Wednesday night marked the fortieth annual broadcast of the “classic” holiday television show, Rankin/Bass Production’s Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I tuned in for probably the twenty-fifth time (but the first in many years) expecting to find a rudimentary moral lesson tucked amongst all the holly-jolliness and evil-looking puppets. Instead I had the frightening realization that, for forty years, RtR-NR has been cramming several sleighloads of bad ethics down our chimneys. In this holiday nightmare, nearly every character demonstrates a distinct lack of moral integrity bordering on turpitude, and none other than Santa himself comes away as the worst of the bunch. Here’s an ethical play-by-play.
Our story begins (after a bunch of stuff I’m skipping over) in a cave outside of Christmas Town with the birth of the newest reindeer, Rudolph, the son of Santa’s star sleigh-team-member, Donner, and his life partner, Mrs. Donner. 1Yes, that’s the only name she gets. Rudolph is cute enough, but he has a startlingly horrible deformity: a bright red nose that glows like a light bulb. 2And honks like Harpo Marx getting run over by a car. Mom wants to overlook the nose, but Dad kick-starts the parade of bad ethics by declaring, “How am I supposed to overlook that freaking ugly nose on our defective-ass baby?!” 3Or words to that effect. He’s encouraged along that line of thinking by St. Nick himself, who pops in for a surprise visit and, with one glance at the baby, dismisses out of hand Rudolph’s chances of ever making the sleigh team if his nose keeps doing that nauseating… thing. 4This is Saint Nick, mind you. That tears it for Donner, and he decides to hide Rudolph’s shame from the world by covering it with mud.
Obviously this is unethical behavior on the part of both Donner and Santa. Dad should accept and love Rudolph regardless of his physical appearance, and Santa, as a potential employer, shouldn’t discriminate against the differently-abled Rudolph. But note that Mom’s ethically lax here too; she should stand up for her son and stop her husband from forcing him to hide his nose. If Mrs. Donner allows such abhorrent behavior to go down in her cave unchallenged, she’s complicit in it, regardless of how subservient she is to her alpha-male husband and his caribou whims.
Okay, so Rudolph grows up a bit, and soon it’s time for the all the new fawns to meet. Donner continues to force Rudolph to wear the nose cover. This, ironically, allows him to make time with a big-eyed little doe named Clarice, who thinks Rudolph’s “cute.” When it comes time for the reindeer games, Coach Comet teaches the fawns some flying. Rudolph, coasting on Clarice’s crush, outperforms everyone. His glory is short lived, however, when his honker mask falls off and his red nose lights up. All the other fawns, scared at first, ridicule poor Rudolph, laugh, and call him names.
Santa—clearly determined to prove himself the least scrupled person in the North Pole—tells Donner he should be ashamed of himself for hiding the nose. Shaking his head, Santa adds, “such a nice take-off too.” Apparently Santa believes that, regardless of Rudolph’s obvious talents, he must be excluded from the troop solely because of the appearance of his nose. With this, Santa takes a step away from simple prejudice against the red-nosed into downright noseism; he shall have no red-nosed reindeer in his squad, no matter what! And, what’s more, Santa publicly humiliates Donner for daring to harbor and abet a red-nose. If Santa’s elves have a secret police, now is when we would expect them to emerge and haul Donner off to the rendering camps. 5Clearly Santa is plagued by Roy Cohn-esque self-hatred. We all know from Clement Clark Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” that Santa’s nose is “like a cherry.” Unable to accept his own nature, Santa exercises his internal rage on defenseless young reindeer.
Coach Comet—probably bucking for a sweet position in Santa’s new reich of the righteous-nosed—bans Rudolph from reindeer games forever. Now, the lyrics of the song on which this show is based imply that Rudolph’s reindeer-games banishment results from childish exclusion by the other young reindeer. But the TV special makes it clear that Rudolph is actually banned by administration-sanctioned segregation of the type that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional ten years before this show first aired. Faced with a world turned against him, Rudolph runs away.
In the midst of all this turmoil in the outside world, there’s also trouble in Santa’s castle. An elf named Hermey 6Apparently there’s some controversy by fans over whether this elf’s name is “Hermey” or “Herbie,” but Rick Goldschmidt, who literally wrote the book on this show, cites strong evidence that it is in fact the much scarier “Hermey.” has decided that he doesn’t like building toys. Hermey wants to be a dentist. The other elves tease him for this, and his boss lays down an ultimatum: make toys, or you’re fired! Hermey—who’s supposed to be one of our sympathetic protagonists—makes his own ethically questionable choice by shirking mandatory “elf practice” 7? to instead fix some dolls’ teeth. Hermey’s ethics are sketchy because, while he’s justified in disliking his role as toy-maker, he still has the responsibility to fulfill his toy-making duties. If Hermey wants to pursue another course of employment, he should resign rather than doing a half-assed job in his present one. Hermey compounds his poor decision—when he’s reprimanded for his behavior—by running off unannounced rather than facing another elf practice or officially tendering his resignation. 8It’s quite possible that the dictatorial Santa forces the elves to work in his toy factories, in which case Hermey’s action would be ethically justifiable. He has no responsibility to forced labor.
