No matter how old I get I must admit that few Christmas movies have touched my often cynical heart quite the way Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer always has. Which is why I can’t help but shake my head in annoyance at this meme haunting my dash every single year.
For the unfamiliar, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer follows the story of a reindeer named Rudolph (as the title suggests) whose set apart by the fact that (again as the title says) he has a bright red nose that glows. When this becomes apparent due to the reactions of people around him Rudolph never has an easy time of it.
His father is ashamed of him and tries to force him to be something he’s not to save face. His peers bully and exclude him and are encouraged to do so by the adults that should intervene on his behalf. Even Santa Claus rejects him. Could the deck be more stacked against this poor little guy? Then after embarking on his own for a bit during a particularly bad snow storm, his shiny nose lights the way for him to save Christmas. And as the song says he goes down in history.
Now I get that the interwebs is a cesspool of contrarianism and sometimes rightfully so. We should always question the media we consume and the traditions we cling to because realistically sometimes they were created by people with many prejudices. And yet, I can’t help but think that if “Rudolph was only accepted because he was useful” was the takeaway, you totally missed the point of the story.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a story that celebrates misfits. Throughout the narrative we the audience are never given the impression that the ostracism the misfits we’re following face is right or fair. Rudolph certainly faces his share of rejection, but he also finds acceptance and kinship with people who feel as out of place as he does. Or in some cases people who are just a little more open-minded.
We see that in Hermy the Elf that’d rather fix teeth than make toys. And with the misfit toys who aren’t forgotten, but just have to wait a while to find their homes. Later, in Rudolph’s Shiney New Year, there’s a wonderful full circle moment where we get to see the once ashamed reindeer become the person he needed when he was younger as he reassures Happy that the thing that makes him different isn’t something to feel embarrassed about.
As someone who didn’t fit in as a kid, I always found a lot of hope in Rudolph’s journey. Particularly in the moment where the narrator says, “a strange and wonderful was happening, Rudolph was growing up.” It told me that if Rudolph could overcome every terrible thing said or done to him I could too. Which, is why even though I don’t leave out cookies for Santa anymore every year I come back to this story.
In the end, Rudolph’s sense of self-worth doesn’t come from saving Christmas or from anyone else’s validation. It comes from him getting older and realizing that it’s okay to be different. His story tells the young audience that it’s perfectly fine not to fit in and that the things you might dislike about yourself when you’re young can be things you’ll love later on. And, with some space, before his nose is shown to be useful most of the people around them have to do some serious self-reflection and realize they’ve been unfair to Rudolph and the other misfits and they apologize. This story shows that even the most well-respected of adults can be wrong.
It’s worth mentioning that this story is also getting some flack, for its depiction of bullying. But, I’d argue that Rudolph was bullied is sort of the point and why this movie’s always going to be worth watching. Its depiction of bullying is a perfect way to start conversations with young children about appropriate ways to treat their peers. And I’ll say it again, it’s always clear within the story that what’s happening is wrong and the people guilty of bullying Rudolph realize it and apologize.
It’s easy to write this story off as a tale about opportunism and qualities worth exploiting, but to me, it’ll always be about overcoming obstacles and self-acceptance.