Rudolph – Victim of prejudice
We have seen the story played out in countless movies: a marginalised and victimised member of a society finding inclusion after turning his handicap into a communal benefit. So it is with Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.
We don’t know much about Rudolph. The song reports that due to a birth defect or medical condition the reindeer has a shiny, virtually luminous red nose, quite in contrast to his black-nosed peers. These evidently have taken to numerous ways of bullying Rudolph, presumably on account of his red nose. The bullying seems to take on the form of abuse directed at the physical non-conformity as well as deliberate marginalisation from social activities. It may well be that the alienation is prompted by other, perhaps related factors. Perhaps Rudy is excessively shy (a disposition which in itself may be rooted in physical differentiation), or perhaps he is rude (a defence mechanism). Perhaps his unglamorous name influences the group dynamic; like children, reindeer can be cruel, and if your name is as dreary as Rudolph, it may be difficult to gain acceptance in a clique which comprises individuals with such remarkable names as Donner, Blitzen and German favourite Vixen which would not be out of place in the line-up of a glamorous heavy metal band.
But we don’t know. All the song tells us is that Rudolph is being bullied, almost certainly on account of his red nose. But then circumstances beyond the group’s control intervene. Bad weather seems to preclude the execution of an important task: the annual delivery of presents to all good children in the world (an inaccurate characterisation, of course; many good children receive no gifts, and many unattractive juveniles will benefit richly from material bounteousness; as Bob Geldof reminded us in poetry when he reminded us that, departing from metereological norm, there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime). The CEO of the organisation hits on an unlikely plan: Rudolph’s incandescent nose can double as a headlight, aiding the navigation of his transporter in unfavourable weather conditions. As we learn, the innovation works. Rudolph, having saved the day, finds immediate acceptance, and even a level of celebrity, among his peers. The heavy metal singers presumably act with magnanimity, perhaps patting Rudy on his back and letting him play the bass guitar.
Superficially, the song celebrates the conquest of social exclusion as a response to deviation from the norm. It celebrates the notion that everybody has something to offer to the common good. These are commendable sentiments. However, we ought to question why these impulses to exclude others from social structures on grounds of defects, inherited or caused by illness, exist in first place. How much more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas might the song be had it addressed this specific characteristic of social dynamics more constructively?
Moreover, how much more valid a testament to the season of reconciliation might the song have been had Santa Claus, apparently an equal opportunities employer, taken concrete action to put a prompt end to Rudolph’s discrimination when the problem initially arose. His failure to afford Rudolph protection is aggravated by his opportunistic exploitation of Rudolph’s perceived defect. The episode’s conclusion — Rudolph’s acceptance into the group — is purely accidental. Santa used Rudolph’s distinctive attribute for purposes other than effecting that outcome (though he may well have welcomed it).
Without due intervention, Rudolph’s social rehabilitation could not have taken effect otherwise. But with poor Rudolph there must reside a bitterness that the imperfection that once assured his exclusion is now the cause of his celebrity. He is not being received into the group on his own merits, but on basis of a deep-seated hypocrisy. Moreover, he had to prove his usefulness to the group before being incorporated into it. In other words, the other reindeer’s acceptance of him is not founded in their regard for Rudolph, but in his usefulness to the group. Should Rudolph’s nose lose its luminescence and instead turn, say, green, would he lose his new-found status in the group?
The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is one of reindeer’s cruelty against reindeer, managerial failure and the alienation of the reindeer soul. This, I submit, calls not for the upbeat musical treatment of custom. It should be expected that the song be performed as a two-bar blues, a sad country number, or an emo lament, preferably incorporating a verse or two telling the story from Rudy’s perspective, including his contemplation of reindeer suicide.
Mr Martin, shame on you for the cheer with which you invest the distressing tale of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Shame indeed.