his self-interest talking. Rudolph has already run away, and mom and dad and Rudolph’s new quasi-girlfriend Clarice set off to find him. Rudolph returns home, a good year has passed, and he finds no one there – but Santa.
What does Santa say? That everyone is missing and he’s very worried… BECAUSE CHRISTMAS EVE IS ONLY TWO DAYS AWAY.
Santa isn’t worried that a man, his wife, and a one-year old reindeer girl are missing. No, Santa is worried that their disappearance might hurt his bottom-line.
Then there’s the sexism
At least by the end of the show everyone gets over their fear of reindeers with disabilities. But the sexism? Not so much.
First off, girl reindeers don’t play reindeer games, and they don’t get to ever dream of pulling Santa’s sleigh (unless another billion children are about to miss Christmas. and Santa’s only option is to slum it by asking Clarice for help).
Then there was Donner’s minor epiphany when he realizes he has to go out looking for his son, who ran away and is now missing at the ripe age of one week:
Narrator: Now you can bet old Donner felt pretty bad about the way he had treated Rudolph. And he knew that the only thing to do was to go out and look for his little buck. Mrs. Donner wanted to go along, naturally. But Donner said no, this is man’s work.
Ah, man’s work.
Of course, that didn’t stop mom and Clarice, god bless ’em, from heading out on their own anyway. Though Clarice’s blow for feminism almost gets her eaten by the abominable snowman – message received, little girl.
Then Yukon Cornelius comes to rescue, slays abominable while perishing himself (or so we think), and what does the narrator inform us?
Well they are all very sad at the loss of their friend, but realize that the best thing to do is to get the women back to Christmas town.
Yes, the vulnerable women. Then again, Santa wouldn’t have cared a lick about getting the women home at all – they don’t pull sleighs.
Again, I’m half kidding, but only just. The “get the women back to Christmas town” line is pretty awful, though it is indicative of when the show was made, 1964. And I guess things could be worse. Our Christmas story could be about Santa and “six to eight black men” beating kids with sticks.