Holiday specials, a staple of North American childhoods since the early 1960s, are increasingly falling victim to our fragmented media culture. Just as the liturgical calendar gave structure to the lives of the medieval peasants, an equally ritualized TV schedule shaped a communal culture in the era of the cathode tube: The Ten Commandments for Easter, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown for Halloween, and then, after Thanksgiving, a slew of familiar shows and movies revisited every year: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, It’s a Wonderful Life, and the many iterations of A Christmas Carol.
But television is giving way to Youtube and streaming, which makes for more privatized and asynchronous viewing: With everyone watching on their own electronic device and in their own time, the idea of a shared experience represented by TV specials seems anachronistic. There is evidence, though, that communal viewing remains something people cherish and want to hold on to. As PBS reports, “Apple TV+ purchased the Peanuts Thanksgiving and became the new home to the beloved Peanuts holiday specials. That sparked an outcry from viewers who were accustomed to annually tuning in on network TV. Apple offered each special to stream for free for a handful of days, but that didn’t stop online petitions from gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures.” Bowing to public pressure, Apple agreed to allow PBS to air the specials ad-free.
This rollback of streaming culture is likely to be temporary. Holiday specials will persist, but without the chronological framework of the TV schedule. Instead, the viewing of these specials will become curated by parents, who will work from memories of what they enjoyed as young. But memories are sometimes faulty and not everything that enjoys the hazy glow of nostalgia deserves preserving.
Writing in the December issue of The Atlantic, the astute cultural critic Caitlin Flanagan makes the case against one of the most beloved of the old specials in an article bluntly titled, “Don’t Subject Your Kids to Rudolph.” According to Flanagan, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (a 1964 stop-motion animation special made by Rankin/Bass Productions) is too “bleak” and “dark” for children.
This critique has some justice to it. Like other Rankin/Bass shows, Rudolph does veer toward the grotesque, with mean-spirited characters who bully and badger each other. The titular hero is relentlessly belittled for being different, his red nose eliciting taunts and exclusion. Santa’s workshop is run with a ruthlessness of a Victorian factory, with miserable elves dreaming of escape. Toys that don’t fit the norm are exiled to the Island of Misfit Toys.
But many storytellers have found it useful to highlight grotesque and selfish behavior as a way of drawing a contrast to Christmas cheer. It’s hardly an accident that Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch are at the heart of the Christmas canon.
Flanagan is fair-minded enough to acknowledge the artistic merits of the special. She notes, “The puppets were created in the Japanese animation studio of Tadahito Mochinaga, who traveled to a deer sanctuary in Nara to study and sketch a herd of deer before Ichiro Komuro, an artist in the studio, began to work. The reindeer puppets had long legs, felt hides, and huge, anime eyes. Snow is piled in drifts, the sky is a piercing blue, and everything has a solid, touchable quality.”
But her overall judgement is negative. As a child, Rudolph gave her “fretful anxiety,” and as an adult it still leaves her cold.
Like many commentators before her, Flanagan notes that the special has a queer subtext. Writing in the The New York Times in 2019, Jennifer Finney Boylan itemized the tipoffs: “A fabulously blond elf who doesn’t like to make toys? A reindeer who is cast out by those who are supposed to love him, on account of an accident of birth? A whole island populated by outcasts?” All of this, wrote Boylan, made Rudolph, “the queerest holiday special ever.”
For Boylan and many other queer writers, this is a reason to celebrating Rudolph. But Flanagan sees the queer subtext as a sanction for homophobia:
We are supposed to understand that blond, dreamy-eyed Hermey wants to be a dentist, not a toy maker. (What he really wants to do, in my opinion, is join the drama club, but that might have been too much for NBC.) Foreman Elf—who, come the revolution, will not be dealt with kindly—humiliates him repeatedly. When Hermey tells him, tentatively, that he doesn’t want to make toys, Foreman Elf repeats the phrase in the “sissy” voice that has haunted gay boys down through the ages. “Shame on you!” cry the other elves, further demoralizing Hermey. Rudolph thinks it teaches children to be themselves, and maybe it does. But it also teaches them how to taunt a boy who seems different.
This is a classic critical misreading whereby depicting an injustice is the same as giving sanction to it. By this logic, Moby-Dick promotes violence toward animals and Othello is a license for spouse-killing. In fact, several generation of queer children, and outsiders of all stripes, have felt an affinity for Rudolph because he learns to accept his difference and not yield to social pressure. Along the way, he forms a fellowship with other outsiders and nonconformists.
To be sure, the show was made in a pre-Stonewall world and has some of the era’s creaky liberalism. Rudolph’s difference is validated because it turns out to be socially useful (the bright red nose helping Santa deliver presents in a storm). Still, on an emotional level, the story doesn’t affirm social norms but rather shows the superiority of self-acceptance and appreciation of difference.
Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer is a lesser part of the Christmas canon. It lacks the sweet melancholy of A Charlie Brown Christmas or the ferociously gleeful misanthropy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Still, it deserves to remain an annual ritual.