Every December for the past several years, seasonal culture critics have wondered what to make of Rudolph. The tale of the red-nosed reindeer—perhaps the longest-running and best-loved holiday character, aside from Santa himself—is, on its face, the heartwarming triumph of an underdog battling social and workplace discrimination wrought by a facial deformity. But the ultimate takeaway for kids is a little mushier. Do people with differences only deserve respect when those differences benefit their tormentors? And if Santa cares so much about condemning naughty behavior, shouldn’t he have stepped in to put the bullies in their place?
A few popular memes have captured the dubious moral of Rudolph’s story. One has Santa beseeching Rudolph to guide his sleigh through the fog, only to get mercilessly shut down: “I’m sorry Santa, but I feel uncomfortable giving you help after the verbal abuse and discrimination I suffered during my formative years,” the reindeer says. “It has taken me a long time to realize that my self-worth does not stem from my usefulness to you. I do not owe you anything.” Another image pairs a still from the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV special—the most famous depiction of Rudolph’s plight—with a concise distillation of North Pole capitalist philosophy: “Deviation from the norm will be punished unless it is exploitable.”
For generations, ever since the story was written as a poem in 1939 and popularized as a song a decade later, Rudolph’s lesson was interpreted more simply: Don’t make fun of people who are different, because everyone has something to offer. But around the time that the internet became the place for people to revisit problematic themes of old artworks, and for parents to fret about how they were raising their kids, Santa and his crew came in for a long-overdue reckoning. Rudolph “doesn’t want to teach you kindness or charity, or any of that crap; it only wants to teach you spite and how to commit hate crimes,” claimed a blogger in 2010. Parenting groups on Facebook have hosted debates about whether it’s better to watch the TV special with kids and discuss what’s messed up about it, or keep it away from them altogether. In 2013, Michael Schaffer argued in the New Republic that the story “presents a fairly grim, Hobbesian vision of society: If you want to be accepted, you have to prove your economic utility—which, in the case of magical flying reindeer, appears to only involve the annual sleigh-pull.”
Fox News had a bit of a different take. On a 2011 episode of The Five, host Greg Gutfield mocked a professor of special education who said “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” promoted bullying. “Like most profs, he pursues his opinion while ignoring facts,” Gutfield said. “We know what smacks you around makes you stronger. … I mean, how has the liberal-loving media helped President Obama? Not well. He has made more missteps than a tap dancer during an earthquake. But his fanbase media shielded him, which is why he got creamed in 2010.” In other words, Rudolph needed to be shamed for his appearance in order to reach his potential—an even worse moral of the story, most parents would agree. Later in the same segment, Andrea Tantaros, who would go on to sue Roger Ailes and other Fox News colleagues for sexual harassment, praised Rudolph for dealing with his hostile work environment “the right way” by declining to sue Santa.
This year’s critiques of the beloved tale have situated themselves in ongoing public conversations about politics, race, and gender. One writer in Alabama, where an accused molester who spoke lovingly of the days of slavery narrowly lost a race for the U.S. Senate, wrote that “the PC world where everyone is offended by everything,” including Rudolph, “gives us something to be depressed about other than the current soul-sucking state of Alabama politics.” Twitter users have pointed out that male reindeer lose their antlers just before winter, while females keep theirs until spring. Since Rudolph and his contemporaries are almost always illustrated with antlers, they may be women whose labor is erased by the 1964 film, which has all the lady reindeer watching in awe as their men pull Santa’s sleigh. (Others have suggested that Rudolph still identifies as male and is transgender. In real life, castrated male reindeer that do have antlers in winter are usually used to pull sleds.) Food blogger Angela Davis recently likened Rudolph to black women voters who reliably turn out Democratic victories across the country, even as prominent liberals and party bigwigs push a swing away from “identity politics” and toward a renewed focus on the “white working class.” That is, the analogy suggests, Santa and the black-nosed reindeer are content to belittle Rudolph’s protests for fair treatment until they need him to save their end-of-year project.
When I re-watched the Rankin/Bass production this year, I was alarmed by the cold-heartedness of one of Rudolph’s persecutors in particular: Santa, who I’d always remembered as a sort of silent, complicit bystander to Rudolph’s abuse, not the ringleader he’s made out to be in the TV special. Santa visits Rudolph’s family cave soon after his birth; his main reaction to the newborn son of Donner, one of his most trusted reindeer, is “I hope that [red nose] goes away.” After an older Rudolph’s nose cover-up falls off in public, revealing its red glow, Santa tells Donner he “should be ashamed” of himself for raising such a son. (This interaction is one of the clearest bits of evidence that the whole tale is an allegory for being gay in a homophobic society.) Santa also repeatedly insults his elves when they write a cute little song for him, slouching and rolling his eyes like a peevish child during their performance. This depiction of Santa, who is typically portrayed as a generous, avuncular fellow, may be especially confusing for children taught to please the Christmas gatekeeper with “nice” behavior. Santa as unfeeling, punishing patriarch is not much of a role model.
Then again, seeing a magical icon as a fallible human whose cruelty is enabled by an unequal power structure could be a formative, radicalizing experience for a kid. In real life, there are no Santas with unimpeachable moral compasses. Good people can still end up with coal in their stockings, and sometimes, the people who shame others the loudest are doing the exact things they condemn. It’s never too early to disabuse a child of her respect for authority.