I love Claymation Christmas specials. I grew up on The Little Drummer Boy, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Jack Frost… but I’ve always especially loved Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. Maybe, subconsciously (long before I was a literary element aficionado) the alliteration appealed to me. Then, in November of 2008, Rudolph went down in history as my all-time favorite when Mike made the romantic gesture to end all romantic gestures. He brought along a digital projector, a Rudolph dvd, and a portable player to Caitlin’s med school interview to take all our minds off an extraordinarily stressful and momentous situation. The motel room was moldy, the carpet was spongy, the drapes were dingy, but I knew right then and there that Mike Candela was a keeper. He had brought us Rudolph for the road.
Growing up, I wanted to live in Rudolph’s soft focus, pulled felt world. I wanted to be Clarice, the fuzzy, long-lashed doe with the French name. She was spunky and kind-hearted, and she had the most amazing polka dot, red bow. And then, to top it all off, she fell in love with the misfit – the social outcast with the blinking beacon. I’ve always been one to go for the oddball, too. (Sorry, Mike, but you’re one of the weird ones. It’s okay – I am, too).
But even though Clarice was my goal, I think Rudolph was my reality. I am, and always have been, the ultimate misfit. For one thing, as a kid, I was in that crazy cult – it doesn’t get any odder than that! And I was tall –5’10’—which is way taller than almost any girl my age. (Still am, for that matter). And, since I suffered from acne, I had that whole glaringly red facial imperfection thing kicking, too..
Even now, after having outlived my awkward early years (and then some) and bizarre cult activities, I still find myself a misfit. I’m a mother of toddlers at the age when most of my friends have children in their teens or twenties – oh, I have those kinds of kids, too. But now, along with my kids in their twenties, I have fifteen-to-thirty years on all the other moms. (Case in point — several of the young parents at our boys’ daycare were actually the friends of my daughters growing up!) So, yeah, I’m still a misfit.
I also sport those hesitant, herky-jerky movements of stop action film. Not because of bad joints (I may be fifty, but I’m not arthritic). But because so very often I stop action in the middle of my errand because I don’t remember what in the sam hill I was about to do. Because even though I’m a new mother again after nearly a quarter of a century, my brain isn’t new again! It has a whole nother quarter century stamped and imprinted deep within its gray matter since the last time I gave child-rearing a go.
But mainly, the one thing I love most about Rudolph is how everyone who is targeted as a misfit – those who don’t fit within society’s expectations or generalizations – is welcomed with open arms by the story’s end. One, great, big, felt-covered happily-ever-after. It fits so nicely with my oh-so-progressive bleeding heart.
But then, watching it again with the boys, I’ve realized it isn’t quite the idyllic, little anti-bullying, feel-good statement piece I remember. For one, Donner is a sexist son of a bovid. And two, Santa is an absolute donkey’s rear. (Now, neither of the nouns I just used to label these characters are as colorful as what I would like to use, but Clarice is the only French word I’ve vowed to use in this particular blog entry, so you may read between the italices, here.)
So how is Donner sexist? You may not realize it – because I’m fairly certain they’ve cut this line from the television broadcast — but on the dvd version, he rejects his wife and Clarice’s offer to help find Rudolph by proclaiming, “This is man’s work.” Yup. MAN’S work. WTF?!?! (btw, those are initials, my dear reader, and if you heard French, it’s because YOU – that’s right YOU — provided the fancy foreign phrase there, not I. So I’m still technically sticking to my G-Rated guidelines…) Yep. Donner’s a piece of work.
And the offensiveness doesn’t stop there. The narrator kicks in some misogynistic commentary as well. It is after Clarice and Mrs. Donner (the only name she is ever given…) successfully find Rudolph –despite Donner’s orders –only to find themselves in the clutches of the abominable snow monster. At this point, Yukon Cornelius, keeper of sled dogs, an open-carry revolver, and elaborate facial hair (evidence, once again, of the potency and divine might of beards) sweeps in to save the day, sending himself and Bumbles tumbling into a giant abyss. The narrator then proclaims everyone is “very sad at the loss of their friend, but realize that the best thing to do is get the women back to Christmas town.” Ugh.
And then finally, there’s Santa. The mean-spirited, faultfinding, curmudgeonly Santa who pokes fun of tiny infant Rudolph, right out of his mama’s belly. I mean, it’s to be expected that the other reindeer will call him names — it’s in the lyrics, after all. But Santa? Santa is Father Christmas! He’s a saint, for Christmas sake!! He’s supposed to be all jolly and twinkly and eat cookies and go Ho Ho Ho! and bring along a sack full of goodies everywhere he goes. But not in Rudolph. In Rudolph, he’s mean to the elves when they give him a Christmas concert. He’s mean to Rudolph when his shiny nose is too bright for sore eyes. He’s mean enough to banish handicapped toys to an island for misfits. He’s even mean enough to almost cancel Christmas — all because of a little storm! That’s not the Santa I remember! I swear, I think they’ve edited a lot of the unfortunate 1960’s political incorrectness out of the broadcast version because I don’t remember any of the patronizing gender roles and rude behavior when I was little. Then again, I was programmed and conditioned to overlook male misconduct. Plus, I wasn’t allowed to believe in Santa – so I didn’t pay him much mind, anyway. Instead, I hung onto every word out of Clarice and Rudolph’s felted wool muzzles, along with those physically deformed and bullied misfit toys. Those parts are still as awesomely iconic and compellingly relevant as ever.
Yeah, the show isn’t quite what I remembered from my childhood. But will that keep me from curling up on my sofa with a soft, flannel throw and my boys at my side, watching it every single Christmas season? Of course not. The way I look at it, I’m a mom and I’m a teacher. And the fallibility of the cautionary tale gives it that much more impact. It provides so many teachable moments. I have a responsibility “to train up a child in the way he should go” so that “when he is old, he will not depart from it.” And the way I want my boys to go is that same generous-hearted, progressive route of their father – who appreciates women, who respects women, who listens to the insights of women, and who values the opinions of women. He sees my strengths, even when I, myself, am blinded by the conditioning of my youth. He knows that my worth is so much more than my ability to flutter long lashes and dress in comely red finery. He doesn’t believe in Woman’s Work or Man’s Work. He just believes in hard work. And he’s a man who truly appreciates that my fluency in French far outshines his own – a rare find, indeed. Yes, Rudolph will provide me some pretty, solid, serious teaching moments for me and our boys for years to come.
So things are never quite the same as you remember from your childhood, I guess… But despite all the flaws and imperfections (funny, I guess the show is ironically a bit of a misfit itself) Rudolph still has a happy ending. That hasn’t changed. The nice guys and the misfits still win in the end.
Yes, yes they do.