Bullying, racism and homophobia in… Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?

The Christmas classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” aired Tuesday night on CBS, and lit up social media with accusations of cultural insensitivity.

In the beloved television special, which premiered in 1964, Santa’s lead reindeer, Donner, fathers a new fawn named Rudolph. To everyone’s shock, Rudolph is born with a glowing red nose.

The young reindeer is shunned by peers for his strange appearance and Santa refuses to let him join his sleigh team of reindeer. Donner even decides to hide his son’s nose by covering it with mud. Eventually, after a winter storm threatens Santa’s yearly journey to deliver toys, Rudolph’s special nose is finally seen as valuable in the dark sky.

Many Twitter users found new fault to this story for its alleged display of bullying, racism, homophobia—as well as verbal abuse, sexism, bigotry, lack of acceptance and even exploitation of workers.

In our age of social media and hyper-awareness of social issues, this was probably inevitable.

Some Twitter users pointed out how Rudolph’s father verbally abused him, demanding him to cover his nose.

It was also noted how other characters openly shunned Rudolph, including another authority figure—a coach who famoulsy said, “We are not going to let Rudolph join in anymore reindeer games.”

Sexism was read into a scene where Rudolph’s mother wanted to join Donner in search for their son who ran away in shame and Donner said, “No, this is man’s work.”

The label “misfit toys,” which was used to describe a place where unloved or unwanted toys live with their ruler in the holiday story, was also deemed insensitive to those who are merely different.

Last, the so-called happy ending where Santa at last accepts Rudolph—presumably because his shiny red nose is of use to him—was seen as exploitive by some viewers.

Some viewers have countered the new uproar over “Rudolph” by extolling the long-held virtues of the classic tale that endeared it to audiences in the first place: the characters come to realize the error of their ways and Rudolph is celebrated for his uniqueness at last.

It could also be argued that depictions of bullying and antagonistic behavior do not equate with condoning them. In fact, they are inevitable to the human experience and we will all have to learn to overcome them.

What’s obvious is that “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” will hardly be the last classic film that can be viewed as problematic now, due to cultural differences between the past and present.

It’s up to the viewer if they believe that the virtues of a work of art eclipse the cultural limitations of its time—or even that the latter can provide a teachable moment for new generations.

 

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