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POV: Rudolph the Sad, Bullied, Verbally Abused Red-Nosed Reindeer

Sympathetic hero of a beloved holiday or victim from another era whose story should no longer be told—you decide

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I admit, I always get excited around holidays. But not just Flag Day. I like Christmas, too. But this year I’d like to “shine a little light,” if you’ll pardon the pun, on a new controversy about that old classic Christmas tale Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

There was a recent poll by Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult Poll to find out which is the most beloved holiday movie of them all. Coming out on top was 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which airs each year on CBS. (The poll surveyed 2,200 adults—and 47,000 reindeer.)

But then a video surfaced on the Huffington Post, which has now been viewed almost six million times, that questions the social appropriateness of an animated film featuring bullies and biases and mean-spirited, heartless characters. And an elf who wants to be a dentist. And some believe that there’s no way this red-nosed adventure would get greenlighted in today’s market.

Personally, I’ve seen the Rudolph TV special many times, often sober, so I feel I’m in a pretty good position to give some perspective on this matter. Oh, and I also teach in the College of Communication film and television department, so there’s that, too.

First, I have to say, in all those years of watching this story, I never considered its level of political correctness. I did, however, develop a fear of dentists, and to this day I still leap from the chair screaming whenever my dentist begins singing about being a misfit.

But does the Huff Post have a huff point? The story is about a reindeer who is treated poorly by his family, shunned and ridiculed by his friends, and rejected by Santa Claus (hey, who hasn’t been there?) simply for being different. And then, little Rudolph is only accepted when he’s proved himself to be useful.

Okay, admittedly that might sound like a confusing message. Maybe we’re missing something? So let’s take a closer look at the origins of this story, shall we? To look at Rudolph’s beginnings, one has to go back to the year 1939. (Or two can go back. Or three, it doesn’t matter.)

In 1939 a struggling writer named Robert May was asked by his boss at a popular department store of the time to write a fun Christmas book for shoppers with an animal as the focus of the story. May wasn’t sold on the idea of using an animal as the main character until his boss convinced him it could work by performing a moving two-hour interpretive dance with sock puppets.

Little is known about May and his writing process, but it is well known that he wrote the Rudolph story based on his own life: for as a small child, May, too, was bullied by reindeer.

But the story didn’t come easy. May struggled through many rewrites.

First, there was a story about a warthog named Scratchy, who gets shunned by all those around him because he never brushes his tusks. Next was Cora the Christmas Cobra, then Sammy Salamander Saves the Season, and then Hippo Hank Has a Heart Attack on the Holidays. (It is well documented that May always adored alliteration.)

Then May thought he was really close when he toyed with the idea of a lonely Arctic aardvark who saves Christmas with his “fire-breathing snout,” despite having a broken wing. (It is also well documented that May didn’t know what an aardvark was.) After dozens of exhausting and frustrating stops and starts, it was time for lunch.

It was while May walked around in a Chicago fog, figuratively and literally, that he got the idea for the DeLorean with the flux capacitor. (Wait, that’s another movie.)

But irony was at play when the fog became the shining light for May. That’s what his story would be about! A small reindeer everyone underestimates, who goes on to shine as a beacon of goodness in the fog of meanness.

You see, I don’t believe that May ever saw Rudolph as a victim. Robert May understood exactly how to write a story. He created a sympathetic hero and some nasty nemeses, which made Rudolph’s journey that much more satisfying. And when Santa came to Rudolph on that foggy Christmas Eve asking for his help, Rudolph didn’t block Santa on Twitter and tell him: “Shove it, big guy.” No, Rudolph wasn’t going to play their games. This little future piece of tasty venison took the high road—and flew off into the night, into history, and into the hearts of millions…

Except for those at the Huffington Post.


Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer airs Saturday, December 8, on CBS at 8 pm Eastern Time.

William Braudis is a College of Communication assistant professor of film and television. He can be reached at bbraudis@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

10 Comments

10 Comments on POV: Rudolph the Sad, Bullied, Verbally Abused Red-Nosed Reindeer

  • Bill on 12.07.2018 at 5:47 am

    Thanks for a good laugh!

  • Garland on 12.07.2018 at 8:36 am

    What a totally delightful piece. Bill Braudis is such a terrific writer and we all get to have several laughs today because he is such a clever fella. Thanks, Bill.

    • Alum on 12.07.2018 at 11:04 am

      Agreed!!

    • Not Bill on 12.07.2018 at 2:40 pm

      This year, I’m thankful for Bill

  • Patrice Oppliger on 12.07.2018 at 8:40 am

    I think viewers are overlooking the importance of Clarice. She is the bystander we should be encouraging all children to be. Instead of calling for a ban, let’s turn it into a teachable moment.

  • Jay R. on 12.07.2018 at 8:53 am

    What a great piece! In the time of click-bait and posturing for likes, this piece was truly refreshing. Not only did it dive into the history of the book but also understood the point of this (and countless other) plot-line(s) of overcoming adversity and working on a higher level. Is the movie a little Kumbaya-ish? Sure. But the message of listening to others and celebrating all of our gifts is a message we still need to work on teaching children (and some adults).

  • anonymous on 12.07.2018 at 9:13 am

    The erasure and censorship of history is unacceptable in the United States of America. This has been a trend as of late, and I can’t disagree with it more. An extreme example of this type of censorship would be if Germany decided it wanted to destroy and wipe clean all traces of the Holocaust. Wait, isn’t this what some are trying to do now with confederate monuments?

    When I watched Rudolph as a kid I felt the pain and could even empathize having experienced similar situations in the tough, working class town I grew up in. I learned growing up that life isn’t fair, and nothing represents this more than the massive separation of wealth and the opportunities it offers those who come from wealth. When playing sports on the school playground during recess there were always those who were picked first because they were more athletically talented, and the less talented found themselves picked last. Yes this might make the person picked last feel bad, but this is reality, some people have talents that others simply don’t have. I think the natural balance of nature should be allowed to run its course, and those who find themselves at odds at times, well, they will eventually find their niche and maybe even become dentists that pull the teeth of the abdominal snowman, or lead others the thick of the night to deliver goodness to those who need it most. We can’t all be great all the time, or even accepted, and there is no reason why we should be.

    • Richard Chappo on 12.07.2018 at 12:57 pm

      All great comments! Enough with political correctness. Merry Christmas to all.

  • gcollins on 12.07.2018 at 1:30 pm

    The leftist loones want to trash western literature and traditions and replace with their own ideology. The virtue signalers who go against stories
    such as this to make themselves feel better about themselves. There are more important issues to place their energy.
    Go to the inner cities and help poor kids with their education

  • Rachel Sells on 12.07.2018 at 9:15 pm

    There is a morale to the story – learning to be humble. Donnor, Santa Clause, and the Chief elf all exhibit humility later on. They admit that they were wrong and apologize to Rudolph and Hermey.

    In today’s entitlement-driven society, I feel that this movie is a good example of how to be patient with others and learn how to earn something – respect. Rudolph never retailiates and he should be a good example to children experiencing similar situations. Life is not easy, even for adults sometimes.

    My three year old kept asking, “are they nice?” during certain scenes. Using movies, stories, and life experiences as teaching moments to build character-filled qualities in my daughter is what I’m taking away from this.

    I agree with the person’s comment about teaching children to emulate Clarice’s attitudes and behavior!

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