So, on his way to a new life, Hermey meets Rudolph. Since they’re both “a couple of misfits,” they decide to beat feet together. While wandering the wastelands surrounding Christmas Town, they encounter the prospector Yukon Cornelius, who’s out looking for silver and gold. This gives our narrator—Sam the Snowman, voiced by the folk singer Burl Ives—the opportunity to interrupt the story to sing “Silver and Gold.” This is relevant, because Mr. Ives pauses in the middle of the song to offer the audience an impromptu ethical argument. He contends that silver and gold are necessary to decorate the Christmas trees of the world, and if the Christmas trees aren’t decorated, millions of children will be unhappy. Therefore, he explains, the endless pursuit of those precious metals is ethically justifiable. I assume this perplexing aside was added at the request of the show’s producers to give them ethical grounds for merchandising the hell out of the special. 9 I’ll let the reader form his or her own conclusion of the validity of Mr. Ives’ Sam the Snowman’s argument.
After the musical interlude, Rudolph and the gang are pursued by the vicious Abominable Snowman, who’s attracted to Rudolph’s glowing nose. Cornelius engineers an escape by floating them off on an ice floe, which eventually runs aground on the Island of Misfit Toys. The king of this island, a winged lion named Moonracer, scours the globe every night searching for irregular toys (a Charlie in the Box, a train with square wheels, a bird who can’t fly but can swim, 10No, not a penguin. etc.) and brings them to his island to wait until children can be found to love them. King Moonracer tells the runaways that real people (and reindeers) can’t hide from their troubles on an island, so they must leave the next morning.
King Moonracer offers a brief reprieve from the nonstop torrent of bad ethics raining on viewers to this point. Imagine: a king who could spend his days lounging on his icy veldt, being fed whole live goats by armies of monkey servants (presumably), but who instead decides to devote himself to tirelessly rescuing depressed playthings. Still, we don’t have enough information to fully judge Moonracer’s ethics. Does he make sure the toys he “rescues” want to come with him, or does he just scoop them up and spirit them away? 11Not to mention that it’s all too easy to imagine the IoMT as some sort of Neverland Ranch. And, while he does seem to have Rudolph et al.’s best interests at heart when he sends them off the island, does he not know or does he choose to ignore the fact that a ravenous animal is pursuing them, and that he might be sending them to their deaths?
Let’s leave those as rhetorical questions, because at this point, surprisingly, we’re treated to a second bit of ethical behavior. Rudolph, knowing that his nose is liable to lead the Abominable Snowman back to him, sneaks off the island alone rather than risk putting his friends in danger. While Rudolph wanders the wilderness for several months, he grows up and decides to go home. He returns to find that everyone still hates him, but that Donner, feeling remorse at psychologically abusing his son, has gone to search for him, accompanied by Mrs. Donner and Clarice. Santa’s concerned, because he needs Donner for his sleigh, and a huge blizzard is on its way.
Rudolph decides to search for his family in the Abominable Snowman’s cave. There he finds them cornered by the monster. He bravely tries to rescue them, but fails miserably. Thankfully, Hermey and Yukon Cornelius arrive to save the day. Hermey distracts the Snowman by badly impersonating a pig, while Cornelius slugs him 12The Snowman, not Hermey with a boulder.
Cornelius and Hermey then find themselves faced with a complicated ethical dilemma. The band could just light out while the Snowman’s unconscious, but is it ethical to leave all the other inhabitants of Christmas Town at risk of deadly Abominable Snowman attacks when they have the chance to prevent them forever by slaying the monster? On the other hand, even if they quickly and painlessly exterminate the beast, is it ethical to mete out such ruthless justice on the spot, especially on a wild animal? Unfortunately, Cornelius and Hermey avoid making this decision by defaulting to cruel and unusual punishment. Hermey uses his self-taught dental skills to pull all of the Snowman’s teeth. While this leaves the heroes relatively safe, it also leaves the Snowman with no way to catch and consume food, and essentially condemns him to a slow, painful death from starvation and oral infection from Hermey’s meatball surgery. Oh, and then Cornelius—for no obvious reason, since the Snowman is now relatively harmless—pushes it off of a cliff.
Safe at last, the Donner party 13Ha! and Hermey return to Christmas Town, which is all atwitter because the blizzard might force Santa to cancel Christmas; there’s too much snow for him to make his run. But wait! Rudolph can light the way with his bright, freakish nose! Santa asks Rudolph for his help, which he gladly provides. Meanwhile, Hermey is allowed to open his dentist’s office, 14Isn’t it ethically questionable to open a dental office when the extent of one’s dental knowledge comes, as Hermey’s does, from a creaky old volume called Dentistry, which he probably picked up at some estate sale? Really, it’s not even Elvish Dentistry, for god’s sake. apparently because the elves need a dentist, and the Abominable Snowman, who survived his cliff fall, is welcomed because he’s decided that he enjoys putting the stars on top of tall Christmas trees.
