Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer prompts impassioned debate on homophobia among critics. Yes, that Rudolph

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer (R) and Heremy the Elf

‘Tis the season to debate whether Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, yes, the iconic 1964 stop-motion film, teaches a lesson of homophobia or not.

Critics have long stressed that Rudolph has more queer subtext than it does tinsel and snowflakes. But writing for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan implored parents “Don’t Subject Your Kids to Rudolph“.

You see, the film is super gay. We’re talking Matt-Bomer-frenching-Neil-Patrick-Harris-under-the-mistletoe-grade gay.

The kind of gay that if Hollywood was to remake the family-friendly film today, it would probably cast James Corden to play the role, fearing it’s flamingly homosexual subtext would be too, well, gay for Karen and the kids to handle.

Describing the film as “55 minutes of Christmas-crushing despair”, Flanagan argues that its queer subtext is double-edged and barbed.

“We are supposed to understand that blond, dreamy-eyed Hermey wants to be a dentist, not a toymaker,” she writes.

“Foreman Elf — who, come the revolution, will not be dealt with kindly — humiliates him repeatedly. When Hermey tells him, tentatively, that he doesn’t want to make toys, Foreman Elf repeats the phrase in the ‘sissy’ voice that has haunted gay boys down through the ages.

“‘Shame on you!’ cry the other elves, further demoralizing Hermey. Rudolph thinks it teaches children to be themselves, and maybe it does. But it also teaches them how to taunt a boy who seems different.”

Rudolph ‘shows the superiority of self-acceptance’, says one critic. 

But packing kids’ stockings with homophobia isn’t quite the message of the movie, responded another critic, Jeet Heer, in The Nation. He says Flanagan’s is a “critical misreading whereby depicting an injustice is the same as giving sanction to it”.

“By this logic, Moby-Dick promotes violence toward animals and Othello is a license for spouse-killing,” Heer added.

“To be sure, the show was made in a pre-Stonewall world and has some of the era’s creaky liberalism.

“Rudolph’s difference is validated because it turns out to be socially useful (the bright red nose helping Santa deliver presents in a storm).

“Still, on an emotional level, the story doesn’t affirm social norms but rather shows the superiority of self-acceptance and appreciation of difference.”

After all, Rudolph was dubbed by one New York Times writer as the “queerest Holiday special”.

“A fabulously blond elf who doesn’t like to make toys?” wrote Jennifer Finney Boylan in December (when else) 2019.

“A reindeer who is cast out by those who are supposed to love him, on account of an accident of birth? A whole island populated by outcasts?”

It’s all queer subtext: everything from Rudolph being crammed into the closet after coming out to his father, Donner (being given a fake nose to cover his shining one) to Heremy the elf who no longer wishes to be a chained prole reduced to his labour, born to toil in Old Saint Nic’s toy factory.

He’d much prefer to be a dentist (and maybe slipping in copies of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital into Santa’s sack) and ends up bumping into Rudolph and the pair sing how it “seems to us kind of silly that we don’t fit in”.

On The Sewers of Paris podcast, guest Jonathan Renteria-Elyea reflected on how Rudolph fleeing home and ending up at the Island of Misfit Toys mirrored many gay men’s journeys in the 1960s, even if such an analogy is a little on the nose.

Along the way, they meet a bear. No, a literal bear, Cornelius, and the trio end up at the island and make a chosen family. You see? Gay.

Rudolph even shoulders the community’s desire to to make Santa’s grotto a more inclusive workplace environment by going back and demanding they all be accepted. But not without battling the embodiment of homophobia itself – the Abominable Snow Monster.

After defanging the beast and saving an entire civilisation from death and destruction, only then can our ragtag team of queer misfits be welcomed back to the straights.

While critics will every year write lengthy opinion pieces on a children’s movie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will no doubt continue to be a parable of LGBT+ acceptance, even if it was under our red noses the entire time.

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