Tonight is the annual airing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and today is the first of two posts of songs from the program.
Most people recognize the 1960s as turbulent. I never really expected this to be reflected in the holiday specials of that decade, but if you do a quick time line of its four shows that have endured, you can discern the overall mood of the era. Rudolph came first, in 1964, and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the program as a plea for tolerance and pluralism. The following year, A Charlie Brown Christmas cast the spotlight on spiritual and neurotic angst, which Lucy and Charlie recognize as the “fear of everything.” Then came How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966, in which the holiday is rescued at the last second from just plain and outright meanness. By 1968, writers didn’t even bother to develop much of a plot for Frosty the Snowman. A bunch of hippy-ish kids and a magic bunny dance around with Frosty until a weirdo magician steals back his own hat. This is all a prelude to Frosty melting before our very eyes, damaging the psyches of generations to come.
I realize that the writers of Rudolph were trying to illustrate certain points, and that, for children of all times, such points are easier to understand if the terms are well defined and clearly demarcated. In other words, no nuance necessary. But every time I watch Rudolph, I am struck by just how narrow-minded and unpleasant so many of the characters are. Even though the message behind the show is one of learning to accept others, the society of the time obviously tolerated behaviors and attitudes that wouldn’t even be considered watchable if proposed in a children’s show today. This program would never pass muster with 2012’s network executives. I can just picture a meeting among them about it and the many reasons Rudolph would be rejected as unfit programming:
- You have the oppressive Elf-in-Charge who harasses Hermey into trying to be someone he’s not (vetoed for blatant and unpunished bullying).
- There’s Donner, who forces his son to wear a fake nose to hide his perceived defect and basically sends Rudolph the message that he’ll never amount to anything (vetoed as an example of borderline child abuse).
- Then there’s the sports coach (Comet) who bans Rudolph from Reindeer Games and Santa’s Flight Squad simply on the basis of appearance, despite Rudolph’s superior athletic skills (vetoed for obvious and unchecked discrimination).
- There’s all the misfit toys with their clearly identifiable flaws, save for the weepy doll, whom the producer of the show identified in 2007 as having been exiled to Misfit Island because she was depressed (thank God for Wikipedia!, and vetoed for mocking those with physical challenges and mental illnesses).
- One would think you could rely on Santa to behave sympathetically, but even he shows no pity for Rudolph, nor for the elves who work hard but fail to impress him with their song, nor for the misfit toys that he’s been ignoring for Lord knows how long before Rudolph finds them (vetoed for overall misanthropy, which goes against every other depiction of Santa in history).
We often idealize the past. Particularly at Christmas, we can fall victim to a nostalgic desire to return to an earlier time, when life appeared simpler, people seemed kinder, and the pace of life was deemed less hectic. But if we consider Rudolph as an artifact of its time, it becomes a little more difficult to continue to believe in yesterday.
I fully recognize that social progress never ends and, as many recent events have underscored (at least for me), there is still a long way for our country to go. Despite what some people truly and earnestly believe, our society still contains marginalized and oppressed groups. We still have people treated like outcasts and misfits because of how they look and how they want to live. Gaps continue to exist between young and old, bosses and workers, parents and children.
Certainly, it is possible to err too far in the other direction. A society in which everything is tolerated and no one ever is criticized may cause its citizens to be too soft. And maybe in our attempts to correct past excesses, we now overcompensate and, almost like Charlie Brown, live in constant fear, although now the fear is of unintentionally causing offense over everything.
Despite this, in how we consider those who are “different,” some progress has been made since the 1960s.
And if one believes that such consideration is directly related to portrayals in the media and popular culture, part of that progress may be, even in a small way, thanks to the influence of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.