Rudolph (.gif)

Deconstructing Rudolph

by Adam Jones (1996)

[Previously unpublished. More tongue-in-cheek than a couple of early readers apparently realized.]

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw him
You would even say it glows

For generations, helpless children have been indoctrinated into the cruel ways of the world by the saga of Rudolph, the misfit mammal who saves Christmas. I can remember singing along when I was seven or eight, and suddenly being reduced almost to tears by the carol's melancholy message. That feeling returned unbidden this morning, when some old songster's version was dredged up on the radio:

All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games

Ah, the grotesque ritual of scapegoating, rendered with the elegance and concision of a haiku! It is hard to imagine anyone who is or once was a child remaining immune to the pathos of this stanza. It touches on our deepest and most primal fears, before even an awareness of mortality has crept in: rejection, abandonment - with an added dose of humiliation, once the ego has matured enough to be slighted. We're suckers for what follows:

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say,
"Rudolph with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

Salvation! The powers-that-be have deigned to acknowledge Rudolph's existence. It's a chance for our onetime pariah to do a little preening:

Then all the reindeer loved him
And they shouted out with glee,
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
You'll go down in history!"

The ostensibly happy ending is in fact a devastating sting-in-the-tail. Then, and only then, do all the reindeer "love" him - after Rudolph has demonstrated that his oddity has value to the supreme ruler. (What's valuable at any given moment is, of course, arbitrary. What will become of our hero when Santa discovers headlights, and his trusty worker becomes Rudolph the Redundant Reindeer?)

Implicit message: if you can't demonstrate your usefulness to the boss, we minions are justified in marginalizing and harassing you. If you manage to fit in, you've got a shot at being bronzed and placed on history's pedestal (the reindeer equivalent might be more macabre). One wonders, though, whether Rudolph will ever feel truly secure and accepted - remembering the slights of his youth, and realizing the fragile and contingent nature of his success.

In real life, the Rudolphian logic translates to misery and violence for those marked by difference, up to and including serious injury and death in "hazing" rituals or ethnic wars. It's hard not to see a special allegorical significance for males, adult and otherwise. For much longer than Rudolph has been around to illuminate the message with his crimson glow, the culture's conditioning of boys and men has revolved around material incentives, demonstrated utility, and public rewards. The lure, traditionally, has been the kind of prestige and canonization that Rudolph - along with a microscopic minority of males - enjoys.

Perhaps, even amidst the current Christmas saturation, we can defend ourselves against this insidious and reactionary little ditty. To do so, we should reject the image the crafters of the song mean to leave us with - Rudolph basking in the praise of his peers and of history. We should imagine, instead, Rudolph harnessed to his master's sleigh - with Santa ever poised to crack the whip if his momentum flags, and feed him to the dogs when he has outlived his usefulness.

In Association with

Created by Adam Jones, 1998.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.