This is the point in this fable when we’d expect the myriad preceding bad ethics to be expunged, and the residents of the town to apologize and cry, “we realize now that we should not judge people and reindeer based on their physical appearance and/or choice of lifestyle!” That would be nice. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Donner sums up the residents’ reaction when he says, “see, I knew it [the nose] would be useful someday!” So, what we’ve learned is that those who are different than us are okay if those differences make them useful. Yes, the show teaches us, Santa’s Gestapo tactics and Donner’s dysfunctional parenting are bad, but only because they were applied without the thought that Rudolph could later be put to functional labor. Even Hermey and the Snowman are only accepted because they prove they can be useful at dentistry and tree-trimming, respectively. Apparently Christmas Town’s isolation from the rest of civilization has left it barren not just of warmth, fruit, and Starbucks, but also of any rudimentary concepts of fundamental equality.
When it comes down to it, the only character of the story that emerges ethically unscathed is Rudolph himself. He proves to be a fine role model throughout. Rudolph sacrifices his own safety to protect his friends from the Abominable Snowman. He risks his life once to find his family in a blizzard, and again by attempting to rescue them. Then, when those who mistreated him come begging for his help, he gives it without hesitation nor thought of revenge. 15Rudolph’s one blemish is that he did abandon his family for a time, but he was just an adolescent working through issues. Rudolph redeems the television special which bears his name, and he proves himself fit to wear the mantle of the best recognized member of his species—to be the most famous reindeer of all. 16Oh, as an epilogue, Santa swings by the Island of Misfit Toys, picks up all the toys, and takes them with him on his run. We are expected to believe that he delivers them to children around the world, and we even see the elves tossing them from the sleigh (equipped with umbrellas to slow their fall). I have another theory. Since Santa ends the special as a nearly entirely unredeemed hater of nonconformists, I believe the hurling of the Misfit Toys represents a kind of final solution. Certainly an umbrella is inadequate to break a toy’s fall from the heights of a flying sleigh. What’s more, the elves hurl the swimming bird without an umbrella, when it’s clear that the bird’s defining characteristic is that he can’t fly. If you pump up the volume on your TV and listen closely, you can hear the sound of the flightless bird screaming as he plunges thousands of feet onto the icy rooftops below. Santa sails on, laughing like a mental patient.
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|1.||↵||Yes, that’s the only name she gets.|
|2.||↵||And honks like Harpo Marx getting run over by a car.|
|3.||↵||Or words to that effect.|
|4.||↵||This is Saint Nick, mind you.|
|5.||↵||Clearly Santa is plagued by Roy Cohn-esque self-hatred. We all know from Clement Clark Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” that Santa’s nose is “like a cherry.” Unable to accept his own nature, Santa exercises his internal rage on defenseless young reindeer.|
|6.||↵||Apparently there’s some controversy by fans over whether this elf’s name is “Hermey” or “Herbie,” but Rick Goldschmidt, who literally wrote the book on this show, cites strong evidence that it is in fact the much scarier “Hermey.”|
|8.||↵||It’s quite possible that the dictatorial Santa forces the elves to work in his toy factories, in which case Hermey’s action would be ethically justifiable. He has no responsibility to forced labor.|
|10.||↵||No, not a penguin.|
|11.||↵||Not to mention that it’s all too easy to imagine the IoMT as some sort of Neverland Ranch.|
|12.||↵||The Snowman, not Hermey|
|14.||↵||Isn’t it ethically questionable to open a dental office when the extent of one’s dental knowledge comes, as Hermey’s does, from a creaky old volume called Dentistry, which he probably picked up at some estate sale? Really, it’s not even Elvish Dentistry, for god’s sake.|
|15.||↵||Rudolph’s one blemish is that he did abandon his family for a time, but he was just an adolescent working through issues.|
|16.||↵||Oh, as an epilogue, Santa swings by the Island of Misfit Toys, picks up all the toys, and takes them with him on his run. We are expected to believe that he delivers them to children around the world, and we even see the elves tossing them from the sleigh (equipped with umbrellas to slow their fall). I have another theory. Since Santa ends the special as a nearly entirely unredeemed hater of nonconformists, I believe the hurling of the Misfit Toys represents a kind of final solution. Certainly an umbrella is inadequate to break a toy’s fall from the heights of a flying sleigh. What’s more, the elves hurl the swimming bird without an umbrella, when it’s clear that the bird’s defining characteristic is that he can’t fly. If you pump up the volume on your TV and listen closely, you can hear the sound of the flightless bird screaming as he plunges thousands of feet onto the icy rooftops below. Santa sails on, laughing like a mental patient.|